By James Wolcott
This is strictly, sketchily anecdotal, so don’t strap me to the wall and drill for data, but listening to fellow liberal neurotic Democrats over the last year, I detect a sense of abandonment. Of Obandonment, to be more precise. Obama, Obama, where art thou? The Bat Signal scours the city night in vain for thee. Think of it, treasure the memory: A president who didn’t brag about himself. Who made it about “we,” not “me.” Who could lankily stride around the Oval Office without getting winded. Occupying the White House for eight years, Barack and Michelle Obama conducted themselves beautifully and irreproachably, elevating the national tone, embracing the once excluded, and leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue radiating an afterglow rare for presidents and first mates, second terms usually being brutal and humbling. Their afterglow persists, giving their absence a keener pang, but the halo effect they left on governance, integrity, and diversity was turned into a bent hubcap on Week One of the Trump presidency; it’s been Satyricon ever since under a chief executive whom political consultant, analyst, and Never Trumper Rick Wilson has crowned our “Kentucky Fried Nero.” The contrast between the recent Then and the nonstop Now is painful, poignant, and demoralizing . . . one stabbing reminder after another of what we have lost.
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The unveiling of the official presidential portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on February 12 iconicized the couple with a provocatively fresh re-envisioning: Kehinde Wiley’s Obama seated in a sylvan setting against a wall of foliage suggesting a more colorful outfield wall in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, his posture and gaze firm, direct, resolute, and a trifle stern; Amy Sherald’s Michelle not the White House Wonder Woman we remember, a flexer of impassioned energy, but a contemplatively chill queen in repose, the volume of her skirt serving as throne. Political pundits turned overnight art critics complained that the Obama portraits “didn’t look like them,” but that’s the traditional croak of philistines who have their realist expectations confounded. The Obamas never did anything the orthodox way, and the portraits underscored their precedent-shattering sophistication. Crowds were less kvetchy. The portraits drew 72,000 visitors to the museum in the first week, many of them no doubt thirsting for a reminder of what a real president and First Lady look like instead of the Tussauds living waxworks we have now. Symptoms of Obandonment: sudden gusts of wistfulness, accompanied by plaintive sighs; intermittent patches of malaise; pausing on the sidewalk for no apparent reason; opening the medicine cabinet and staring fondly at the pharmaceuticals, those little friends in pill form; wishing Joe Biden were your grandpa.