Maybe you can help me out. I’m puzzling over a line in a New York Times story on The World As It Is, the forthcoming memoir from Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. The article, by Peter Baker, is about the parts of Rhodes’s book that deal with Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton.
“In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election,” Baker reports, “Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages,” including flashes of “anger,” “rare self-doubt,” and taking “the long view.” Do not think, however, that during the final weeks of his presidency Barack Obama was withdrawn or more self-obsessed than usual. People needed him. The day after the election, Baker continues, “Mr. Obama focused on cheering up his despondent staff.”
For example—and here is the line that confuses me—”he sent a message to Mr. Rhodes saying, ‘There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.'”
Say what? How does a dimly remembered Carl Sagan quote relate to 2016? Was Obama speaking in code? Was this an example of him taking the “long view”—implying that lol nothing matters because we are all cosmic dust adrift in the void? Was he suggesting the planet might be saved from Trump by an alien invasion? It sounds like the message you’d find inside an especially pretentious fortune cookie.
Obama’s words once again revealed his colossal lack of self-awareness. The passages of The World As It Is that Baker quotes in his piece reinforce the widespread impression of our forty-fourth president as an aloof, smug, vainglorious chief executive totally divorced from political reality. The shock, disgust, confusion, and horror with which Obama and his team greeted the election results exemplified the very attitudes toward democratic procedure and populist conservatism that fueled Trump’s rise. The only lesson Barack Obama drew from the election was confirmation of his own moral superiority.
Even the former president’s moments of “self-doubt” were framed as opportunities for lackeys to remind him of his greatness. Rhodes describes a ride in the presidential limousine during which Obama asked, “What if we were wrong?” A leading question no matter the situation, particularly when the man posing it is president of the United States. What did Obama expect Rhodes to say—”Yes, Mr. President, we royally screwed the pooch?”
Apparently Obama had read a column—I have an idea of which one—about the role of identity in shaping peoples’ lives and political choices. “Maybe we pushed too far,” he mused. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” No question his fellow passengers that day reassured him that no, no, he did everything he could to bend the arc of history a little more toward justice. It’s not your fault, Mr. President. You didn’t push too far. All you did was troll Donald Trump into running for president in the first place, stand by while Ferguson and Baltimore rioted and burned, give Iran billions in exchange for empty promises, allow Russia to establish a beachhead in the Middle East for the first time in half a century, browbeat Israel at every opportunity, ram through Obamacare after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts, preside over the mass migration of children across the southern border in 2014, expand the DACA amnesty despite saying 22 times you lacked authority to do so, use the permanent structure of government to devastate the Appalachian economy, convince half of America that liberals were ready to take their guns (this wasn’t hard to do), have your Education Department issue orders that led to the campus-assault craze and the deterioration of classroom discipline and that, months before a presidential election, mandated trans-bathrooms in schools, have your Justice Department preside over a sloppy (I’m being charitable) investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server that included, at one point, your attorney general secretly meeting with the husband of the subject of the investigation on an airport tarmac, muscle out Joe Biden, who might have won, from the race, and hand the party back to the less-likable half of America’s most polarizing and corrupt political couple. Not to mention the eight years of lecturing. Oh, the lecturing.
One of the refrains of the Obama presidency was that, yes, America may have let Obama down in the past, and America may let him down still, but America remains worthwhile, so long as it maintains the capacity to become more like Obama. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he says in the book. What was he early for? “Fundamentally transforming America”? “The moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow”? For the death of the olds who stood in his way?
Imagine carrying the burden of Barack Obama, of being too enlightened, sophisticated, mature for his time. In his conceit that historical progress is assured and irreversible, and that challenges to such progress are reducible to irrational prejudice, Obama is a paradigmatic liberal. Yet America’s frequent elections, tendency to rotate offices, decentralization of power, avenues for the expression of popular discontent, and multiple veto points continually frustrated his desires. By the end of his second term, he was expending a great deal of energy working around the constitutional structure established in 1789 and amended 27 times since.
Rhodes gives us a glimpse of Obama’s interactions with the political leader he most resembles. “Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama that she felt more obliged to run for another term because of Mr. Trump’s election to defend the liberal international order,” Peter Baker reports. “When they parted for the final time, Ms. Merkel had a single tear in her eye. ‘She’s all alone,’ Mr. Obama noted.”
One tear: How noble, how poetic, how sad. Poor Angela. She crushes Greece in a vice, destabilizes an entire continent by inviting a million Muslim immigrants into Germany, and this is the thanks she gets: Brexit and Trump. It never seems to have dawned on either Obama or Merkel that the only people truly invested in defending the always-vaguely-defined “liberal international order” are the men and women who sit at the top of it. Certainly the voters are not as satisfied with current circumstances as they.
Last year, it was Merkel’s turn for electoral repudiation. Then Italians repudiated their elites last March. Unlike their American counterparts, however, the undemocratic liberals of Europe have sophisticated ways of bypassing popular sentiment. Obama must be envious. No third term for him, either literally or figuratively. Instead Hillary is out, Angela is alone, and Obama is left with his $65 million book deal, his “high-8-figure” Netflix deal, and, above all, his vanity intact.