As he approaches the end of his career in elected office, Barack Obama is in a truly precarious position: He is going to exit the White House having accomplished almost nothing substantive on the policy front — his health-care program is not going to survive, Gitmo is not going to be closed, we are not leaving Afghanistan, and he is sending troops into Iraq — and outside of his perch at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his party is in ruins: In Congress and the states, the Democrats are in their weakest position in modern political history. If the Democrats do not win the presidency in 2016, there are going to be some very uncomfortable questions about what exactly Obama & Co. accomplished, and at what price.
What to do? Throw Herself to the wolves, of course.
Barack Obama isn’t a policy guy; he’s a personnel guy. An underappreciated aspect of Barack Obama’s politics is that he has been trying to convert the Democratic party from a party that lives in Congress to a party that lives in the White House. The Democrats owned Congress, and especially the House of Representatives, in the postwar era, with unbroken control of the speakership from 1955 to 1995. Until Newt Gingrich came in with the 1994 tsunami, the last Republican speaker had been a man born in 1884 who rode into office on the coattails of Calvin Coolidge. Except for a few brief interludes (January 3, 1947 to January 3, 1949; January 3, 1953 to January 3, 1955; January 3, 1981 to January 3, 1987), the Democrats ran the Senate, too, from the Great Depression until the Gingrich years. That version of the Democratic party was a lawmaking party. (It made a lot of bad laws.) Barack Obama’s Democratic party, the one he is giving birth to, is a different animal. He didn’t give a hoot what was in his signature health-care law — just so long as it empowered him to start putting his people in positions to make health-care decisions. His patron saint is Roy Cohn, who proclaimed the gospel “Don’t tell me what the law is. Tell me who the judge is.” Barack Obama doesn’t want to write laws — he wants to appoint judges. He doesn’t want finely crafted legislation — he wants “The secretary shall issue.”
Progressives understand this. Conservatives sometimes fail to.
For conservatives, policy matters above all: You can be Rick Perry or a Marco Rubio or a Scott Walker, but if you deviate from the true path on a single issue, we’ll cast you into the outer darkness as a phony conservative. Progressives invert that: Personnel is what really counts. They operate on the assumption (which turns out to be well founded) that as long as they get their people into positions of power, they’re going to get their way most of the time when it really counts. That’s why Barack Obama could run for the presidency to the right of Dick Cheney on gay marriage — twice, while citing the Bible for justification — without hearing a peep. And it’s why he could subsequently name to the Supreme Court Elena Kagan, who insisted that “there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.” When the time came, Obama’s people were going to give Obama’s people what Obama’s people wanted, and everybody knew it.
Obama did not build this machine to hand it over to the Clintons on a cold winter morning in 2017.
But the Clintons aren’t Obama’s people. Bill Clinton thinks of Obama as his own political Stepin Fetchit, the guy who only a few years ago would have been “carrying our bags.” Herself was Obama’s main obstacle to power. (No, Senator McCain most certainly was not.) Obama did not build this machine to hand it over to the Clintons on a cold winter morning in 2017. That puts him in a double bind: He has to make it beyond question that he and his clique now own the Democratic party — that the Clintons are just weird sad old 1990s relics like those ancient AOL CDs that some youngsters ironically collect — but he also needs the Democrats to win the presidency in 2016 in order for the party to be worth owning. And of the candidates in the race, only Herself has a plausible shot at being elected president of these United States. Senator Sanders vs. Senator Rubio? Republicans would have their best year since 1988.
#share#The anti-Clinton element in the Democratic party currently describes itself as the “Warren wing,” and there is among the Sandersnistas a distinct impression that their guy isn’t really their guy, that they’re behind Senator Sanders only because Senator Warren isn’t in the running. She’d do better than Senator Sanders, but she’ll have a hard time of it, too, when her time comes. She’s the Ted Cruz of the Left: She’s exactly the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing. But put her in front of an audience that isn’t instinctively on her side and she’s going to have a hard time bridging that gap. She’s a partisans’ partisan. Put Mike Huckabee on a debate stage and I find myself thinking: I don’t want to like this guy, but I like this guy. Get Marco Rubio talking about his family and you cannot help but like him. I’ve seen Elizabeth Warren in action, and you can help liking her.
If President Obama really were the bloodless Machiavellian his critics sometimes think he is, he’d see to it that Herself and a few of her top staffers were indicted under 18 U.S. Code § 793 and 18 U.S. Code § 798 for their improper handling of classified documents, and then put out the word that the time has come to choose sides. That she should be indicted is beside the point, politically; it would, however, be the last anybody ever heard of the Clintons. Or he may calculate that her troubles will continue to deepen and decide to simply watch quietly as she goes under with no assistance from him.
The problem is that there is no one in the field to swoop in and lead the Democrats to victory in 2016. Obama has a personnel problem.
#related#And that’s where Joe Biden comes in. Biden is the Obama guy who isn’t really an Obama guy — he was elected to the U.S. Senate when Barack Obama was eleven years old. He had a life and a political career before he hitched his wagon to the teapot messiah from Chicago, and though his is not the keenest mind in politics, he surely gets the game: If he gets in, he is to be reduced to a purely instrumental condition, an enabler of Obama’s last and most important political play, a placeholder keeping the chair warm until Obama’s people have settled on a real president. Biden doesn’t seem like a man who minds being used so long as the deal is a square one, but he is also old and tired and has recently suffered the loss of a child, which must be nearly unbearable. There are three possible outcomes for him: He could get in the race, win, and become a figurehead. He could get in the race, lose, and retire with the stink of defeat upon him.
Or he could just keep smiling.