About That Bat-Signal
“Where Is Barack Obama?” New York Magazine wants us to know that we should want to know.
Apparently people are unhappy that the 44th president seems to have ghosted himself from public life right when we’re entering months of nail-biting over the midterm elections.
One thing the cover article showed me is that the baseline cliché of every superhero franchise has thoroughly colonized the American psyche. Commissioner Gordon is flashing the bat-signal to no avail. And he’s doing so just as DC restaurants (and their patrons) are confronting/harassing/shunning members of the Trump White House.
How quickly we forget Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” That got a lot of applause, but then Trump got a lot of electoral votes.
Having lost the popular vote, Obama’s successor has never taken his hand off the joystick. Every moment of his presidency is a contest against both Obama—whom he recognizes as everything he is neither intellectually nor socially equipped to achieve—and us, the anti-authoritarians he has created.
The Trump ethos of winners and losers in lieu of fairness and cooperation is something our culture embraced a long time ago. I would say it happened before the nineties. In some sense it stands to reason that we would elect him president. He gave us the way to be. We talk about inclusiveness and diversity, but when it comes to “Hot or Not?” we know what side we’re on.
He has got us to the blackjack table and now we speak his language. We wring our hands and ask, “Is Trump winning by dragging the opposition down to his level or are we losing when we choose not to go there?” As those on the left fight over this, others on the left fret that this is simply playing into the maniac’s hands.
Our first African American president has chosen not to go there. He’s said he’s following the W approach to post-presidency, but that doesn’t mean painting pictures of his bare feet. He is active by any stretch of the imagination—working on his presidential memoir and his foundation—but he’s not engaging in what New York writer Gabriel Debenedetti calls “raw politics.” And many Democrats seem to want a raw fight.
One of the reasons I dislike superhero movies is the way they make human beings small, childlike, indistinguishable. They die en masse in football stadiums and airports—much like the ants that would congregate underneath the car’s floor mats when my father washed them in the sun. He’d take the rubber over and slap it on the concrete.
Thinking Democrats attribute America’s problems to runaway income inequality—all the money is in the hands of the few. But in the movies we like to watch, power inequality is exponentially worse and we are fine with it. The fate of a universe rests with a handful of beings (mostly male) whose point of existence is costuming up and killing.
Obama was our un-costumed hero and savior, representing the forces of light and hope. He mobilized young people; he caused us to believe in community organizers. Trump became president because he despised everything Obama was and stood for and managed to hook up with great swathes of the country who felt the same.
Democrats have agonized over Trump’s time in office becoming The Great Negation. He’s a threshing machine tearing across Obama’s lilies of the field. But is it really the case that there is only one man who can stop him—and that one man has hung up his cape for good?
Debenedetti writes that “Obama insists that today’s domestic mess is a blip on the long arc of history and argues that his own work must be focused on progress over time—specifically on empowering a new generation of leaders.” He also says that “one of Obama’s friends repeatedly described the former president as newly ‘Zen-like,’ a striking descriptor given that Obama’s impossible calm has been a hallmark of his entire time on the national stage.”
We don’t like this—having our action hero be spiritual rather than raw. But then if that’s the case, do we think it was an act, Obama’s spiritual affirmations? When he gave the “More Perfect Union” speech in response to Jeremiah Wright’s sermons? When he sang “Amazing Grace” in Charleston?
I just read a New Yorker profile of Ken Burns by Ian Parker, who visited Burns last summer at his house on New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee. Burns, who is friendly with Obama, said during a boat ride that he hoped to make at least one documentary about the former president. Burns’s 12-year-old-daughter mentioned that she’d met Obama several times:
“He sent me a video when I couldn’t make it, remember?” Olivia said. Burns pulled over, so that he could find it on his phone. In the spring of 2014, Burns and his wife were invited, along with a few other couples, to an informal dinner at the White House. “We had drinks out on the porch, and we went out to the garden that Michelle was growing,” he recalled. “Then we came in and ate.” A video clip from that night—an artifact from a now distant era—shows the President in the private residence, in a plaid shirt, looking into Burns’s phone camera. “Olivia, I miss you!” Obama says. “I wish you were here tonight. But, since you aren’t, this is the best I can do, to send you a message. I hope you’re doing good. I hope school is fun.” Burns drove on. “We got there at six, we left at two. He didn’t want us to leave. He wanted to dance more.”
That is the president I love—the one who talks into a phone to Olivia and could’ve danced all night like Julie Andrews. The one who inspired me and many others to be a better neighbor and a better American. He never made you feel like a resident of Gotham shaking in your boots.
I was recently reading an essay about the notes that Lincoln jotted down on scraps of paper throughout his lifetime. He didn’t keep a formal journal. He didn’t have time. Thus we know very little about the personal thoughts of our greatest orator and greatest president.
Let Barack Obama write his memoir, people. He gave us the fuel, the inspiration. Get out of the multiplex. Get off from underneath the floor mat. There are 72 million registered Democrats—more than enough to be the anti-authoritarian force that fate (and democracy) has meant us to be. §