For Obama, though, the overarching story of America, and all humanity, is one of fitful progress—and nothing about the past four years has seemed to change his mind. Joe Biden’s election is proof that America moves forward; the persistence of racial animus and resentment-driven populism represents the difficulty of maintaining momentum.
Obama’s you-think-you-have-it-so-bad invocation of Genghis Khan was prompted by a passage I read aloud to him. It is a brief peak-Obama, “Ozymandias”-inflected passage about a visit to Egypt. Obama recalls brooding over a face of a forgotten figure etched into an ancient wall, a face that resembled his. “All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.”
I noted the presence in this passage of a kind of paralyzing self-awareness (“True,” he said), but he told me he included this rumination to make a point about the long view. “That scene of me going through the pyramids—it’s not an empty exercise; there’s a purpose to it. So much of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on the time frame,” he said, invoking the specter of Genghis Khan. He went on: “What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.”
Which brought him to his main point: “America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work,” he said.
The threats to American democracy—and to the broader cause of freedom—are many, he said. He was withering on the subject of Donald Trump, but acknowledged that Trump himself is not the root of the issue. “I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life,” he said. “He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”