Dialing It In

Column: The Obama post-presidency has already begun

June 6, 2014

One evening in March, during a visit to Italy, President Obama asked the U.S. ambassador to round up a bunch of—and I quote—"interesting Italians" for a dinner at the ambassadorial residence. The history of the property, the Villa Taverna, goes as far back as the tenth century. Its art collection includes Roman sarcophagi and centuries-old imperial busts. The menu that evening included a variety of pastas, and wines from Tuscany and the regions around Venice. Dinner lasted four hours.

In this sumptuous and Baroque setting, amid these beautiful artifacts of long-gone civilizations, enjoying the finest foods and most delicate wines, President Obama was at home. The interesting Italians surrounding him included a particle physicist, two heirs to the Fiat auto fortune, and the postmodern architect Renzo Piano. The dinner conversation, according to Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein, touched on architecture, on art, on science, and on urban planning. Protocol demands that the president be the first guest to leave such an event. But Obama would not shut up. It was "a quite long dinner," Piano told Politico.

Piano said that he and Obama compared and contrasted the work of architectural design with the work of drafting a political speech—and in these particular cases, it should be noted, the quality of the results is the same. This was but one digression in a long and meandering colloquy, however. "It took a certain time to end," Piano said. "It wasn’t like, ‘I have to go.’ We kept going, talking, talking, talking. … You don’t stand up. You stay at the table."

The next morning, during a briefing, the president—whose office holds a burden of responsibility matched only by its power—regretted that his job involved duties other than pretentious conversation with extremely wealthy famous people. "One aide paraphrased Obama’s response: ‘Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things of politics." You know, minuscule things like the maskirovka invasion of Ukraine, the implementation of Obamacare, scandals at the IRS and Department of Veterans Affairs, negotiations with Syria and Iran, withdrawal from Afghanistan. These subjects are far too small and mundane for our president. He prefers contemplative and thoughtful and nuanced symposia on philosophy, quantum mechanics, and how best to spend inheritances—all accompanied by Tuscan wine.

According to Politico, Obama’s Italian dinner party illustrates the paradox of his second term. "Stymied at home and abroad, Obama recognizes that he is less in control of the Washington agenda than ever in his presidency," write Budoff Brown and Epstein. "Yet his newfound realism has also given him a palpable sense of liberation." I find nothing paradoxical about Obama’s recent pattern of behavior, nothing mysterious about the golfing, partying, traveling. It is quite obvious: Obama has given up.

He knows that his agenda is now limited to executive orders and bureaucratic regulation, and that even these measures are likely to be in the courts for years. He knows that his foreign policy agenda of engagement with the enemies of America will prove controversial and unpopular. He knows his staff has been ducking-and-covering ever since Lois Lerner announced the IRS had targeted Tea Party groups, and that they have been playing defense through Edward Snowden and Syria and and Crimea and the VA and now Bowe Bergdahl. He knows there is a chance that the Republicans will control Congress next January, and he has said, according to Politico, that this "would make his last two years in office unbearable."

Obama, Politico says, is "giving more thought to his post-presidency than his aides like to suggest." But there is nothing really for Obama to think about. His ambitions in this office, just like his ambitions at Harvard, in New York, in Chicago, and in the Senate, are now exhausted. America has disappointed him, and it is time to look to the next challenge worthy of Barack Obama. His post-presidency has already begun.

He has decided to relax. He has decided to fill his remaining days getting the most out of his presidential experience. The free travel and lodgings and security escort, the access to good tee times, the ability to get a reservation wherever and whenever he wants, the chance to meet VIPs who will flatter and ingratiate themselves to him—he is enjoying these perks and privileges to the utmost. His motto is not YOLO. It is YOPO: You’re only president once. Why not savor it?

Obama is golfing more than at any point in his term. In March, as Vladimir Putin launched the newest phase of his quest to recreate the Russian Empire, some in the White House had the temerity to suggest that it might not be a good idea to fly to Key Largo for a long weekend of golf and relaxation. Obama disagreed. "Obama sticks to Florida vacation schedule," read one headline. This was one commitment on which the president would not renege. "I needed this," he told guests, including his new friend Alonzo Mourning, over dinner at the Ocean Reef Club. "I needed the golf. I needed to laugh. I need to spend time with friends." I am sure the Ukrainians understand.

"With his daughters around less," Politico reports—without saying exactly where Sasha and Malia, neither of whom is in college, have gone—Barack and Michelle are having more date nights. In April, in New York City to deliver a speech to Al Sharpton’s nonprofit, the Obamas, sidekick Valerie Jarrett, her boyfriend Ahmad Rashad, poet Elizabeth Alexander, and the Dibbles of Chicago had dinner at the Gramercy hotel’s Maialino. Then the Obamas and Jarrett and friend took in Denzel Washington in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. "The presidential motorcade froze traffic out of Times Square and drew crowds of onlookers who stood up to 30 people deep along Obama’s route to catch a glimpse of his limousine and entourage," said the Grio. I can only imagine what rush hour was like in Manhattan that evening. But hey: Obama needed this.

Jarrett, who serves the same role in this White House that Colonel House served in Woodrow Wilson’s, is the key figure in Obama’s premature post-presidency. She organizes the dinner parties in Washington and abroad, none of which appear on the president’s official schedule. For all the secrecy, the guest lists are entirely predictable. They include the sort of celebrities one sees on the red carpet at Cannes or on panels at Davos: Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Powell and Warren Buffett, Gayle King and Anna Wintour, the CEO of Apple and the head of the World Bank. Like the liberals who attend them, the parties are demographically diverse but intellectually uniform. Of all the boldfaced names mentioned in Budoff Brown and Epstein’s story, the only one that seems remotely capable of independent thought is, of all people, Bono, who is friendly with George W. Bush and got along with the late Jesse Helms.

I like to imagine the conversations at these parties. How are they structured? Is there any awkwardness at the beginning? Does it take a few drinks to get things going? I imagine that there is plenty of hesitant and anodyne talk about children, about movies, about basketball, about the weather. When the discussion turns to domestic or foreign affairs, though, the clichés must be stifling: How can the Republicans be so obstructionist and rude and luddite, what happened to the nice moderate conservatives they used to have in the Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush administrations, have you seen the latest essays by Ezra Klein and Michael Tomasky and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cares what the media says, E.J. Dionne says you are doing A-OK, what’s it like to hold the nuclear football, have you been to Eric Ripert’s newest restaurant, weren’t the Afghan and Iraq wars terrible mistakes, people have got to recognize America can’t go its own way in today’s integrated, global, flat world, the Wire is Shakespearean, what are you going to do about the polar bears, we need to appreciate the value of other cultures, America doesn’t have such a clean record itself you know, my son just took a job in Dubai, wasn’t Sheryl Sandberg brilliant in her City Colleges of Chicago commencement speech, let’s touch base on the new youth outreach project Mark Zuckerberg is standing up, do you watch Mad Men, politics is a relay race and we just have to keep going until we hand the baton to the next person, where do you come up with all of those beautiful words, we leave for Beijing next week, Putin doesn’t understand how we do things in the twenty-first century, God that Bibi is so unreasonable, who are your favorite authors, it's time for a real conversation about race, is Homeland like real life, this is the sushi place to go to in Los Angeles, you are a real role model for young men not only in this country but all around the world, I watch House of Cards but my wife prefers Orange is the New Black. ... The earnestness, the posing, the sentimentality, the affected and knowing tones, the blather, the sanctimony, the insinuation, the phoniness, the small talk, above all the endless putting on airs before the most gigantic ego known to mankind—that wine had better be good.

"The bull sessions satisfy the president’s intellectual curiosity as he indulges in nuanced conversations about life, ideas, and art," Politico reports. But how nuanced, really, can these conversations be? Has anyone at these parties ever suggested to Barack Obama that his take on life and ideas and art is incomplete, biased, shallow, or—gulp—wrong? Or that, you know, maybe he should devote some attention to his actual job?

Referring to the administration, one Democrat said to Politico: "I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at the next three years and think, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to survive the next 36 months of this bullshit?" Good question—one the president seems intent on answering by not caring, by retreating into his comfy and unthreatening cocoon of affluent bourgeois liberals from around the world. The rest of us have to live with the consequences.

The next time the president indulges in his intellectual curiosity, perhaps someone will bring up the subject of political philosophy. I for one can not help thinking of Nietzsche when I consider the drift and lassitude and emptiness of Obama’s post-presidential presidency. The sort of exhaustion we see every day was predicted long ago. "Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion," wrote the German philosopher of the Last Men whom he predicted would appear at the end of History, would emerge when democracy was triumphant. These hollow-chested men, Nietzsche said, would blanch at the first site of difficulty. They would surrender and look inward, content to spend their days in the pursuit of pleasure. In Obama we have more than a Last Man. We have a Last President.