Next week I'll be taking my kids to Washington for New Year's Eve, because I think everyone should experience the crepuscular glow of the late Obama age before the curtain slams shut. It is, I'll tell them, their chance to sit back and watch a spectacular sunset, on a historical scale.
We are all focused, as we peer south, on the unknowable years of darkness ahead. It might be better to look at the brightness of the American age that is ending, so we can recognize the patterns that made it possible. After all, those patterns are still in place; the American majority that ushered Barack Obama into office remains a majority, and this majority continues to grow, especially in the emerging generation.
We are bidding farewell to a moment that represented the entirety of the U.S. population in a way the coming era never can. We shouldn't succumb, in this difficult age ahead, to the Canadian temptation of anti-Americanism: We need to shift our allegiance to the American people, rather than officeholders who fail to represent them.
Representation was the key theme of the Obama era. What made his administration succeed in significant and transformative ways, against almost insurmountable odds in politics, in the economy, and on the international scene, was how it changed the ways Americans are represented.
This was true in two ways. First, Barack Obama changed the way Americans are represented by their government – in the identities of its leaders, in their workplace rights, in their citizenship rights, in their ability to marry who they choose, in their access to health care. Those policies will be challenged, but the shift toward inclusion is driven by a popular momentum that will likely return.
Second, Mr. Obama changed dramatically the way the United States represents itself to the world. For the first time this century, the United States was not the problem. The world's agenda was no longer largely devoted to finding ways to deal with what Washington had just done, or to work around the Americans to accomplish something.
Mr. Obama's headline world achievements – the multi-country peace deal that removed the Iranian nuclear threat; the large-scale multilateral curbs on carbon emissions of which the Obama-engineered Paris Agreement was only a part – were important. So were less headline-making things, such as his major crackdowns on offshore tax-evasion accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, or the major agreements to regulate banking and investment. Or this week's Canada-U.S. ban on offshore oil drilling in environmentally protected waters.
But more important than those agreements (some of which could be undone, though not easily) was the international trust that lay behind them. As the political scientist Daniel Drezner wrote in 2014, the past eight years have been the golden age of multilateralism, with more multi-country agreements to solve big problems, and more successful functioning of the big international economic, trade and political organizations than we've seen before.
The Obama era created a way for the international system to work – especially on the two largest problems, climate change and economic growth – despite deep ideological and economic differences, despite the lack of the old superpower system. (The superpower era, don't forget, was not a time when big problems were solved or conflicts averted.) We will soon be hearing widespread calls for a restoration of the Obama system: This is the only way big global problems can be solved. It is the norm to which the world will want to return, if the world returns to normal.
Lots of things didn't happen. It was a time when key countries – Russia, Israel, lately Turkey – had leaders who were all problem and no solution, who didn't represent their populations and served only themselves. Mr. Obama supported the right sort of popular movements against the wrong sorts of leaders in Ukraine and Egypt and Libya, but those liberations were thwarted by darker powers.
"I'm not going to be defined by what I prevented," Mr. Obama reportedly told his staff eight years ago, during his presidential transition. Unfortunately, he won't. But he will be defined by rebuilding, by the spirit of progress and advancement he instilled in the next generation – and by the opening he created for America's next bright moment.