Thursday, January 19, 2017

Outgoing thoughts on 44

On this the last day of his presidency, I am genuinely glad to see Barack Obama exit the White House. It's hardly a novel feeling.

Indeed, since I came of age I've grown tired of every presidency long before it came to an end. Perhaps it has something to do with going 1-for-8 in presidential elections going back to 1988. When you think the electorate keeps making the wrong choice over and over again, one's patience for the winner is bound to wane.

(In case you're curious, this center-right voter's ballots for POTUS have gone like this: Bush, Perot, Dole, Gore, Michael Badnarik, McCain, Romney, Gary Johnson.)  

I thought I'd share my thoughts on President Obama, if for no other reason than now seems like the last good chance to do so. Some of this is purely writer's ego, as I've crystallized some things about our 44th president over the years and never had an opportunity to say them. So permit me my indulgence.

(I'll have a similar essay tomorrow for 45.)

Barack Obama is a wonderful speaker (if he has a teleprompter in front of him), but not much of a leader. He came into office without ever having led, literally, anything. No leadership positions in the state legislature, no U.S. Senate chairmanships, little free enterprise experience, no executive experience at a nonprofit, no major legislative accomplishments worth noting.

He was a fine thinker and writer, and those are good things.

But the notion of somebody launching a campaign for the highest office in the land after just two years in the U.S. Senate, without ever having been looked to for leadership in any organization or cause, was just ludicrous to me. (Don't just take my word for it: in an interview upon taking office in 2005, he dismissed the idea of running for president 'after having just gotten here.')

To me, the mark of a true political leader is the ability to gather together a disparate rabble of constituencies and ideologies and forge them into coalitions on specific policies and actions. Obama has never done that, or even tried. Part of it was circumstance -- he came into office during a terrible economic pitfall, and was armed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate.

He didn't need Republican buy-in, so he didn't seek it. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid rammed through the stimulus, healthcare reform and other major actions without bipartisan votes, and the president was happy to go along.

(GOP intransigence cannot be dismissed, either, though I've always argued this is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Mitch McConnell and his ilk were poised to play the role of the loyal opposition from day one. But I believe there were moderate Republicans who were willing to play along on a few issues until they witnessed the extent of Democratic hardball.)

But beyond circumstance, Obama is inherently disinclined to listen to those who disagree with him, or even grant them the legitimacy of their disagreement. Oh, he'll talk a good game about hearing everyone out, but when the rubber meets the road he cares more about liberal/progressive victories than working to achieve consensus.

Obama is exiting office with some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency, around 60 percent. I think that's largely due to the contrast he made in comparison to the two main nominees to replace him. Whatever you want to say about our 44th president, he always acted like the grown-up in the room, the voice of reason rather than the diviner of populist anger.

But Obama is much more like Donald Trump than either man is willing to concede. Both are preening men awash in their own unique set of abilities and gifts. Trump has the audacity to claim that 'I alone' can solve all the problems that beset us.

But it was Obama who said, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

The hubris of that statement, while far more eloquently stated than Trump's, is just staggering.

Like George W. Bush before him, Obama seems genetically incapable of admitting error. If the American people disagree with him on a policy preference, it's because his surrogates didn't do a good enough job of communicating its benefits -- which is another way of saying the ignorance of the public. Never because people had paid attention, understood the different arguments, and rejected his as unworthy.

Here is a man who swims in an ocean of self-regard. A person who literally said the seas would stop rising upon his ascendancy.

His sense of superiority and smugness were eternally grating. Abetted by an often fawning media and entertainment infrastructure, Obama loved to go on talk shows and sit down for chats with friendly bloggers or pod/vodcasters -- including one who'd previously featured herself taking a bath in Froot Loops -- while mightily eschewing press interviews/conferences with adversarial journalists (assuming there were any to be had).

If there is any justice in this world, then President Obama's recent smarmy appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to taunt the Republican nominee, "At least I will go down AS PRESIDENT" -- complete with dead-eye phone drop -- will play on a continuously loop in every chamber of his presidential library.

The harshest truth I can say is this: Obama loathes Trump, but helped create him. He proactively transformed the presidency into a cloying cult of personality, parlaying his own prodigious gifts into two strong electoral victories, even as his party crashed to its lowest levels of power at the federal and state level in decades.

Obama was always good at electing himself and, when briefly buoyed by a pliant Congress, at delivering on partisan goals. When forced to rely on his powers of persuasion, though, he found his talents unequal to the task.

During his second term he largely relied on presidential orders and other expansion of executive power to achieve his desires -- even when he himself had publicly stated dozens of times that he lacked a specific power. Or when he claimed the discretion to tell the Senate when it is in session and when it is not. (This earned a 9-0 rebuke from the Supreme Court, with even his own two appointees weighing against.)

Now Obama's party, and our nation, will reap the whirlwind of an increasingly imperial presidency -- now in the hands of someone dangerously unprepared for that office.

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