An old friend recently told me about a remarkable conversation she'd had with her mother, aged 95. A white woman resident in the Deep South from birth, she'd shown a lifelong indifference, if not aversion, to politics. Her daughter describes her racial attitudes as characteristic of her generation — never a hater, but also no dissenter from how things used to be.
And yet she found herself in front of the TV watching Barack and Michelle Obama disembarking from Air Force One in Havana last week with tears streaming down her face. He's such a great man, she told her daughter, and he tries so hard to do the right thing for the country.
And Michelle. Has any first lady ever exhibited more grace and class?
Why can't more people see that? She'd asked her somewhat astonished daughter, who said that she personally wished Obama could run for another term — even if the president himself clearly does not.
Actually, polls reflect that people do understand what an extraordinary job President Obama has done under trying circumstances. Every recent survey shows his approval rating above 50 percent, a considerable accomplishment given cult-like opposition from Republican partisans since his 2009 inauguration.
Can anybody doubt that Obama would defeat either leading Republican candidate — the Sideshow Barker and the Snake Charmer alike — in a landslide? Doubtless his increased popularity derives partly from the contrast.
Partly too, it's what Obama's managed to do: unemployment under 5 percent and a record 72 consecutive months of job growth. No, things aren't back to where we'd like them, economically speaking. But they're headed the right way, and confidence is returning.
Equally important, Obama argues in an extraordinary interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the April 2016 Atlantic, is what he hasn't done in foreign policy. Disregarding what he derisively calls "the Washington playbook" — the bellicose pronouncements of the city's permanent class of think-tank commandos — he has refused to join yet another Middle Eastern civil war in Syria.
What pundits describe as Obama's worst foreign policy debacle he thinks may have been his finest moment: the August 2013 decision not to bomb Syria after drawing a "red line" in the desert forbidding the use of chemical weapons.
Never mind that Russian president Vladimir Putin helped engineer the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. Goldberg reports that Hillary Clinton told people, "If you say you're going to strike, you have to strike. There's no choice."
But Obama decided it was foolish to take the nation to war over an ill-advised remark — defying not only the foreign policy establishment but also America's "frustrating, high-maintenance" Middle Eastern allies.
"History," Goldberg writes "may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of chemical attack on Israel, Turkey or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America's grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and ISIS."
And good riddance, is Obama's view. With Iran having negotiated away its nuclear weapons-making capacity, what does it matter who referees the region's endless tribal wars?
Obama's most urgent priority is killing ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as he killed Osama bin Laden. Otherwise, he told one senator, "There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa. That would be a basic, fundamental mistake."
Yes, the ongoing catastrophe in Syria is excruciating to watch, and clearly endangers European security. The Turks could crush ISIS at will. As it's definitely in their national interest, maybe it's time they summoned some.
As for Putin, Obama demurs from the commonplace view of the Russian leader as a thug. "The truth is," he says "Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike. ... He's constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he's not completely stupid."
High praise from a president very impressed with his own brainpower. "Now if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine," he continued, "they should speak up and be very clear about it."
Prating about "credibility" doesn't persuade; it's Russia's backyard, not ours.
Obama looks at Syria the same way: How many soldiers, sailors and pilots and for how long? Would a U.S. invasion calm sectarian passions?
Well, when has it ever?
At times, Obama concedes that he's fallen short in the theatrical aspect of the presidency, appearing aloof and cerebral when the public wants passion. But he's also persuaded that surrendering to "the cable news hype fest" leads to dumb decisions.
Obama says Putin found his frankness in The Atlantic surprising.
"Unlike you, Vladimir," he joked "I don't get to edit the piece before it's published."