Politics & Policy

The Last Days of Barack Obama

President Obama in the Oval Office (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
There will surely be others like him, and that should frighten us more than it does.

Rock stars, the heroes who stormed the beaches at Normandy, or Jesus Christ Himself — it doesn’t matter who you are next to the president.

For the past year, there have been cringe-inducing headlines reminding us that x, y, or z is Barack Obama’s last as president. “This is Obama’s last Veterans’ Day as president,” the cable-news mouth said, as though that were the story. President Obama is about as beside-the-point as it is possible for a commander-in-chief to be on Veterans’ Day: He isn’t a veteran, for one thing. It isn’t his day.

But all the days are the president’s days.

The Kennedy Center honored James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Al Pacino, Martha Argerich, and the Eagles — it is easy to see Barack Obama as a James Taylor fan — and the headlines announced: “Obama’s last Kennedy Center honors as president.” Barack Obama is many things, but he is not exactly what you would call a man of culture. I doubt he knew who Martha Argerich was before he was called on to present her with an award. But everything the president touches is about the president — that is true of all recent presidents and especially true of this remarkably self-regarding one.

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“And God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten” — hey, wait, this is Obama’s last Christmas as president! And — thank you, Wall Street Journal, for this one — his last Christmas vacation as president, too.

Meanwhile, the president-elect this week publicly thanked himself for recent improvements in economic indicators: “The U.S. Consumer Confidence Index for December surged nearly four points to 113.7, THE HIGHEST LEVEL IN MORE THAN 15 YEARS! Thanks, Donald!”

Trump has also claimed personal credit for a year-end bump in the stock market.

Presidents do this sort of thing all the time. Voters go along with it, too, blaming or rewarding presidents for developments in the economy that often have precisely nothing to do with who occupies the Oval Office.

The American presidency is degenerating into a cult. Historians a century or two hence will look back on this development with some puzzlement.

We are in the process — late in the process, I’m afraid — of reverting from citizens to subjects.

To be a republican in the 18th century was to be a radical. The American founders were deeply suspicious of pomp and circumstance: It is not mere coincidence that the ban on an official national church (that, and not having a manger scene at city hall, is what “establishment of religion” means) came in the first item on the Bill of Rights. Many republicans of the founding era were so suspicious of religious bureaucracies that it was not a foregone conclusion that the Catholic Church would be tolerated throughout the colonies. (Indeed, for a time it wasn’t.) And they were even more suspicious of the claims of royalty. In the person of the English king, they found a compound of those sources of suspicion: a hereditary monarch who was head of state and church both.

The idea that a large, complex society enjoying English liberty could long endure without the guiding hand of a priest-king was, in 1776, radical. A few decades later, it became ordinary — Americans could not imagine living any other way. The republican manner of American presidents was pronounced: There is a famous story about President Lincoln’s supposedly receiving a European ambassador who was shocked to see him shining his own shoes. The diplomat said that in Europe, a man of Lincoln’s stature would never shine his own shoes. “Whose shoes would he shine?” Lincoln asked.

As American society grows less literate and the state of its moral education declines, the American people grow less able to engage their government as intellectually and morally prepared citizens. We are in the process — late in the process, I’m afraid — of reverting from citizens to subjects. Subjects are led by their emotions, mainly terror and greed. They need not be intellectually or morally engaged — their attitude toward government is a lot like that of Trump’s old pal Roy Cohn: “Don’t tell me what the law is. Tell me who the judge is.”

#related#For more than two centuries, we Americans have been working to make government subject to us rather than the other way around, to make it our instrument rather than our master. But that requires a republican culture, which is necessarily a culture of responsibility. Citizenship, which means a great deal more than showing up at the polls every two years to pull a lever for Team R or Team D, is exhausting. On the other hand, monarchy is amusing, a splendid spectacle and a wonderful form of public theater.

But the price of admission is submission.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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