It may take two decades before history will decide whether Barack Obama was a good president as well as a remarkable one. There will be much in his plus file, particularly on the domestic economic front, and not a few negatives, particularly in his international role.
It isn't his fault he leaves behind a bitterly divided nation, politics that have been more hyper-partisan than since the American Civil War, and a successor, in Donald Trump, who shows as yet no signs of fitness or ability for the job, or of capacity to make his nation great again, if ever it was.
Perversely, Trump's election may take some of the heat out of politics. Republicans, on paper at least, control all three arms of American government. Trump will not, or should not, fail because of an incapacity to legislate change, to execute his plans, or to contain them within a constitutional framework. He may well fail for other reasons, such as by having bad ideas, by being incapable of delivering what he has promised the interests and bellicose constituencies on which his power depends, or by making enemies, foreign and domestic, that he can't influence or control. If he is, in that respect, levelled, as I expect he will be, his very ignobility and hopelessness may bookend the bad presidency of George W. Bush to make the Obama presidency seem great, and perhaps a turning point in American history.
For that judgment to be made, Obama starts with some big advantages. He is black and, if with a background quite different from most Afro-Americans, the very feat of his winning election, and re-election, as the first black president is historic. So, too, was the way he established a popular political base that took on and defeated the establishment within his party, particularly the Clintons. Not since Jimmy Carter (generally but a bit unfairly rated an unsuccessful president) had such a rank outsider become the party standard-bearer. (Though Trump, who stood and won last year, has repeated the feat, if by entirely different strategy and tactics.)
Had Hillary Clinton become president in 2008 instead of Obama, I'm pretty sure she would have provoked much of the Republican resistance to consensus and compromise government as Obama did. Republicans in the Tea Party circles, or libertarian or Christian Right pushes, fight hard, and personally, even if their causes are not focused on the ideas of the Democrats. The personality and history of Hillary was, rightly or wrongly, itself a amazingly divisive issue in American politics, even among some of those who had voted for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and would have voted for him again had he been able to go for a third term. (He would have killed Bush.)
Yet the indignity of Obama's being a black seemed often to add extra spice to the sense of outrage among some Americans that he was their president and commander-in-chief. Race is rarely far beneath the surface in the United States. It may be embedded within the US exceptionalism self-delusion that any American, no matter how humble his or her beginning, can make a million or become president. But it's always been unspoken that such a person should come of good white Protestant background. Indeed, there's only been one Catholic president, and there's never been a successful Jewish (or Muslim, Mormon or atheist) candidate.
Though the grievance and sense of dispossession of that modern redneck said by some to be at the base of the Trump constituency is not, these days, fundamentally racist, it sits within hearts that were, for centuries, calmed and settled by reminders that they were better off than the American blacks.
Obama was different. He was an effective and practical politician, but he was, at heart, an intellectual and an activist rather than from the political mainstream – probably the most intellectual president since Woodrow Wilson a century ago. Obama has been a superb public speaker and orator, with an amazing capacity to move and to inspire. American has had other presidents who have been great speakers – Bill Clinton, for example – and some others have had great speechwriters and at least some capacity to read an autocue. But Obama was up there with Lincoln.
But just as significantly, both his conversation and his speechwriting were able to live up to the promise that Malcolm Turnbull made to Australians, but has completely failed to deliver. Turnbull promised an intelligent conversation with voters. He promised to respect their common sense, and to level with them, explaining how and why he was doing things. At least implicitly, he also promised to listen, and to listen respectfully. On all of these, Turnbull has proven a complete dud – indeed, it's hard to think of a memorable sentence or phrase he has uttered over the past year, let alone any sort of set speech. By contrast, Obama delivered, and if he often failed to persuade it was because he was speaking to people who had shut their ears to argument and to reason.
Obama is more than a flight of oratory, or sequence of fine or memorable words. His speeches are thoughtful and considered, but also have a tone and metre that is conversational. They admit alternative points of view, and show some deference to the particular audience and occasion. His wife, the equally remarkable Michelle, once remarked that "when they [his opponents] go low, we go high". Obama can scrap in the political street as well as anyone, but it's remarkable how much and how often his rhetoric has taken the high road, has eschewed personal attack and has appealed to the better part of human nature, rather than the worse.
This has also involved some capacity to reach out to those who have opposed him, or who have become disillusioned with conventional politics, including that practised by Obama. Look, for example, at his farewell speech in Chicago for the gentle way in which he asked his strongest supporters to recognise some of the problems of the deplorables.
"Hearts must change. It won't change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch – who said 'you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it'.
"For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
"For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
"For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish and Italians and Poles – who it was said we're going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And, as it turned out, America wasn't weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation's creed, and this nation was strengthened."
Consider his appeal for a focus on equity as much as jobs and growth, and for political engagement. And remember that here in Australia it can't be said, from the latest official statistics, that any of his benchmarks are being achieved.
"Our democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity. And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Healthcare costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years ...
"I've said, and I mean it: if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we've made to our healthcare system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it. Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit, but to make people's lives better.
"But for all the real progress that we've made, we know it's not enough. Our economy doesn't work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. That's the economic argument.
"But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal. While the top 1 per cent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind – the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who's just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills – convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful. That's a recipe for more cynicism and polarisation in our politics.
"There are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
"And so we're going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionise for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now; and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don't avoid their obligations to the country that's made their very success possible.
"We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don't create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come ...
"If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we're unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don't look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America's workforce. And we have shown that our economy doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women ...
"All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions ... We should be making it easier, not harder, to vote. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our congressional districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.
"But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.
"America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren't even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancour that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.
"It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we've been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.
"So, you see, that's what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there's an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organising. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
"Sometimes you'll win. Sometimes you'll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energise and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed."
He's a politician, albeit with nothing more to hope for or fear. And he is speaking for history, as well as to it. But even after the appropriate discounts, is it not thrilling to sometimes hear a politician appeal to the better parts of our nature? To optimism and to nobility?
Here in Australia, we've had two decades, at least, of politicians generally appealing to the meanest motives, to self-interest, to envy and to hate. Australia politics, and Australia generally, will get better only when it has leaders who can describe a light on some hill.
Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor.