Full Circle: A Dispatch From President Obama's Farewell Address

01/12/2017 04:54 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2017
Harold Pollack

I and several thousand others are here early in McCormick Center, waiting for President Obama. We’re listening the warm-up act of Eddie Vedder and the Chicago Children’s Choir. They rocked the house—though in fairness it wasn’t the toughest crowd I’ve ever seen.

I am sitting in the press pen, sneaking into a spot nominally reserved for NBC News. I’m about 25 feet from Anderson Cooper. A gentleman, Mr. Cooper graciously let me take his picture. At least he would have, had I not nervously screwed up my fancy camera. He has a better seat. Still, I’m here with my White House press pass, my three cameras, a laptop. A tripod I don’t have permission to set up. I’ve hit the big time.

This is a poignant moment, the end of a sweet journey for many people here. My own journey began 9 ½ years ago, when a friend invited me to a small Chicago party on behalf of Senator Barack Obama’s unlikely presidential campaign.

I had never been involved in a campaign or political cause. But I had been politically energized for the cause of health reform. In part, I was mobilized by my experiences as a public health researcher working with severely vulnerable people in New Haven, Detroit, and Flint, MI. More to the point, I was affected by my experience with my wife Veronica caring for her brother Vincent in our family home. Vincent lives with an intellectual disability and relies on Medicare and Medicaid. Social insurance had rescued my family from medical bankrupcy. I wanted to pass it forward.

A man I hadn’t heard of, David Plouffe, was the headliner of this small party. He was there to talk campaign strategy. He got hard questions from a skeptical small crowd. Senator Obama was thirty points down in the polls. He was way behind in money. and in name recognition. He was a black guy with...well you know the list.

Mr. Plouffe was un-phased by any of this. He calmly explained that no one was ever elected on the basis of a national poll, that Senator Obama would win the Iowa caucuses through superior organizing. Once the Senator won Iowa, the national polls and fundraising numbers would all move. I listened politely, convinced that Plouffe was on acid.

Still, I admired Obama. So I stuck around. A few months later, I watched him bring the house down in that November 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Watching the crowd go crazy, I was also moved by the performance. The less-sentimental side of me was stirred, too. Watching Obama subtly jab the stiletto to Hillary Clinton’s weak points―I got a hard-edged sense that this Chicago politician could actually win. I became a core Obama supporter.

I sometimes wonder why I didn’t sign on with Hillary Clinton. I always admired her policy chops and her work for children and people with disabilities. I never had any big policy disagreements with her, even initially on Iraq. Maybe I was unfair to her nine years ago, as so many of my fellow citizens did in 2016.

The simple answer was that I was sick of Clinton scandals. I feared that she’d be brought low by some stupid financial thing or one of her husband’s sex scandals. Defending Barack Obama from some politically potent charge, my first instinct is always: This isn’t true. Defending Bill or Hillary Clinton, my first instinct is often: This isn’t important. I didn’t like that difference. Still, I never doubted that she would have made a fine president. If only she were president-elect right now.

I worked hundreds, maybe thousands of hours in the 2008 Obama campaign. I eventually co-chaired the campaign’s outside public health advisory group. I knocked on hundreds of doors, my then-tween daughter tagging along for the ride. I made thousands of phone calls, wrote or ghosted many campaign statements and expert letters extolling the need for health reform. I was never important. I never met President Obama. I never had occasion to meet Mr. Plouffe or other top lieutenants. But I was a trusted bit player, to the point that I was once asked to watch hours of Reverend Wright tapes to make sure there was no unexpected dirt there.

Harold Pollack

I learned much about retail politics. I discovered that I enjoyed speaking with undecided voters. I was pretty good at it in 2008 and 2012, particularly speaking with older ambivalent white voters in rural Indiana and Wisconsin. In part, I was good because I appreciated why someone might have supported Senator McCain or Governor Romney. They were and are substantial figures with admirable achievements. My disdain for President-elect Trump made me less effective this past year. I could feel myself becoming brittle and strident, less patient at an undecided voter’s door.

There was also a sweetness to that 2008 campaign that stays with me. I doubt that I will ever experience it again.

Sure, we in the Obama camp were angry at Hillary Clinton for lingering—and so effectively―in the primaries after she was mathematically basically done. Yet the dominant emotion of 2008 was simple excitement for our man. I remember at one point some of us got wind of (never-substantiated) rumors about John McCain’s personal life. No one wanted to traffic in that. Most of us liked and respected McCain. Many of us in Obama-World were shocked when Donald Trump insulted McCain’s military sacrifices. We also heard ugly and stupid rumors about Sarah Palin’s pregnancy. My colleagues and I weren’t interested in that. That wasn’t what our campaign was about, not what our candidate was about.

Of course it’s easy to be classy when you’re ahead. I remember 2012 as a rougher fight. In 2016, we would never have held back. Many of Obama’s lieutenants believed he was elected and reelected through superior technology and strategy. That’s not entirely wrong, but it misses the main point. Big data are nice. Big organizing is fundamentally more important.

President Obama’s greatest weapon was that millions of us loved him and would work our hearts out for him. We actually were the change we wanted to see. The arrogance of that top-down campaign perspective was unearthed this campaign season, when Hillary Clinton was let down by the same big data, the same big money, and often the same big campaign professionals. These assets provided more meager leverage in the absence of the same grassroots excitement.

President Obama is the best and the classiest president of my lifetime. I’ve never regretted for one second the thousands of hours I’ve spent supporting his efforts.

Becoming active in these campaigns, I myself became a more public figure, writing first right here at The Huffington Post about health reform and many other things. I have since contributed to the New York Times and many other major publications. I never had a larger or more loyal audience than I did writing for HuffPost in those early days.

After 2008, I stuck around for the health reform fight. That was an improbable victory, too. So there I was in March 2010, jammed in the back of the White House East Room alongside HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn, watching President Obama sign the Affordable Care Act. I kept sticking around. On election night 2012, there I was in this very same McCormick Center, in the front row watching President Obama declare victory in his reelection fight. It’s been quite a run.

I don’t for a moment believe President Obama was the perfect president or the perfect steward of the Democratic Party. He was a diffident alley fighter in Washington; Bill Clinton was more sure-footed in such things. At times, President Obama was outmaneuvered by more ruthless Republican counterparts, such as in the debt ceiling fight.

I wish he had done more to help delinquent homeowners in the wake of the Great Recession. I wish he were smarter about garnering credit for his achievements. He seemed to get less credit for rescuing the auto industry and providing a massive stimulus tax cut than Donald Trump did for saving a few hundred jobs at Carrier. I wish healthcare.gov had worked the first time. I wish he had found a more effective way to stop war crimes in Syria.

For the first half of his presidency, he proceeded on the belief—subsequently proved incorrect—that Republicans would pay a stiff political price if they were blatantly intransigent. No such penalty was paid beyond his own reelection. He took a calculated risk in 2016 not to reign in FBI Director Comey or to aggressively call-out Russian hacking. That cost all of us so dearly. .

I don’t believe he was naïve about the intentions of his Republican adversaries. Perhaps he did overestimate the basic decency and intelligence of our politics. He was elected as the man who would fix Washington. Republicans and others profited by making sure Washington would stay broken. They sure accomplished that.

Under his leadership, Democrats suffered deep losses in 2010 and 2014. He struggled to extend his political branding beyond himself. Ironically, his own virtues—his charisma, the lack of controversy over his marital and financial life—provided an unintended implicit rebuke to the woman he and so many others hoped and expected would secure his political legacy.

So President Obama wasn’t perfect. He was still very good. He is also one of the most worthy men ever to assume the presidency.

Harold Pollack

It’s astonishing how much happened on his watch. November, 2008 seems a long time ago. With virtually zero Republican help, his policies pulled our nation out of the deepest recession in generations. He rescued the auto industry. He extended health insurance to twenty million Americans. His soldiers killed bin Laden. He pursued fiscally responsible polices. He avoided war with Iran. He did many less noticeable things, such as building a Department of Justice we can be proud of for its work on civil rights and disability. He avoided another mass terrorist attack, another major war.

He and his family represent our country with such grace, humanity, and astonishing discipline and integrity. The contrast between President Obama and the grifting demagogue who will replace him virtually defies belief. Mr. Trump has experienced more scandals in the past eight weeks than President Obama experienced over his eight years in office.

Barack Obama’s election elevated the nation. He left the nation a better place than it was when he took office. The mere fact of Donald Trump’s election has diminished us, demonstrating in the worst possible way that the progress President Obama represents is achingly contingent and incomplete. Of course, it’s not entirely clear how much of the President’s legacy will survive four or eight Trump years.

I worry about the next four years. I worry that Mr. Trump’s tainted presidency may enrage or embolden our adversaries, even as it shakes the confidence of our allies. I worry that our President-elect could provoke or catastrophically mismanage a domestic or foreign crisis. I worry that the President-elect will harm vulnerable people such as undocumented immigrants.

Not withstanding these worries, I suspect that President Obama represents the future of this country, and that a President-elect fifteen years his senior represents the last gasp of a past we’ll someday leave behind.

President Obama is the best and the classiest president of my lifetime. I’ve never regretted for one second the thousands of hours I’ve spent supporting his efforts. Like millions of others, I ache to see him go.

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