Martin Karo: Obama agonistes

Reader Martin Karo is a Philadelphia attorney. As President Obama prepares to depart office, Mr. Karo offers optimistic thoughts on what he believes to be Obama’s ultimate failure:

Watching Hillary Clinton’s sad soiree, and the shrinking Obama persona displayed in his latest PBS interview, make the Democratic titans seem enmeshed in a sort of Greek tragedy. Hillary’s self-destruction is all too obvious; but Obama’s strikes me as equally tragic, and equally apparent on reflection. And it reminded me of parallels from another tragic self-defeating President. But his is over; Hillary’s is almost over; Obama’s is just beginning its third act. One could title the play:

Obama Agonistes

Barack Obama will be the first President ever to not literally depart the scene after his successor is sworn in. It is a powerful image and metaphor, the act of the former President boarding the helicopter (think Nixon and his defiant “V”s) or the Presidential jet to leave Washington, to literally leave the scene to his successor. Even the perennial gadfly, Jimmy Carter, took that one last ride on the Presidential jet to return to Georgia. Washington belongs to the elected President, not the retired one.

But Obama will not do that. He will drive (well, be driven) a few scant miles to a house in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, where he can watch at close range as his legacy is revealed not to be one. From his front-row seat, he will watch his eponymous healthcare plan be gutted, watch his foreign policy be repudiated, watch his bureaucratic overreaches be reeled in (please God!), watch conservative judges take the bench, watch his immigration policy melt, watch the military cheer his successor as they never cheered him, watch infrastructure funds build highways and bridges (that will not be named after him) instead of disappearing into the pockets of government union members, watch the American energy revival kick into high gear.

As he watches all this, one wonders whether Obama will appreciate the curious posture he has imposed on the Democratic Party. It is too much to expect Obama to blame himself for the decline in the Party’s presence, at every level of government; but unless he is delusional, he must at least see it. He probably does, given his remarks in his Friday NPR interview that his organizing work “didn’t translate to” Congressional candidates. In the same interview he noted the future of the Democratic Party is the unnamed mass of young people who helped his campaign, omitting reference to any current politician.

Indeed, there are very few Democrats in power at any level who have any plausible claim to be up-and-coming party leaders. The current crop are septuagenarians, and uninspiring ones at that (who would follow Nancy Pelosi into a foxhole? who would fall on a grenade to save Elizabeth Warren? who would be pushed to a microphone by Chuck Schumer?).

With the dismantling of Obama’s signature initiatives, what does the Democratic Party stand for, other than to pine for Obamaism? Numerous Republicans plausibly champion the GOP position on any issue that matters; there are dozens of party leaders on immigration, energy, foreign affairs, national defense, sane budgeting, tax reform, education reform, who are not named Trump. Other than Warren’s identification with big bank harassment, the Democrats have no counterparts. Après moi, le vacuum.

The other curious thing about Obama’s remaining on the scene is that he has no visible friends on it, despite his dominance of his party. He has many toadies. He has his entourage. He even has many sincere admirers. But friends? Name three. Name one.

And in that characteristic, he is very much like the Democratic Antichrist, Richard Nixon. The quintessential Nixon photograph is of him walking on the beach in San Clemente, in a full suit and tie and wingtip shoes, alone except for his dog. Nixon’s post-presidential isolation derived mainly from the political disgrace that led to his resignation; no doubt Obama will have acolytes inviting him to events and interviewing him and basking in his presence. But who will come just to have a drink and talk about the old days or the White Sox? Every visit will be business, every caller seeking something rather than bringing something.

Obama is like Nixon in other ways as well, probably in more ways than the Democrats would ever admit. Both Nixon and Obama were self-made men. Nixon started as an obscure Congressman, Obama was an obscure community organizer (whatever THAT is). Both thrust themselves into the spotlight and into power, and ironically both by allegedly playing dirty (Nixon dubbed “Tricky Dick” by “the Pink Lady,” Helen Gahagan Douglas; Obama escaping criticism altogether despite having his state senate opponents disqualified and having his Republican opponent Jack Ryan’s divorce records mysteriously unsealed in his US Senate race).

Both relied far more on their ability to operate the levers of power than their ability to persuade others to follow them. Both were heavily criticized during their first terms, yet easily won re-election. Both depended far more on the personal loyalty of their staff, less on their experience or counsel. Both reveled in the trappings of the office. Both were very expensive to send on vacation, though to be fair Nixon barely knew the meaning of the word.

Ultimately Obama suffers from the Nixon comparison, for the reasons he will see at close range. Nixon was sought out post-retirement for his counsel; Obama will be asked for his presence, not his wisdom. Nixon’s electoral success was a general one, regionally and culturally, and very much set the scene for the Age of Reagan; Obama’s politics of division manifestly fail for anyone not named Obama. Nixon´s policies, domestic (e.g., creation of OSHA and the EPA, ending gold-backing of Dollars, the Endangered Species Act) and foreign (e.g., the SALT treaty, rapprochement with China, backing Israel) are still with us forty years later. Obama´s will be gone forty weeks later.

And that is where the Agonist tragedy lies. Obama is staying in Washington for two reasons: because he doesn’t truly have friends elsewhere, or any other place he considers home; and because if he doesn’t stay in DC he descends into obscurity. The latter is a struggle he is likely to lose anyway; if ever there were a personality suited to dominate the stage and put his predecessor in the shade, it is Trump.

But Obama will continue the struggle. He will help raise funds, in a social environment where funding matters less. He has no appointment power, so he will have few toadies. Any emerging Democratic leader will be wary of him, as he will only draw attention to himself. He still considers himself the smartest man in any room, despite abundant proof to the contrary. He will never improve in his ability to persuade people to his viewpoint, because he lacks introspection; a man who suffers as many failures as he has in eight years, yet still can’t think of any serious errors he has made, is by definition not learning from his mistakes. And absent holding the levers of power himself, persuasion is the only tool Obama has.

So Obama will soldier on, speaking to any reporter or power player who seeks (or will accept) an audience, pressing his increasingly chimerical policies in a political and legal landscape increasingly tilted against them, sucking the air and vitality away from any of his successors who actually have a chance of implementing them. Due to his own ego, Obama’s struggles will ultimately be self-defeating.

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