Some thoughts at the end of the Obama presidency.
All these years later, it can be hard to remember quite what it was like. For the very youngest members of today's electorate, it's something that happened when they were just children. Even those of us who have been casting presidential ballots for decades may have trouble recollecting exactly how it felt. Because in the entire history of the Republic, there's never been anything quite like it.
Around a decade ago, during a brief visit to New York, I had dinner with an old friend of mine who is highly intelligent and supremely level-headed and certainly not the type to give in to sudden and rhapsodic enthusiasms. As it happened, she had come straight to the restaurant from what I assume must have been a fundraiser. At it, she'd heard a talk by a certain individual who at that point, I guess, was at the exploratory stage of a presidential candidacy. Her eyes were aglow. He was all she could talk about. She'd been floored by his eloquence, his charm, his palpable earnestness, his passionately articulated vision of a post-racial America. I had been aware of this fellow, but had not thought seriously about him as a candidate for the White House: all else aside, he was simply too inexperienced, with no national record to speak of. But my friend's excitement challenged my perceptions. If she, of all people, could get this worked up over Barack Obama, maybe I should pay him a bit more attention.
So I read his book, Dreams from My Father. It disturbed me. This was supposed to be the post-racial hero who'd finally heal America's most ancient wound? Take his family. The middle-class white grandparents who'd raised him had, apparently, been invariably loving – in his narrative, they came across as veritable saints – but he called them racists; by contrast, his accounts of his privileged, polygamous Kenyan father made it clear that the old man had been a world-class jerk and egomaniac, utterly indifferent to his wives and children, but in Obama's eyes every one of the man's failings was, somehow, the product of white racism.
As I wrote in December 2007: “Forget the content of our character; this is a work preoccupied with skin color.” It was, moreover, a book by a man more in love with Kenya and Indonesia than with America; a man who, at least in his boyhood, had had a close attachment to Islam, the religion of his father and stepfather; a man who'd enjoyed immense good fortune and experienced very little real hardship but who seemed to feel he'd had a rough ride and hadn't gotten his due.
Months later, when the news came out about Obama's virulently racist pastor and longtime mentor, Jeremiah Wright, it just confirmed – and then some – my worst suspicions about the junior senator from Illinois. “Millions have been drawn to Obama,” I blogged in March 2008, “because he has seemed to them to be something more than a politician. Alas, it seems increasingly clear that in fact he’s the best, the slickest, politician of them all.” Seeking to put the Wright debacle behind him, Obama delivered his now-famous speech on race. For me, it only underscored “the absurdity of the fact that a man capable of such an eloquent affirmation of America’s founding principles could have spent twenty years’ worth of Sunday mornings listening to the vile ravings of a boorish jackass.”
Yet for Obama's true believers, his sermon on race was only further proof that he was The One. Instead of holding him up to any standards, they felt it was their job – our job – to live up to him. “We have been asked to reflect in the most serious of ways about the role that race plays in the life of our country,” wrote the political scientist Alan Wolfe. “I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge.” As I commented at the time: “This is not how America is supposed to work, people. We’re not here to prove anything to our leaders....But Obama has already got so many people thinking otherwise.”
Myself, I wanted Giuliani. As a native New Yorker, I'd seen him turn the city around in a way no mayor had ever done anywhere. And his response to 9/11 had been perfect. I'd applauded him when, on behalf of the city, he flatly turned down a $10 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Meanwhile George W. Bush – who was so chummy with another Saudi Prince, Bandar bin Sultan, that he'd given him the nickname Bandar Bush – was busy hugging imams and calling Islam a religion of peace. Bottom line: Giuliani had Islam's number. Bush didn't – or, at least, thought it advisable to play dumb on the topic.
But Giuliani's candidacy went nowhere – and soon we were left with McCain, who also was demonstrably useless on Islam. So I voted for Obama, in the slim hope that, knowing Islam as intimately as he did, he understood the existential threat it represented to freedom and, once installed in the presidency, would rise above his boyhood attachment to it (and above the racism of Jeremiah Wright) and act responsibly on that understanding – and, perhaps, as a bonus, would use his gifts of persuasion to bring other Western leaders on board. Still, I knew I was betting on a long shot – a very long shot.
It was, of course, a bad bet – the worst. As soon as Obama won, he apparently thought his job was done. No presidential candidate had ever promised more than he had – he'd all but vowed to change heaven and earth – and surely no candidate had ever raised expectations as high. Not even Reagan – who, after all, had had a track record, complete with blemishes. Obama, in the eyes of his fervent admirers, was virtually unsullied – not a politician but a savior just waiting to be seated on his throne. Millions who had cast their votes for him felt they'd hitched their wagons to a shining star.
But Obama himself didn't seem to care. He didn't seem remotely interested in delivering. It was astonishing to realize that a man who had worked so hard to run for the presidency would put so little effort into the job itself once he was actually in office. The lack of effort was especially remarkable given that this was a healthy, energetic young man who, having come to the job with an extremely thin résumé, had a lot more to prove. You'd think, too, that as the first black president, he'd have wanted to do “his people” proud, to not let down the team, to be a magnificent role model for all those black kids he was always talking about. Imagine how impressed we all would have been – even those of us who can't stand him – if he'd foregone all vacations and golf games and concentrated full time on work. But he didn't. Nobody's expectations, either his worshipers' or his enemies', seemed to weigh on him in the slightest. The man who had presented himself as an exponent of high ideals and great ideas turned out to be the most cynical candidate ever.
To be sure, while Obama had little interest in hard work, and little skill at responsible governance, he was still eager to hear himself talk – and to use the bully pulpit to promote his ideological views. So one of his first major acts as president was to go to Cairo and give a “speech to the Muslim world” that, as I wrote in my book Surrender, was “a staggering pastiche of half-truths, exaggerations, and utter nonsense about Islamic history” and “an implicit announcement that his administration's policy toward the Muslim world would be one of shameless appeasement.” So much for any hope that Obama would stand up to the Islamization of the West.
And how fitting it was that, after having begun his presidency by brown-nosing Islam, he ended it by kicking Israel in the cojones. I need not go into detail about the massive mess he has made in these last eight years – the ways in which he's alienated America's allies while kowtowing to its enemies, stood up for criminals while rebuking cops, whitewashed Islam while ignoring its Jewish and Christian victims in the Middle East, defended illegal aliens while sneering at law-abiding, hard-working citizens, and lauded “community organizers” while demonizing entrepreneurs. The list goes on: the Obamacare fiasco, the climate-change fraud, and so on. Not least, there's his sowing of racial discord: how stunning that a man so capable of articulating a noble vision of a post-racial America could turn out to be so toxically obsessed with race, so thoroughly convinced that America is still steeped in racism, so gifted at creating and aggravating racial division while claiming that his goal is to heal.
But as bad a president as Obama has been, imagine how much more damage he could have done if not for his laziness. Fortunately for all of us, it turned out that his sloth exceeded his determination to transform America into Venezuela. If he's leaving office with a far higher level of popular support than he deserves, it's not because of anything he's accomplished but, in large part, because a lot of people who don't pay close attention to politics, and who haven't been personally damaged by his policies, retain an admiration for his style. He's smooth, he's suave, he's “cool.” That “cool” factor seduced a lot of voters in 2008. But over the years it has seemed increasingly clear that that “cool” factor was a function of his indifference. I was thinking about this the other day and it suddenly occurred to me whom he reminded me of : Dean Martin.
Yes, Dean Martin. Humor me here. Martin was cool, too. Audiences loved his laid-back style: he never seemed to be trying too hard. As Bob Greene wrote in 2012, “Frank Sinatra may have liked the image of being Chairman of the Board, but the core of Martin's enduring allure is that not only did he not want to be chairman, he didn't even want to serve on the board: It would mean that he would be cooped up in some boardroom for meetings when he'd rather be out playing golf.” Hey, whom does that remind you of? Writing about Martin this year, jazz critic Ted Gioia noted that “There’s a term in Italian for this kind of attitude: menefreghismo, a couldn’t-care-less manner that brings with it overtones of extreme macho coolness and total disregard for all consequences.” Ahem.
There you have it: in 2008, American voters were seduced by high-flown oratory and a promise of spectacular social and cultural transformation, only to discover that they'd been stuck with a master of menefreghismo, a slick character who was all talk (except when he decided to do something outright damaging and probably petty). Is it any surprise that in 2016 the electorate turned to a literal Chairman of the Board, a man of action, a man who had behind him a long, hands-on career of actually building things, a man who, eschewing lofty words, spoke in a blunt, honest, and no-nonsense way about the issues – even Islam! – and about the nuts-and-bolts business of fixing problems and getting things done?