It's hard to forget the giddiness so many of us felt at Barack Obama's inaugural. A brilliant, graceful and compelling candidate had come out of nowhere to trounce the party's old guard and win the presidency of the United States. He was the consummate meritocrat. He was self-made. He was black. His victory – it wasn't close – seemed like joyous news that America was well along the road to racial healing. His story reassured us that even in a country whose politics was becoming more and more broken, a good guy could still win. He was, as a bonus, as handsome and engaging as JFK. If this man could be elected, I thought, then America was in better shape than we thought.
We needed a dose of hope. Mr. Obama inherited the worst mess since the Depression – a sick economy, a world on the brink of financial collapse, a dysfunctional Congress, a country that was desperate to extricate itself from stupid, costly foreign wars. Given those grim realities, he played his hand pretty well. He was practical, not hysterical, about terrorism. And – let's face it – his victory was flattering. The elites loved him because he's one of us.
Most politicians leave office the hard way – reviled for their failures and repudiated by the voters. Mr. Obama leaves office as one of the most popular presidents in years. Even people who voted for Donald Trump think well of him. No matter what you think about his policies, he's clearly a class act – steady, thoughtful, uncorrupt. He was cool. He had safe hands. He upheld the dignity of the office (sorry, Bill Clinton) and ceded power to his successor with remarkable grace. He knew the U.S. Constitution is more important than he is.
And yet, the party he led is in smoking ruins. You can argue that Hillary Clinton lost the election by a series of flukes, and won more votes than Mr. Trump, but the plain truth is that that the Democrats were slaughtered at every level. Two-thirds of state legislatures are now under Republican control, as are both houses of Congress. Recovery will take years.
Mr. Obama's fate was to be a classic liberal Democrat at a time when liberal democracy has entered a period of sclerosis. The United States has suffered two generations of industrial decline, and nobody has a clue what to do about it. The worst problem is automation, not free trade – but that doesn't make it any easier to resolve. You can slap tariffs on imports, but you can't ban robots. The problems that plague the white working class – the collapse of religion, communities and stable family life, the rampant drug epidemic – are as much social and spiritual as they are economic. The technocratic class, of whom Mr. Obama is the brightest and best example, has no answers for these woes. They couldn't even prevent the world financial order from near-collapse. As Alan Greenspan, the formerly revered guru of the U.S. Federal Reserve, put it delicately, he had discovered there was "a flaw" in the model of market capitalism.
Globally, the tectonic plates were shifting, too. The old world order, where U.S. global influence reigned supreme, is slowly and messily giving way to something else. The George W. Bush administration hastened the decline of American power with a ruinous war. Mr. Obama thought America's loss of power was inevitable, and probably good. But he was more optimistic about the arc of progress than he should have been. Nobody has figured out how to manage the new world disorder, and I doubt the next administration will either.
Some parts of Mr. Obama's legacy (the Paris climate deal) will sink without a trace. Some will stick, at least in part (Obamacare). Yet, perhaps his greatest legacy will be the powerful symbolism of his presidency. Although a postracial America was beyond his power to deliver, the page he turned in history can never be turned back. Barack Obama was a principled and able president who governed in relatively peaceful times. Who knows when we'll be able to say that again?
No wonder I feel so nostalgic for 2009. Our giddy expectation for hope and change may have been naive – but it sure beats the feeling I am having in the pit of my stomach now. We're poised at the top of a roller coaster with a crazed 12-year-old in control, and we're about to head full-tilt down the slope. All we can do is hang on tight.