Editorial Board

The Enduring Dignity of Barack Obama

On one issue, his record is unimpeachable: personal integrity.


Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

Posterity will pass fuller and fairer judgment on the presidency of Barack Obama than is possible today, but on one issue the verdict is already clear: personal integrity. In an especially hostile political environment, Obama was civil and decent, and he served with honor and dignity. Partisanship should not prevent Republicans from acknowledging these truths.

Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama leaves the White House untarred by scandal. His administration was almost entirely free from corruption, and there was never any credible allegation that he used his office to enrich himself or his friends. Even his most strident critics must admit that he is a straight arrow.

That’s not something to take for granted. An honest leader is essential not only to the functioning of democracy, but also to the public’s faith in it. A president who lies can weaken public trust in government institutions, as Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in demonstrated.

It’s unfortunate that Obama was never able to use his personal integrity to transcend the partisan rancor in Washington, and indeed, his penchant for attacking Republicans made it worse. Nevertheless, he stayed within the bounds of civil discourse and traditional decorum.

It’s imperative that the public hold the next occupant of the office to the highest ethical standards. President-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to more fully disengage from his company -- merely handing it over to his sons does not pass muster -- is unacceptable. If he fails to reverse this decision, he risks dragging the country into a legal battle that could test the Constitution.

Trump has rarely shied away from a fight. But when he becomes president, more than his fortune and reputation will be at stake. If he insists on holding onto his company, Congress should insist it be led and overseen by people from outside the Trump family.

The U.S. faces many challenges at home and around the world. Obama ensured that the whiff of corruption, which can be a major distraction for a president, never approached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The public should expect no less.