We’re never going to agree on the legacy of a president. It’s such a huge job, the scope is so immense, and the country is chopped up into so many disparate factions that one person will never go down as unanimously “great.” We knew that already, but it grows clearer every cycle, as our lines-in-the-sand turn to trenches.
As for our current outgoing Commander-in-Chief, there will be books upon books written about his tenure. His failings and successes will be analyzed, cataloged, and debated for decades. One day, in calmer times, we’ll wrestle over drones and Guantanamo. But not yet. We need some distance and there are changes to be reckoned with. It’ll take time and pages. A few words on a winter morning can’t scratch the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
Especially because Barack Obama’s tenure provides a particularly large iceberg. Just the momentousness of being elected our first black president — what it meant for our increasingly diverse but racially troubled nation — can’t be overstated. Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s “My President Was Black” pays stunning tribute, but there are sure to be thousands more words written on the subject.
For now, no one is arguing that the Obama presidency was flawless. Even Obama the man, though notably scandal-free, probably has all sorts of personal failings. But there are things that can be said about him that might approach a sort of “absolute value” — qualities he’s consistently displayed which, while not in-an-of-themselves defining of a great presidency, did indeed have an impact on the state of our nation.
He’s nerdy. He’s cool. He’s genuine.
This might seem like cherry picking, but to me those three seem to stand out. They’re also illustrated perfectly in the video above — which shows the leader of the free world getting all geeky over a marshmallow gun at the White House Science Fair. Surely, you’ve buzzed past it on Facebook, but the complete three-minute clip is worthy of a watch.
Obama is friendly. Obama is warm. Obama is charming with the press. Fine. Ronald Reagan was friendly. George W. Bush was warm. Clinton charmed the press like it was nobody’s business. But in the video, Obama reveals something about his famously roving intellect: He’s smart in the same way Neil de Grasse Tyson and Bill Nye are smart — there’s joy for the viewer in watching him experiment and a shared thrill in hearing him say, “Let’s try it!”
A few minutes later, his eyes gleam as he chuckles, “This is great.” The classic nerd in action.
Through it all, he’s also the coolest guy in the room, and not just because he’s the president. “Secret Service isn’t happy about this,” he mutters conspiratorially, as the marshmallow gun prepares to fire. A minute later, when the 8th grade inventor says, “We’ll probably angle it this way, so that it doesn’t hit that person,” Obama replies, “Yeah… I think that’s good.” There’s no punchline, but it gets huge laughs because of the droll delivery. We know that person, we’ve seen him. He’s the cool dad on the field trip. The handsome, successful guy who manages to feel down to earth without ever trying too hard.
The best part is: He makes being smart inextricable from being cool. When was the last time someone pulled that off?
But above these two qualities, looms the president’s patience with a kid who’s literally testing his school assignment in front of 200 cameras and POTUS. Obama is so disarming that we can actually see the boy-inventor gain confidence throughout the clip. Young people are some of the best bullshit detectors on earth — that’s why magicians often talk about practicing in front of kids — but there’s no sleight of hand here, no part of the president’s movements or gestures seem like “tells.” He’s not worried about shooting off a weapon in the White House with a student, the multiple PR nightmares it could cause, he just wants to see if the dang thing works.
The friendliness and excitement on display don’t even read as particularly self-aware. Just a cool geek doing his cool geek thing. It comes off as absolutely un-calculated, completely genuine, and that’s what makes the moment kind of magical. That is the Obama that so many people talk about.
Who cares? These past few months, as Obama has taken his final bows, the liberal-leaning community has cooed over his personality. The right wing has responded with general disinterest. Magnetism is never enough to boost a president over ideological chasms — remember, Obama’s predecessor was not without his charming moments. But that’s not to say it’s unimportant, both here, where Obama leaves with sky high approval ratings, or abroad.
Obama will exit the White House as wildly popular in the eyes of Western Europe, according to the most recent data from Pew Research Center. The 2016 Global Attitudes Survey shows Spain, France, the UK, and Germany all having roughly three times the confidence in the president than they did in George W. Bush at the end of his second term. Surely, most of this has to do with overlapping ideologies. It’s clear, when you look at Israel, where Obama’s approval has plummeted, that politics comes first. But it’s hard not to think that the man’s celebrity and megawatt smile have benefited both him and us in connecting with the international community.
As a travel writer, I’ve witnessed this “Obama effect” all over the world. I’ve had Italians, and Namibians, and Australians rave to me about the leader I helped elect to the highest office in the land. I have to say, it’s felt really nice.
We live in an age where personality matters. Where a TV star’s willingness to present his uncensored opinions (“telling it like it is” to his many fans) became both a part of his platform and an impetus for getting him elected. We have so much access to our presidents that how we perceive them seems incredibly important. Obama knew this. He knew it when he went on “Between Two Ferns” to help support his biggest policy agenda, and he knew it when he charmed late night hosts.
He proved, as Coates reports Jesse Williams saying at BET’s White House Party, that it was “possible to be smart and cool at the same damn time.” He was the President who unabashedly loved books, the man who couldn’t be upstaged at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, and the guy who cried when he spoke about a shooting.
Nerdy. Cool. Genuine. I can talk about why I liked him as a president all day, but we’ll get stuck in a quagmire of policy and partisanship. I can gush over how convenient it was that my president played basketball, loved the ocean, and enjoyed reading — my three biggest passions — but that’s just personal taste.
But the positive feelings Obama created by being nerdy, cool, and genuine seem at least a little tougher to get into an ideological argument over. They’re qualities that are both inherently good and completely disconnected from politics. Maybe that’s what makes them so important.