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


Matthew Continetti

“With his daughters around less,” Politico reports — without saying exactly where Sasha and Malia, neither of whom is in college, have gone — Barack and Michelle are having more date nights. In April, in New York City to deliver a speech to Al Sharpton’s nonprofit, the Obamas, sidekick Valerie Jarrett, her boyfriend Ahmad Rashad, poet Elizabeth Alexander, and the Dibbles of Chicago had dinner at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Maialino. Then the Obamas and Jarrett and friend took in Denzel Washington in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. “The presidential motorcade froze traffic out of Times Square and drew crowds of onlookers who stood up to 30 people deep along Obama’s route to catch a glimpse of his limousine and entourage,” said the Grio. I can only imagine what rush hour was like in Manhattan that evening. But hey: Obama needed this.

Jarrett, who serves the same role in this White House that Colonel House served in Woodrow Wilson’s, is the key figure in Obama’s premature post-presidency. She organizes the dinner parties in Washington and abroad, none of which appear on the president’s official schedule. For all the secrecy, the guest lists are entirely predictable. They include the sort of celebrities one sees on the red carpet at Cannes or on panels at Davos: Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Powell and Warren Buffett, Gayle King and Anna Wintour, the CEO of Apple and the head of the World Bank. Like the liberals who attend them, the parties are demographically diverse but intellectually uniform. Of all the boldfaced names mentioned in Budoff Brown and Epstein’s story, the only one that seems remotely capable of independent thought is, of all people, Bono, who is friendly with George W. Bush and got along with the late Jesse Helms.

I like to imagine the conversations at these parties. How are they structured? Is there any awkwardness at the beginning? Does it take a few drinks to get things going? I imagine that there is plenty of hesitant and anodyne talk about children, about movies, about basketball, about the weather. When the discussion turns to domestic or foreign affairs, though, the clichés must be stifling: How can the Republicans be so obstructionist and rude and luddite, what happened to the nice moderate conservatives they used to have in the Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush administrations, have you seen the latest essays by Ezra Klein and Michael Tomasky and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cares what the media says, E.J. Dionne says you are doing A-Okay, what’s it like to hold the nuclear football, have you been to Eric Ripert’s newest restaurant, weren’t the Afghan and Iraq wars terrible mistakes, people have got to recognize America can’t go its own way in today’s integrated, global, flat world, The Wire is Shakespearean, what are you going to do about the polar bears, we need to appreciate the value of other cultures, America doesn’t have such a clean record itself you know, my son just took a job in Dubai, wasn’t Sheryl Sandberg brilliant in her City Colleges of Chicago commencement speech, let’s touch base on the new youth-outreach project Mark Zuckerberg is standing up, do you watch Mad Men, politics is a relay race and we just have to keep going until we hand the baton to the next person, where do you come up with all of those beautiful words, we leave for Beijing next week, Putin doesn’t understand how we do things in the twenty-first century, God that Bibi is so unreasonable, who are your favorite authors, it’s time for a real conversation about race, is Homeland like real life, this is the sushi place to go to in Los Angeles, you are a real role model for young men not only in this country but all around the world, I watch House of Cards but my wife prefers Orange Is the New Black. . . . The earnestness, the posing, the sentimentality, the affected and knowing tones, the blather, the sanctimony, the insinuation, the phoniness, the small talk, above all the endless putting on airs before the most gigantic ego known to mankind — that wine had better be good.

“The bull sessions satisfy the president’s intellectual curiosity as he indulges in nuanced conversations about life, ideas, and art,” Politico reports. But how nuanced, really, can these conversations be? Has anyone at these parties ever suggested to Barack Obama that his take on life and ideas and art is incomplete, biased, shallow, or — gulp — wrong? Or that, you know, maybe he should devote some attention to his actual job?

Referring to the administration, one Democrat said to Politico: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at the next three years and think, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to survive the next 36 months of this bullshit?’” Good question — one the president seems intent on answering by not caring, by retreating into his comfy and unthreatening cocoon of affluent bourgeois liberals from around the world. The rest of us have to live with the consequences.

The next time the president indulges in his intellectual curiosity, perhaps someone will bring up the subject of political philosophy. I for one cannot help thinking of Nietzsche when I consider the drift and lassitude and emptiness of Obama’s post-presidential presidency. The sort of exhaustion we see every day was predicted long ago. “Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion,” wrote the German philosopher of the Last Men who he predicted would appear at the end of History, who would emerge when democracy was triumphant. These hollow-chested men, Nietzsche said, would blanch at the first site of difficulty. They would surrender and look inward, content to spend their days in the pursuit of pleasure. In Obama we have more than a Last Man. We have a Last President.

— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2014 All rights reserved


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