Hubris - Obama's Note for History

Hubris - Obama's Note for History

President Obama wrote a stirring note to the new President moments before he surrendered the presidency to Donald Trump. He left it in the top drawer of the desk in the Oval Office. Ostensibly, it was a private note from him, not one to be shared publicly.

He touched on the pillars of our society which be felt both spoke of him and of his impact as President: 1) individual merits, not inherited status; 2) leadership internationally, not pulling up the draw bridge to the world; and 3) safeguarding democratic institutions and traditions, most specifically racial equality, the richness of immigration, human rights and human dignity.

I suspect he wanted people to be surprised when the letter became public. But he knew better after eight years in office – knew that it would be seen by all in time. Seen in this light, the note is brilliantly and carefully written with a view toward history, not to counseling Trump. In fact, there is little reason to think that he harbored even a glimmer of hope that Trump would follow his counsel.

He knew his successor was a birther, a man who shared absolutely nothing with him, who held a totally different personal and world view.

The reaction in the media, as soon as the letter became public, was to view it as a last ditch effort by Obama to reach Trump. And, that I suspect is what Obama wanted people to think.

But, what Obama really wanted more, and accomplished, was to define his legacy. His whole stratagem, knowing he had nothing at all in common with Trump and certainly couldn’t influence him, was to single handedly write his own story – and in one brief letter – about his emphases and his priorities, and his accomplishments. It was a calculated move, brilliantly executed to speak to history.

Obama's full note reads as follows:

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.

This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years. First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.

Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.

Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions ? like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties ? that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.

And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.

Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.

Good luck and Godspeed,


Daniel Socolow
Daniel Socolow: President, Socolow Group. Former Director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, President of the American University of Paris, Vice President of Spelman College. BA, MA, Ph.D.

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