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Do Photos of Obama's Progressive Past Show America's Future?

President Barack Obama

Last week, after six months, I finally got to see one of my closest friends in the world. Bryant is the complete opposite of me. He is Black. I am white. He’s straight. I am gay. He played football in college. I was a broadcaster. He’s 33. And I’m, well, OK, I’m 56. He’s a world-class trainer, and I, well, again … I work out. He’s a Baltimore Ravens fan. I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so technically I’m not allowed to associate with the enemy. He’s got a calming demeanor, and I’m a knucklehead. His smile lights up a room. Mine cracks mirrors.

I talk about these contrasts because this week we are going to see another striking contrast. President Barack Obama, on Wednesday, will begin to hit the campaign trail for Joe Biden, and the news will be filled with distinctions between Obama’s powerful campaign stops and Donald Trump’s terrifying rallies.

Obama is Black. Trump is white. Obama is devoted to his wife. Trump is a philanderer. Obama is an athlete. Trump is clinically obese. Obama is young. Trump is old. Obama is a Steelers fan. Trump is not, and that’s not a good thing. Obama is calm, reassuring, steady, empathetic, well-spoken, down-to-earth, ingeniously intelligent, much loved, a bridge-builder, and not a racist. Obama’s smile lights up a room and warms your heart. Trump is just the antithesis of all that.

The Way I See It is a wonderful new documentary about former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza's time with Obama. At least that’s the way it’s briefly described. But it is so much more than that. It is an emotional and tearjerking look back at how Obama handled, with deft perfection, the solemn and venerated office of the presidency. 

When you watch the film, you can’t help but think about what we’ve endured the last four years. You cannot even put into words the contrast of eight years with Obama versus nearly four horribly long years with Trump. Obama’s time went by so quickly. We remember him so fondly and so lovingly. We will endure suffering inflicted by Trump long after he’s gone. The pain of Trump will linger, much like the affection for Obama.

Since I had not seen him in person for so long, Bryant and I spent a long time talking about what’s happened since we last got together in March, and how the killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the shocking developments in the Breonna Taylor case have sparked a national outcry. We also talked about the out-of-control pandemic. We discussed how Trump has riled — and painfully revealed — the steady level of bigotry in this country. If you are a Trump supporter, we both agreed, you are a racist. There are no excuses. It’s not about your taxes or being pro-life or being a staunch Republican. Those excuses are made by self-absorbed bigots.

We also talked about how narcissism has played a role in pandemic fatigue and America’s seeming inability to do the right thing across the board to combat COVID-19. The fact is that other countries’ citizens have, for the most part and begrudgingly, adhered to safety standards without becoming incessantly divisive. America seems so selfish to the rest of the world. Is Trump merely a reflection of who we are now after eight previous years of being a compassionate people?

In Trump, is America just getting what it deserves? We once seemed to be an unselfish people. Is this moment of conceit a blip on the radar? Will our better angels swoop in and save a selfish country, reaffirming it as a compassionate place? Will Biden restore the Obama in all of us?

The Souza documentary shines a light on one of the most compelling contrasts within the Obama presidency, a remarkable juxtaposition of empathy that occurred on a single day. On the morning the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality on June 26, 2015, President Obama appeared in the picturesque Rose Garden, and spoke eloquently about the ruling as a “victory for America.”

Afterward, Obama flew to Charleston, S.C., to speak at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church gunned down by a racist terrorist. It was at that memorial service where Obama, gathering strength and courage, began to sing, not speak, the words to “Amazing Grace.” It was one of the most iconic moments of his presidency — of any presidency, for that matter.

Obama then returned to a White House resplendent in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet light, with a party rejoicing in love on the North Lawn. 

I reached out to Souza and asked him to describe the remarkable responsiveness of Obama that day. “Really, it was just dueling emotions throughout the day. It began with the announcement that the court had upheld same-sex marriage, a ‘thunderbolt’ of democracy is what I believe President Obama called it,” Souza recalled. “The country had changed so fast on this issue and he had helped push it along.” 

“Then we go to Charleston because of yet another mass shooting. And so many of those families were hurting, and he was there to console them. His singing ‘Amazing Grace’ was just so perfect for the entire day. And then coming back to Washington that night and celebrating the early-morning emotions all over again when the White House was lit in rainbow colors. What a day!”

I asked Souza if he thinks the country has changed since Obama was president. Has it become more self-centered? A reflection of the current occupant of the White House? “I think the current president and his cult of followers are certainly less empathetic and have tried to sow division over equality. But they are out of step with history and that will be proven so on November 3. I am confident of that.”

Trump would have been out of step with history on June 26, 2015. It would have begun with a torrent of tweets denouncing the Supreme Court and most likely vowing to sign one of his infamous executive orders to overturn the verdict and make same-sex marriage illegal — not that it would hold up to constitutional scrutiny, but he’d probably try it anyway.

As for the funeral? He wouldn’t have been invited. But we’ve seen how Trump sanctimoniously bulldozes his way into a church, or rather in front of a church. The contrasts are stunning between how Trump would have acted that bright summer day and how Obama did. Bang-bangs versus “how sweet the sound.” Amy Coney Barrett versus “making our union a little more perfect.” Tearing and dividing versus healing and coalescing. Pitiful versus party. Bunker under a darkened White House versus one lit up in rainbow colors with a celebration pulsing outside.

This week, we will see the contrast more vividly than ever before. Trump’s attacks on the campaign trail are getting more extreme and more selfish. Obama will balance with a calming ease. Trump will demonize. Obama will de-escalate. Trump will bark “stand back and stand by.” Obama will sing, stand tall, and stand proud. Trump will spew vitriol, and Obama will extol victory. Trump will claim hoax. Obama will say hope.

We have seen how Trump behaves as a president for the last four years, and thanks to Souza’s new documentary, we are reminded how flawlessly Obama handled himself over eight years. Perhaps Obama’s reemergence on the campaign trail will force an awakening in America? That we will be in exemplary hands with his brother Biden? That we can be forgiven? That we once were lost, but now we’re found? Were blind but now we see?

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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