The obvious question is, Why? Why is Obama more circumspect than his presidential peers? Why does his praise come with a note of reservation? The best answer, I think, lies in identity. By choice as much as birth, Obama is a Black American. And black Americans, more than most, have a complicated relationship with our country. It’s our home as much as it’s been our oppressor: a place of freedom and opportunity as much as a source of violence and degradation. We’re an old American tribe, with deep roots in the land and a strong hand in the labor of the nation. But we’re often seen as other—a suspect class that just doesn’t fit.
As a president from Black America, Obama carries this with him, and it comes through in his sometimes less-than-effusive vision of national greatness. He loves this country, but he also tempers his view with a nod toward the uglier parts of our history.