On Monday, at the unveiling of Barack Obama’s presidential portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution David Skorton offered a speech in which he gushingly praised Obama, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
Skorton began by recollecting that Obama had started his campaign for the presidency almost precisely 11 years ago at the old statehouse in Springfield, Illinois, noting Obama quoted a speech in which Lincoln observed “the strange, discordant and even hostile elements” that America observed in 1858.
Skorton continued, “At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, America again faced challenges that could be described in quite similar terms. A global economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rapid technological progress and the rising uncertainty that came with that progress. And during a period of such profound change in the country and the world, President Obama provided a steady leadership that millions of Americans were seeking.”
Of course, Obama abandoned Iraq, which then became a bloody haven for ISIS, and left Afghanistan without finishing the job, but who’s counting?
Skorton, undeterred by facts, went on: "He was a voice of calm in times of chaos. He was a voice of comfort in times of grief."
Try telling that to those in Dallas after the murder of five police officers, when Obama spoke of white racism being endemic to police departments, saying, “Centuries of racial discrimination didn't simply vanish with the end of lawful segregation. We know it. Although most of us do our best to guard against it, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune. That includes our police departments. We know this.”
And he was a voice of confidence at all times. Confidence in the resilience of the American people and the promise of a better future for all. In one important sense, President Obama’s historic election was a departure from America’s past, but he also embodied the ideals that define some of the other presidents portrayed in these halls: Lincoln’s secular faith in our national union; Kennedy’s commitment to public service; Reagan’s optimism that America’s best days are still to come. For these reasons and more, Barack Obama was a very consequential president.
Considering that America was more bitterly divided after his presidency than it was before it, Obama was indeed a “very consequential president.”
He will long be the subject of admiration and study and fascination. And when future generations look back at this presidency, I believe that Kehinde Wiley’s portrait will give them a unique window in the way that only presidential portraits can.
Video below, starting at 27:27: