Politics & Prejudices: Grace under pressure

I don't know who is going to be elected president in November, and neither do you, nor any of the little talking heads on TV who were so sure Donald Trump had no chance.

But I am pretty sure of this. One year from now, whatever happens, I will miss the man I wish I could vote for again.

President Barack Obama.

John F. Kennedy, no slouch in the charisma department himself, said the definition of class is grace under pressure.

Obama has been the definition of class. At times he has seemed too aloof. His administration has been disappointing when it comes to transparency and openness, especially on security issues.

We could also all find a policy or two we disagree with or an appointment we didn't like. But overall, we've had eight years of scandal-free governing by a highly intelligent, warm, normal human being, distinguished from the rest of us mainly by his discipline, reasonableness, and focus.

David Brooks, the mostly conservative New York Times columnist, created a minor sensation in February with a column, "I Miss Obama." In it, he revealed that Obama had three qualities that seemed to be sadly missing in virtually everyone running this time: basic integrity, a sense of basic humanity, and "a soundness in his decision-making process."

Add to that "a resilient sense of optimism." What was most remarkable about this is that David Brooks is a conservative who voted against Obama.

What he left out was that against great odds, Obama will leave a remarkable record of accomplishment: health care, to be sure, as imperfect as it may be and as wrongly vilified as it has been. Obama sacrificed control of Congress to get it passed; something he likely knew was a big risk.

He spent so much of his political capital on the Affordable Care Act, it meant that it was the last major initiative he would be able to get through. My guess is that the judgment of history will be that it was worth it. No matter who wins in November, "Obamacare" may be tweaked, but won't be repealed.

Obama doesn't get more credit in large part because his biggest accomplishment was in preventing something from happening: another Great Depression.

"General Motors is alive and bin Laden is dead" was a bumper sticker and a campaign slogan ­— but it is true.

The U.S. economy was in terrible shape when Obama took office, and the auto industry was on the point of collapse. Obama could have let General Motors and Chrysler crash into uncushioned bankruptcies, as many GOP senators were demanding in early 2009.

That probably would have taken Ford Motor Co. with them, since many suppliers all three depend upon would have been destroyed. That would have also destroyed something else: our economy.

Researchers at the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor told me at the time that between 1 and 3 million jobs would have been eliminated.

Guess which region would have suffered most? Obama did not do that. Instead, he pumped billions into what was called a "bailout" of the automakers, guided General Motors through a "soft bankruptcy," and insisted on firing GM's intellectually fossilized leadership.

Chrysler was pushed into the arms of Fiat. The vast majority of the bailout money was paid back to Washington, and all the automakers are thriving and making billions.

Likewise, the national economy. Obama's enemies screamed when his federal budget deficits soared, though they said little when it reached $1 trillion in the last hapless year of George W. Bush.

Obama knew the basic Keynesian principle: Massive deficit spending was necessary to keep the economy from totally crashing. For four years, the annual federal deficit was way more than a trillion every year. Conservatives were apoplectic.

But what the president did, worked.

We did not lurch into a repeat of the 1930s, when Detroit unemployment was more than 40 percent, and people slept in parks and boiled dandelion greens.

Probably no president, not even Bill Clinton, ever had to endure the level of nastiness, much of it racial, leveled at Obama. No other president has had the leaders of the opposition party openly declare at the start of his term that their mission was to thwart him and destroy his presidency.

Through it all, he stayed focused and nearly unflappable. Only one Democratic president has gotten a majority of the national popular vote — twice — since 1944: Barack Obama.

His party lost the House in 2010 and both houses of Congress four years later, but he kept at it. He cried when it was proper for a real man to cry, at the massacre, say, of all those little children in Newtown, and showed but controlled his rage and contempt at the power of the gun fanatics lobby.

But he never totally lost his cool, or gave up fighting — or pushing us to be better. You saw that on May 7, when he addressed the graduation class at Howard University, the nation's best-known traditionally black college.

He congratulated them, yes, and noted how far African-Americans as a people have come in the space of a lifetime. But he was about more than feel-good stuff.

He told them they owed it to themselves to make a difference, and said firmly, "and your plan better include voting, not just some of the time, but all the time."

And yes, there are still too many barriers, he admitted. But that was no excuse; he said, suddenly sounding stern. "You don't have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people did that for you. You got to vote all the time, not just when it is cool."

He knew what they may not have known; that had black turnout matched that of whites in 2000, George W. Bush would today just be a half-forgotten political footnote.

He knew black folks turned out in huge numbers when he was on the ballot — and then faded away when he wasn't. That fewer than 1 in 3 blacks voted two years ago — and fewer than 1 in 5 young people — "that would be you" — did.

"You don't think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?" he told them.

"When people are wondering, 'Well, how come Obama hasn't gotten this done? How come he didn't get that done?' You don't think that made a difference?"

Finally, he told the graduating students, "You know what? Just vote. It's not that complicated."

Well, except sometimes ... it is.

The day before he spoke, I had lunch with a state representative from Detroit named Leslie Love.

She's a woman in her mid-40s, with a background in both theater and human resources. I asked her why so many African-Americans don't vote. Love is perhaps a bit closer to the street than the president. She told me that for some, the ballot can be confusing.

She said many are too proud to ask for help, and so they don't vote at all. Add the fact that there's no early voting in Michigan, too few polling places in inner city areas, false rumors about the police waiting at the polls to serve warrants ... all the rest of it.

The president was right: Everyone needs to vote, and it is easier for some than it once was.

But for too many, voting is still not easy enough.

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