Politics & Policy

The Coming Crisis Years

President Obama on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in February. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Obama was a celebrity-in-chief. The next president won’t have that luxury.

Appearing at a rally for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia Tuesday, President Obama suggested that Donald Trump, his supporters, and perhaps even the electorate as a whole were not taking the duties of the presidency seriously: “We cannot afford, suddenly, to treat this like a reality show.”

Suddenly?

This is the president who appeared on American Idol, Mythbusters, Running Wild with Bear Grylls, Between Two Ferns, and Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee. This is the man who rarely went a long stretch without being interviewed by Leno, Letterman, Colbert, or Jon Stewart. He taped a Q&A promoting Conan O’Brien’s transition to The Tonight Show, discussed his friendship with George Clooney on Entertainment Tonight, taped a promotion for George Lopez’s short-lived late-night program. He grilled with Food Network star Bobby Flay, popped up in commercials during Thanksgiving football, and filled out his March Madness brackets on ESPN every year.

It would be easy to conclude that Obama, derided as a “celebrity” in one of the few effective ads of the McCain campaign back in 2008, had permanently changed the nature of the presidency. The office had been intermittently intertwined with pop culture since at least Richard Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In, but by the Obama years, the line had blurred completely.

A majority of the public may be content with that — with a celebrity-in-chief called upon to make ubiquitous appearances in nonpolitical venues and be charming and funny and seem oh-so-reasonable in responding to the softball questions of a late-night comedian. American culture and the public’s perspective on the role of the president may have changed dramatically in the past decade or two.

But the nature of the world that awaits the next president has not changed: It is still extremely dangerous.

The Obama years brought a series of small crises, each one momentarily horrible but generally passing: A tide of unaccompanied children swarming across the southern border, overwhelming border-security agents and facilities that aren’t designed to care for thousands of children. An Ebola outbreak that was quickly contained after the first case in Dallas. The attack on Americans in Benghazi. Terror attacks at home in San Bernardino and Orlando, and abroad in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere. Russia moving into Crimea and starting an undeclared war with Ukraine. Saber-rattling from the Chinese. North Korean nuclear tests. A proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Assad’s regime and ISIS slowly and brutally making the Middle East hell in a never-ending civil war.

The good news is that none of these events shook Americans’ lives the way the 9/11 attacks did, and some of them were barely noticed by the public at all. The bad news is that because Americans’ lives haven’t been shaken, there is public complacency.

#related#How certain can anyone be that there isn’t a serious crisis coming in 2017 or beyond? What happens if China does something more than saber-rattling in the South China Sea? How long will the status quo in North Korea hold? How long until chemical weapons migrate from the battlefield in Syria to become a weapon of terrorists in the West? Just how emboldened is Putin, and how much does he want to push NATO? If Russian troops start massing on the borders of the Baltic states, will Western capitals counter them or start looking for a way to placate the Kremlin?

Chances are, the next president will be too busy with crises to make many visits to The Tonight Show.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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