Magazine | February 6, 2017, Issue

Farewell, Obama?

He isn’t going anywhere

Let’s start by facing facts: Barack Obama isn’t going anywhere.

When George W. Bush left the White House, someone asked him what he was going to do all day now that he was no longer president. He shrugged and said, “Play with my dogs.”

He might not have said those exact words — let’s call it a myth — but that’s pretty much what he did after eight tumultuous years in the hot seat. And I’m not sure whether anyone asked the same question of Bill Clinton as he was headed out the door, but they probably didn’t need to. We all knew what Bill Clinton was going to do all day, now that he was no longer president. He was going to get rich. And so he did, spectacularly so, shimmering away in a cloud of private-jet exhaust and six-figure speaking fees, appearing wherever louche billionaires and supermodels formed a good-time quorum. (Aside from getting rich, former president Bill Clinton had one or two other things on his post–White House to-do list.)

Barack Obama, though, doesn’t seem all that interested in money. (Sure, he’ll make cascades of it, but it’s not what keeps his internal engine stoked.) And his interest in dogs — or, for that matter, most other life forms, including supermodels — seems mostly to be driven by focus-group recommendations on “how to appear more normal.”

What President Obama does best — what seems to get him out of bed in the morning, power him through the day, and keep his lights burning at night — is talk, almost entirely about himself. Pretty much every topic you can imagine — the weather, the Middle East, basketball, Jesus, you name it — becomes a conversational vehicle for Barack Obama to remind us all of his majestic power and dazzling success. And when he’s not busy spinning out clouds of self-puffery to float around on, he takes a short break to limn the failings and stupidities of everyone else.

Obama’s post-presidency won’t unfold somewhere in the furnace-hot ranch lands of Texas or the swanky dining rooms of Manhattan. He and the family are moving just minutes away from the White House, to a mansion within easy distance of the television studios of the Sunday shows and the sleek offices of his lickspittle media acolytes. It’s a big house, too — 8,200 square feet — with plenty of what real-estate advertisements call “entertaining space,” where he and Michelle can entertain the throngs of media and political grandees who just can’t get enough of Barack Obama’s favorite subject, about which he’ll hold forth over intimate dinners, drinks parties, off-the-record little lunches, and carefully orchestrated “dinner guests overheard” buffet gatherings.

The cocktail parties they’ll have! The “at home” photo shoots! Michelle raising baby bok choy in the back garden and Barack taking breaks from his book-writing to practice putting it into a Mason jar! Think of the awful, bum-kissing titles! “Barack and Michelle: At Peace & at Home.” And: “The Obamas of Kalorama.” And: “Obama, Unbound.” The fashion features and the close-ups of the healthy dinners! The funny portraits of Barack Obama without his BlackBerry! And on and on.

Save your farewells. He isn’t going anywhere. (Neither is she, by the way. Stay tuned for Michelle Obama’s second act. Here’s a preview: shadow senator from the District of Columbia. You heard it here first.)

Whatever the collateral damage of Election Night 2016, one thing is certain: The Democratic party is a smoking ruin, an apocalyptic landscape ruled by bands of thieves, chaos, and the walking dead. Eight years of an Obama at All Costs strategy has left it with a rickety, amateur-hour bench of state and local politicians; a wax museum of elderly and exhausted national figures; a wandering and rudderless party base; and a raging, manic-depressive left-wing media. When a two-term president ends his run, he usually steps aside to let the next class take the reins. But for the Democratic party, there is no next class. There is only Barack Obama, and he’s still in town.

In a creepy — though totally human — sense, that’s sort of the secret dream of every two-term president. They all talk a good game about wanting to extend their legacy and doing the best for the team, but when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing a true narcissist (and most successful presidents qualify for that diagnosis) likes better than knowing that he’s really and truly irreplaceable. Dwight Eisenhower was famously withholding of enthusiasm for his wishful successor, Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan waited until late in the spring of 1988 to endorse his vice president, George H. W. Bush. And even then, his support was widely described as “tepid.”

On Inauguration Day 2001, when George W. Bush arrived at the White House for the traditional pre-ceremony coffee between the guy on the way in and the guy on the way out, he was greeted by a mile-wide smile and a laughing embrace from President Bill Clinton. The cameras captured an emblematic moment between the two of them: Clinton leaning in to Bush to whisper something in his ear, Bush throwing his head back in a loud guffaw. What did the outgoing president say to the incoming president? We don’t know for sure, but it was probably something mean about Al Gore.

Barack Obama has no successor. He has no replacement. He is the de facto head of the Democratic party, such as it is, and he’s got a base of operations in the District to do what he does best: brag about himself and run down his political enemies.

In that respect, he’s very similar to his successor, who also seems to have only two conversation topics: his winningness and everyone else’s losingness. Yes, of course, Donald J. Trump doesn’t have the polish or the class of Barack Obama, but when you get right down to it the two of them are the identical sort of narcissist: bitter list-makers, reflexive braggarts, perpetual self-justifiers, petty insulters. Barack Obama and Donald Trump are basically the same guy, it’s just that Barack Obama is the NPR version.

What this means, of course, is that there will be two White Houses for the next four years, the real one and the one the Obamas hold court in, down the road in Kalorama. Former presidents usually try to give the new guy some space, at least for the first year or two, but Obama is no more able to hold his tongue or keep it to himself than his successor, so we can all expect regular issuances of critiques, insults, condemnations, and denunciations from the Kalorama House, followed by a volley of awkwardly spelled mean-girl tweets from the other president, wherever he happens to be at the time. Obama will hold forth from Charlie Rose’s round table and Fareed Zakaria’s club chairs. Trump will retaliate by calling in to Morning Joe.

Neither one of these men can shut up. Neither one can imagine that there is anyone on the planet better at presiding than he. But Trump has one major advantage: He knows he’s a shallow, narcissistic creep. He’s said as much in his books and interviews. Barack Obama, in his private heart of hearts, really thinks he’s a kind of living god. In skirmishes like these, the winner is usually the one with unsentimental, blunt self-knowledge.

That won’t stop Barack Obama, private citizen, from reminding us all — in books, interviews, op-eds, magazine profiles, and of course through his cut-outs in the media — exactly how great we had it (despite the evidence) and exactly how great he was (despite the evidence) and exactly how awful his successor is (despite . . . well, let’s all take a deep breath here). After all, this is pretty much how President Obama governed for eight long years: in one continuous self-justifying blame-shifting monologue, interrupted here and there by violent agreement and deafening applause from the nation’s journalists.

He. Is. Not. Going. Anywhere.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Poetry

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Politics & Policy

Letters

Against Big-Government Conservatism Samuel R. Staley argues for a permanent revolving-loan bank (“The Infrastructure Bank We Need,” December 31). Staley conditions his proposal on the bank’s being “properly designed and constrained,” ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

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