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Twilight of the White House
The lassitude and emptiness of Obama’s post-presidential presidency


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Matthew Continetti

One evening in March, during a visit to Italy, President Obama asked the U.S. ambassador to round up a bunch of — and I quote — “interesting Italians” for a dinner at the ambassadorial residence. The history of the property, the Villa Taverna, goes as far back as the tenth century. Its art collection includes Roman sarcophagi and centuries-old imperial busts. The menu that evening included a variety of pastas, and wines from Tuscany and the regions around Venice. Dinner lasted four hours.

In this sumptuous and Baroque setting, amid these beautiful artifacts of long-gone civilizations, enjoying the finest foods and most delicate wines, President Obama was at home. The interesting Italians surrounding him included a particle physicist, two heirs to the Fiat auto fortune, and the postmodern architect Renzo Piano. The dinner conversation, according to Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein, touched on architecture, on art, on science, and on urban planning. Protocol demands that the president be the first guest to leave such an event. But Obama would not shut up. It was “a quite long dinner,” Piano told Politico.

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Piano said that he and Obama compared and contrasted the work of architectural design with the work of drafting a political speech — and in these particular cases, it should be noted, the quality of the results is the same. This was but one digression in a long and meandering colloquy, however. “It took a certain time to end,” Piano said. “It wasn’t like, ‘I have to go.’ We kept going, talking, talking, talking. . . .  You don’t stand up. You stay at the table.”

The next morning, during a briefing, the president — whose office holds a burden of responsibility matched only by its power — regretted that his job involved duties other than pretentious conversation with extremely wealthy famous people. “One aide paraphrased Obama’s response: ‘Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things of politics.’” You know, minuscule things like the maskirovka invasion of Ukraine, the implementation of Obamacare, scandals at the IRS and Department of Veterans Affairs, negotiations with Syria and Iran, and withdrawal from Afghanistan. These subjects are far too small and mundane for our president. He prefers contemplative and thoughtful and nuanced symposia on philosophy, quantum mechanics, and how best to spend inheritances — all accompanied by Tuscan wine.

According to Politico, Obama’s Italian dinner party illustrates the paradox of his second term. “Stymied at home and abroad, Obama recognizes that he is less in control of the Washington agenda than ever in his presidency,” write Budoff Brown and Epstein. “Yet his newfound realism has also given him a palpable sense of liberation.” I find nothing paradoxical about Obama’s recent pattern of behavior, nothing mysterious about the golfing, partying, traveling. It is quite obvious: Obama has given up.

He knows that his agenda is now limited to executive orders and bureaucratic regulation, and that even these measures are likely to be in the courts for years. He knows that his foreign-policy agenda of engagement with the enemies of America will prove controversial and unpopular. He knows his staff has been ducking-and-covering ever since Lois Lerner announced the IRS had targeted tea-party groups, and that they have been playing defense through Edward Snowden and Syria and HealthCare.gov and Crimea and the VA and now Bowe Bergdahl. He knows there is a chance that the Republicans will control Congress next January, and he has said, according to Politico, that this “would make his last two years in office unbearable.”

Obama, Politico says, is “giving more thought to his post-presidency than his aides like to suggest.” But there is nothing really for Obama to think about. His ambitions in this office, just like his ambitions at Harvard, in New York, in Chicago, and in the Senate, are now exhausted. America has disappointed him, and it is time to look to the next challenge worthy of Barack Obama. His post-presidency has already begun.

He has decided to relax. He has decided to fill his remaining days getting the most out of his presidential experience. The free travel and lodgings and security escort, the access to good tee times, the ability to get a reservation wherever and whenever he wants, the chance to meet VIPs who will flatter and ingratiate themselves to him — he is enjoying these perks and privileges to the utmost. His motto is not YOLO. It is YOPO: You’re only president once. Why not savor it?

Obama is golfing more than at any point in his term. In March, as Vladimir Putin launched the newest phase of his quest to recreate the Russian Empire, some in the White House had the temerity to suggest that it might not be a good idea to fly to Key Largo for a long weekend of golf and relaxation. Obama disagreed. “Obama sticks to Florida vacation schedule,” read one headline. This was one commitment on which the president would not renege. “I needed this,” he told guests, including his new friend Alonzo Mourning, over dinner at the Ocean Reef Club. “I needed the golf. I needed to laugh. I need to spend time with friends.” I am sure the Ukrainians understand.



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