On the Road with Rick Holmes: In Kennedy country, Obama chooses to 'go high’
Boston – Barack Obama has long had a special place in his heart for Boston. He went to law school here and it was here that he gave the 2004 convention speech that made him a national figure.
Obama also has a special affection for the Kennedy family. When Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg declared him “a president like my father” in the 2008 primary campaign, it created momentum and a narrative that helped carry Obama to the White House. Sen. Ted Kennedy became one of Obama’s closest friends and advisers, sharing a commitment to universal health care. Kennedy didn’t live to see Obama sign the Affordable Care Act, but it carried his spirit.
So it is no surprise that Obama came to Boston to make one of the first speeches of his post-presidency, or that the setting was the John F. Kennedy Library, where Caroline – who he had appointed ambassador to Japan - presented him with the “Profile in Courage” award. The award is an annual gathering of the Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, and the old line liberals were out in force for the black-tie event.
The speech was vintage Obama. It had cadence, eloquence, humor and grace. It played on themes resonant with Kennedy politics – the nobility of public service, the obligation to help the less fortunate, the power of youthful idealism. He spoke of courage and inspiration.
“What a great relief it is to be in the presence of the Obamas again,” James Taylor told the crowd, which clearly agreed. I can imagine nearly everyone in the audience thinking “I really wish this guy was still president.”
I can also imagine a lot of them thinking, “I sure wish this guy was in the trenches leading the fight against Trump, instead of hanging out with billionaires and movie stars.” Democrats, among others, see the nation in crisis, led by a most dangerous president who must be resisted on every front. Who better to lead that opposition than the still popular Obama?
But if they came expecting Obama to take up the sword and lead the charge against his successor, they went home disappointed. Instead of going low, Obama went high.
He called for more than resistance, saying we must “show courage in challenging the status quo and in fighting the good fight but also show the courage to listen to one another and seek common ground and embrace principled compromise.”
“Courage, President Kennedy knew, requires something more than just the absence of fear,” Obama said. “Any fool can be fearless. Courage, true courage, derives from that sense of who we are, what are our best selves, what are our most important commitments, and the belief that we can dig deep and do hard things for the enduring benefit of others.”
That kind of flowery talk from Obama has often irritated political cynics, whether of the Republican, Democratic or journalistic persuasion. He can sound condescending, as if real politics is too dirty for him.
But what Obama understands is that without inspiration, politics is just a game ordinary people hate.
Partisan polarization gets worse with each election. Washington has become a place where all the players care about is making the other team lose.
The public clearly doesn’t like it. That’s why approval of Congress hovers below 20 percent no matter which party is in control. That’s why Republican primary voters rejected a dozen members of the Washington GOP in favor of a non-politician who inspired them with calls to greatness.
And that’s why a surge of post-election activism hasn’t done much for the Democrats. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 67 percent two-thirds characterized the Democratic Party as “out of touch.”
Many of us have grown tired of candidates promising to go to Washington to “fight” for this or that. We’d rather they promise to build something, or accomplish something, or to serve some ideal, instead of just pledging more trench warfare.
Here in Massachusetts you’ll find plenty who say John F. Kennedy inspired them to get involved in public life, and the JFK Library was full of them the night Obama spoke. In every state, you’ll find people who were inspired by Ronald Reagan in 1980, by Newt Gingrich in 1994, by Obama in 2008 or by Donald Trump in 2016. Inspiration carries no party label.
Even in the Age of Trump, America needs more than opposition from its political leaders – and especially from Barack Obama. It needs inspiration.
— Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo, or read more of his work at www.rickholmes.net.