Barack Obama, who are you?
No, really. Maybe it’s just me, but after eight years with this man as our duly-elected leader, I’m not sure we really know him. Don’t know if we have ever seen inside the man.
Oh, we’ve heard countless speeches, and seen thousands of carefully-orchestrated photo ops, but how much do we really know about the person?
It didn’t take us long to solve that tough-talking Texan, or the charming rogue from Arkansas. For all of the previous presidents of my lifetime, at least, I think people had them pretty well scoped out on a personal level long before they even took office.
We’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities to peek behind the curtain - for better or worse - with President-elect Trump. A man seemingly without a filter. He’s lived life with the cameras rolling and media in tow, an icon of New York opulence, the big playing piece in a living game of Monopoly. You can’t say you didn’t know what you were getting.
But what of Obama? Despite having written a memoir prior to his presidency, did we know what we were buying? He has played his personal life close to the vest, so much so that conspiracy theorists managed to spin a ridiculous “birther” controversy nearly throughout his presidency, questioning even whether the American president is American.
He has shown us exactly what he wanted to, and seldom anything more.
Years from now, if young people ask us to tell them what that Obama guy was like, I think we’ll struggle for any kind of apt description.
We know the most superficial of things. He likes basketball, and golf. Hamburgers, Bruno Mars and Bob Dylan. Historical fiction, dogs, Picasso, Casablanca. Chili, and the color blue. Which is to say, we know nothing, really.
We can make some subjective judgements. The man is a gifted speaker, seems devoted to his family, as honest as you can find in his trade, fairly free of drama or scandal. You might call him sophisticated, laid back, perhaps intellectual. He seems gentle, the celebration of the killing of Bin Laden notwithstanding. In recent months especially, he has seemed slightly less guarded, more willing to joke and play in public.
In a handful of days he will depart the White House, a bit gray now, still a fit, relatively young man. I suspect he may be less likely than President Clinton to continue on in the public eye, though his wife’s aspirations remain to be seen.
His legacy will take time to write. The movement is already underway to purposely erase any achievements that history might credit to him, and so it goes. Like many presidents, he probably saw more failures than successes. In our terminally divided political society, success may not even be possible. We have looked to him in triumphs and tragedies, he has been applauded and awarded, and viciously mocked. Through it all, in many ways he remains an enigma to us.
This concept of limited terms is a one worth some reflection. Dividing up our one true asset - time. Maybe life should be like that.
What if we all got four years in our chosen career (maybe eight, if you do a good job at it, but sharply and suddenly limited,with no arguments.) That’s it, you’re done, move on, make way.
Would we achieve more, appreciate more, knowing that the clock is running or our chances to realize the goals that put us on our paths to begin with?
(They are numbered of course. We are aware that tomorrow is never guaranteed, but in most cases we have little idea how numbered our days may be).
I often think the same when watching sports. A great running back has a shelf life of eight years in the NFL. By 30, most are being retired. A lucky, hall of fame quality quarterback may get 15 years. You could think of that as a term. Clearly, the future is short-term.
Most pop bands or singers who find fame get only a short time atop the charts - one song, one album, maybe a few for the very fortunate. Rarely does an artist remain constantly relevant. Tastes change, a performer’s ambition or inspiration fade, and the remainder of their years are often spent comfortably playing their few old hits over and over. In a fickle world, you can be a nostalgia act at 30.
Of course, real people don’t get the rewards that a famous politician, athlete, music or movie star does. We don’t have the option of coasting, or choosing to do nothing. Real life work has no clear beginning or end. Generally, we start as soon as we are able and will need to work until we can’t. Until we are used up.
In the world of presidential terms and sports contracts, there’s a finish, your professional role is only a fractional slice of your life. A day comes when you have done enough with your life.
Legacy is a concept that matters to those who will be remembered by history, and their biographers. To the rest of us, respect is measured in miniscule, almost unnoticeable amounts, and earned by getting out of bed and showing up for another day.
Barack Obama probably deserves more respect than he will get. Maybe we all do.