Steven Spielberg and the Temple of Obama

Column: Building the Barack Obama post-presidency, one liberal billionaire at a time

August 21, 2015

The closest I’ve ever come to glimpsing hell was on Monday, when I read an article in the New York Times headlined, "With High-Profile Help, Obama Plots Life After Presidency."

Reporters Michael D. Shear and Gardiner Harris reveal the "methodical effort taking place inside and outside the White House as the president, first lady, and a cadre of top aides map out a post-presidential infrastructure and endowment they estimate could cost as much as $1 billion," or about as much as Obama fundraised for the 2012 campaign.

This effort began in November 2012, shortly after his reelection, when the president hosted filmmaker Steven Spielberg at the White House for a screening of Lincoln. President Obama was "spellbound," the Times reports, as Spielberg held forth "about the use of technology to tell stories."

Such technology, Spielberg went on, could also be used to tell Obama’s story—to somehow convince future Americans, against all evidence to the contrary, that his presidency was an experience they would like to repeat. "Ideally, one adviser said, a person in Kenya could put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and be transported to Mr. Obama’s 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia." I’m sure they’ll be banging on the door to get into that exhibit.

The president has raised, to date, "just over $5.4 million from 12 donors," which puts him $994.6 million from his goal. Those donors include "technology entrepreneur" Jim Symons, whose co-CEO Robert Mercer, a Republican, was described by the Times the very next day as a "hedge-fund magnate." These two billionaires are business partners—can't they both be magnates? Or are some technology entrepreneurs more equal than others?

More remarkable than the Times's bias, however, is the fact that Obama’s team, led by a former Washington Post reporter, has been unable to come up with a unifying idea—or even a single location—for his post-presidency. The library, for example, will be built in Chicago, and President Obama may also have an office in New York City, where he and his wife have often said they’d like to live—though they might remain in Washington until Sasha finishes high school.

Post-presidencies have become as competitive and grueling as presidencies themselves, requiring elaborate libraries and foundations, meaningful causes, books and speeches and appropriately timed social media indignation, all with the goal of remaining, even tangentially, in the media spotlight. Having a post-presidency that is, in the words of David Plouffe, "a blend" of the reticent George W. Bush and the money-grubbing Bill Clinton will still be expensive. But this money, unlike the big-dollar donations that fueled his two campaigns, Obama seems happy to fundraise.

He’s happy because planning for his retirement allows Obama to corral large groups of extremely rich and powerful people for the express purpose of discussing his favorite subject: himself. People like Spielberg, with a net worth of $3.6 billion, who’s "helping to develop a ‘narrative’ for Mr. Obama in the years after he leaves office." And people like Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and who dined with the creator of E.T. and President Obama "at a Beverly Hills hotel in California"—as opposed to a Beverly Hills hotel in Latvia—"in June."

For an example of what these dinners with the president are like, the Times reported extensively on a bull session at the White House held last February. The president and first lady invited 13 guests to the residence, including

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, net worth $4.7 billion

John Doerr, ex-boyfriend of Ellen Pao, net worth $3.4 billion

Vinod Khosla, green energy crony, net worth $1.7 billion

Marc Lasry, former player at high-stakes poker games tied to the Russian mob, net worth $1.7 billion

Eva Longoria, failed steakhouse entrepreneur, net worth in tens of millions

Toni Morrison, who dubbed Bill Clinton our "first black president," net worth in tens of millions

Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker journalist, net worth in tens of millions

Just your run-of-the-mill collection of everyday Americans. The combined net worth of the feted and privileged guests easily surpasses $10 billion. And this is to say nothing of the size of the accumulated egos, which when combined with those of the president and his wife becomes impossible to measure.

I tried to imagine the scene as President Obama sat back in his chair, sipped his first extra-dry Grey Goose martini of the night, and asked this hand-selected group of bold-faced names, seemingly plucked at random from Time magazine’s "100 Most Influential" issue, what he should do with his life. The pomposity, the self-importance, the snide remarks, the raised eyebrows, the sidelong glances, the oblique references to Taos and Nantucket and St. Tropez and Telluride, the mutual self-regard, the flattering small-talk, the knowing head-nods and chin-pulls, the pretentious lips-pursing—all of this combustible vanity squeezed into the pressure-cooker of the residential dining room. It’s a wonder the house didn’t explode.

Because it’s a trick question: conversations about Obama’s future are really cues to celebrate his past. To cheer his accomplishments, list the ways he has changed this country, explain his historical and geopolitical importance, lament the obstacles he’s encountered from recalcitrant conservatives, obstructionist Republicans, nativist, racist, sexist, backward elements of the population, recount how he overcame them, joke about how he deserves a vacation, mention the best courses he has yet to play, ponder the work of social justice and transformation that must still be done, affirm that history is, indeed, on the side of progress.

And this conversation goes on—on and on and on—with digressions into the latest fads in Silicon Valley and the nuttiest invention Khosla can come up with after two Manhattans, with genuflections at the altar of Elon Musk, explications of the markets from Doerr, Lasry, and Hoffman, mysterious oracular pronouncements from Toni Morrison, bird-like regurgitations of the latest Paul Krugman and Fareed Zakaria columns (how envious Fareed must be that he wasn’t invited!), tedious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other lectures from the president on the lead story in the Times, the most recent editorials in the Washington Post, late night comedy he found unfair, clever "This is Sportscenter" commercials, episodes of Game of Thrones and Homeland, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Jordan’s handicap—and with caustic put-downs from Michele, partisan bromides from Longoria, witticisms spiced with anecdotes from academic studies no one besides Gladwell has read, and bottle after bottle of wine, course after course after course of chewy overcooked hard to swallow smugness.

And then, when you’ve grown tired, when the Grenache is making you sleepy, when all you want to do is retire to the Oprah suite at the Ritz Carlton for a dirty movie and shuteye, the president forbids you to leave. You can be one of the most powerful people in the world, manage thousands of employees, but he won’t let you go. You’re stuck! Around midnight, we learn, Reed Hoffman said kindly to President Obama, "Feel free to kick us out." And the president replied, snidely, "I’ll kick you out when it’s time." And Hoffman sat down, like a disciplined child, because what could he do—even the cofounder of LinkedIn can’t walk out on the president of the United States. So the conversation went on, according to the Times, "well past 2 a.m."

Trapped in a room with a collection of pompous and entitled people utterly convinced of their brilliance and moral purity, whose conversation ranges from what’s in this month’s Atlantic to what’s in this week’s Economist, who haven’t been told No in years—and then being informed that there is no escape? This, friends, is the vision of hell that greeted me in Monday's paper: not of other people but of self-important ones, in a well-appointed house with no exit, eating an organic gluten-free farm-to-table meal and endlessly repeating the conventional wisdom as if they were coming to it for the first time. To look at the plans for Obama’s retirement is not just to see that big-dollar fundraising never stops. It is to peek inside the Bobo abyss, to visit the purgatory of the coastal elite—to enter, in horror, the balsamic inferno.