The Veneration of the Obamas

When the former president of the college where I taught retired three years ago, I asked a faculty member about the new retiree’s plans. From the account I received, the ex-president and his wife were headed for Washington, D.C., where they planned to live in Kalorama, near Barack and Michelle Obama. They apparently venerated the Obamas, and the closer they could settle near the $8.1 million dwelling of their leftist icons, the happier they would be. 

I jokingly reminded my interlocutor that the Obamas spend at least part of the year in their $11.75 million house on Martha’s Vineyard. This would mean that the former college president and his spouse would be deprived of the joy of proximity to the Obamas during the summer months and possibly longer, and would have to deal with this yearly spiritual deprivation, even as residents of Kalorama. From her annoyed expression it seemed the faculty member imagined that I was making light of a serious matter.

Little did I know at the time that an assemblage of professional and academic historians would soon be ranking our most illustrious presidents, and Barack would finish among the top 10, in the company of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc. Every few years, C-Span sponsors a historians’ survey of presidential leadership. A group of 142 historians considered worthy of the honor was asked to rate our greatest presidents. As luck would have it, Obama made the top 10 within four years of leaving the White House. By contrast, right after departing office, former President Trump was assigned to 41st out of 44 places among chief executives in terms of professional qualities and placed last in moral authority. Although neither I nor any other historian of my acquaintance was asked to participate in the survey, we are assured that those who rank the presidents are being purely professional. 

Equally noteworthy: Among those presidents who radiated “moral authority,” Obama placed among the top five. Quite possibly in a few years, he might edge out George Washington and other venerable figures whose visages now adorn Mt. Rushmore. Not surprisingly, the Bad Orange Man didn’t fare as well. That may be what happens to an ex-president whom the media accused of colluding with Vladimir Putin and inciting an “insurrection.” Or perhaps that’s where you go for beating Hillary and then quarreling with the Left? 

In any case, the ranking process got me thinking about what President Obama had done to deserve his standing as a national leader. Was it even more than he had accomplished when he garnered the Nobel Prize for Peace soon after assuming the office of president? Perhaps he rates so high among professional historians for other reasons, e.g., turning the IRS loose on religious groups and Republican workers and activists, and ordering surveillance operations against journalists who criticized him. He also regularly chastised his countrymen for their racist past, and enthusiastically endorsed gay marriage, although he had previously opposed that innovation because of his “religious beliefs.” The C-Span historians rate Obama high for economic recovery after the Bush years, but during his term, the manufacturing sector continued to decline, the national debt went up 95.3 percent, and annual GDP growth hovered around 1 percent.  

As for Obama’s “moral authority,” that was fully on display in his October outing in Virginia to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. Obama went after parents who object to a racialist curriculum and who dwelled, apparently without just cause, on the incident of a girl being raped in a Loudoun County school by a boy who entered the girl’s restroom in a skirt. Those who raised such issues, according to our former president vibrating moral authority, were engaging in “fake outrage.” They were inciting a “trumped-up culture war,” “that right-wing media pedals to juice their ratings.” In the same stump speech Obama attacked without any evidence his Republican opposition of suppressing minority voting and (oh yes) displaying unseemly “meanness.”

By the way, I totally reject the explanation for Obama’s popularity among politically correct intellectuals that he’s the first black president. He is only half black, was raised by white grandparents, and enjoys approval for his leftist politics, not his pigmentation. Let’s imagine what his approval rating as president among the 142  historians would be if he held the views of Justice Clarence Thomas or Representative Byron Donalds of Florida! Both are black, but unlike Obama, both stand on the political Right. One would have to be a fool to believe that either would be treated by the media or professional historians any better than other conservative Republicans if they ran for the presidency. Appeals to Obama’s African ancestry was a useful tool for the Left to win support for their candidate among guilt-ridden whites. That of course was not the chief reason the Left supported him, which was to move our government and our society further in their direction.

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About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

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