Roger Cohen, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: On May 26, 1996, Mariana Cook visited Barack and Michelle Obama in Hyde Park as part of a photography project on couples in America. Credit Mariana Cook/Courtesy Lee Marks Fine Art
There is a line from a conversation 20 years ago between Barack Obama and the photographer Mariana Cook that offers an important insight into the president: “All my life, I have been stitching together a family, through stories or memories or friends or ideas.”
There was much to stitch: his lost Kenyan father, his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro, his unusual journey through various names and identities, his black paternal side and his white maternal side, his youth in Asia, his adolescence in Hawaii, his student years in California and New York, and his coming of age in Chicago.
What Barack Obama ended up “stitching together” in his path to selfhood — the unifying idea that became his core reference — was the United States of America. As he said in his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004: “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
This was the moment Obama emerged onto the national stage: “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” I can still feel the frisson his words stirred in Boston.
In the dozen years since his message has not changed. It was evident again in Philadelphia last week as he endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. He spoke of the American values that led his Kansan grandparents and his wife Michelle’s family to see the children of immigrants as “just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke; a baseball cap or a hijab.”
Obama was at his most uplifting. Because he discovered America, pieced it together after his years overseas, saw it as a newcomer might, understood from experience the space it affords for personal reinvention, he brings a singular intellectual passion to the American idea: a nation of immigrants equal before the law dedicated to the proposition that among their inalienable rights are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
He admonished Donald Trump, the would-be savior: “We don’t look to be ruled.” No, Americans are engaged in “self-government.” He was reminding Americans, at a critical moment, of the first words of the Constitution: “We the People.” Of every color, creed, sexuality, race, ethnicity are the people composed: That, for Obama, is America’s strength; it’s what gave him his.
In no other nation is tomorrow so vivid, yesterday so pale. Where you came from yields to American rebirth. There is no real America to take back, as Trump insists, because America’s many-hued reality is a ceaseless becoming. It is a mosaic in which a Barry Soetoro, his boyhood name in Indonesia, can become a Barry Obama and at last a proud Barack Hussein Obama — the country where, as Obama said in 2004, a “skinny kid with a funny name” finds his place.
Yet this America, whose fault lines Obama the hybrid stepped across 12 years ago, is perhaps more divided than ever as his presidency winds down. There was something about Obama’s blackness, his intellectualism, his cool distillation of problems that was intolerable to a wide swath of the white working-class angered by lost jobs, lost wars, lost security and lost pride. They have felt left behind. They have perceived not outreach from Obama’s White House but condescension.
More than 2.5 million members of the American armed forces have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 15 years. For a significant number of those 2.5 million families, Obama has failed to honor their sacrifice because in his prudent realism (a “surge” in Afghanistan with a date certain to end) there is little place for the heroic American narrative.
I think a lot of this fracture was inevitable given the global economic context, and domestic political and cultural realities, within which Obama worked. Still, he could not bridge the divide; perhaps he sharpened it.
In the conversation with Cook that appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, Michelle worried that her husband was “too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality” of politics. Obama talked about how Michelle was at once “completely familiar” and “a complete mystery to me in some ways” and how the tension between those two feelings “makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.”
America has been governed, for almost eight years now, by a happy, grounded man who knows how to love a woman. That has not been the least of Obama’s gifts to the nation he stitched together in his personal quest.
We were reminded of that gift last week in Philadelphia by Obama and Michelle — and are reminded every day of Trump’s threat to America’s “E pluribus unum — Out of many, one.” Trump, whose American journey has led him only to denigration of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier, and to this arid conviction: Hatred brings a headline.