Barack Obama will be gone soon. No one now gets more than two terms, and there is life after the presidency. Jimmy Carter hooked up with Habitat for Humanity. Bill Clinton has his foundation. The first George Bush simply enjoyed himself – a little skydiving, a speech here and there. The second George Bush stepped back from it all – he paints pictures of puppies and kittens and says nothing about anything, but he seems happy enough. Sure, Lyndon Johnson let his hair grow long, smoked endless cigarettes, and then drank himself to death rather quickly, but he was the exception. Richard Nixon may have resigned in disgrace, but he managed to become an “elder statesman” of sorts. He did fine, and Obama will be fine. He’s still young, more or less. He’ll find something to do, but he says he won’t run for office again. We’ve seen the last of him, or to be precise, we’re seeing the last of him at the moment – and we probably won’t see anyone like him again. He was young, he was black, and he was cool.
Barack Obama seemed to sense this from the beginning, and knew how to use his cool. It was almost as unfair as it was simple. Let your opponent get all hot and bothered and go nuts, and then raise one eyebrow. He did it to Mitt Romney with one line – “Proceed, Governor.” He did it to Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she went on a rant about his big fancy speeches. He smiled, made no comment at all, and kept giving the speeches. She seemed unhinged. He didn’t have to do a thing, and he did the same thing to John McCain in the general election that year – when McCain tried to cancel that one debate because he had decided to fly back to Washington to solve the financial crisis, all by himself. Cancel the debate? “You know, it’s a funny thing, but presidents often have to be able to deal with two things at the same time.” McCain had no response to that. He debated Obama, on schedule, and he didn’t fix the financial crisis. When McCain finally got to Washington, he made things worse – he blew up the deal on TARP by getting all passionate and confusing his own party. It took a week to fix that, but there was no fixing McCain’s reputation as an angry old man who just doesn’t get it. Obama won easily. Obama was young, he was black, and he was cool.
America went with cool, even if Obama was black, or perhaps being black was part of that. That was our eight-year experiment, and Ta Nehisi Coates, who many call the James Baldwin of our times, writes about being in on that experiment early on. In cover story for the current edition of the Atlantic – My President Was Black – he offers this:
Over the next twelve years, I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was phenomenal – the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center – and blinded him to the appeal of Trump. (“As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,” Obama once said to me.)
But if the president’s inability to cement his legacy in the form of Hillary Clinton proved the limits of his optimism, it also revealed the exceptional nature of his presidential victories. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.
Those eight years also never satisfied anyone, really. The ice cracked. Obama had been cautious and thoughtful – everything that Donald Trump is not.
Perhaps “cool” has its limits, or the culture shifted over Obama’s eight years. Passion had become the new cool. Put it all out there. Celebrities and athletes became humorless, hot and intense over-the-top screeching types, outraged or self-righteous, or both – there will never be another Jimmy Stewart – and politicians were now the same. Show your passion, win the election. Quiet competence doesn’t grab people’s attention.
Hillary Clinton found that out, and thoughtfulness is, well, kind of French, isn’t it? That’s what they said in 2004 about John Kerry. Everyone hates the too-damned-cool French, but four years later we had had enough of a president who had been hot and intense, the younger Bush. Thoughtfulness might be useful, so we elected No-Drama Obama, twice. He seemed cool, and smart, and careful – he wasn’t going to overreact and send us off to war again. He had said he wasn’t against all wars, just dumb wars, and that was cool. Cool still mattered. And then it didn’t.
That made Obama’s last press conference a defense of the cool. Trump hasn’t held a press conference since July. He had one scheduled for mid-December, to answer any and all questions about how he was going to solve all the conflict-of-interest problems with his international real-estate branding empire, but he canceled it. That stuff is complicated. He prefers angry tweets. He doesn’t do nuance. The press can stuff it – but Obama does nuance. He offers subtle and detailed thoughtful answers to even the simplest question. Things are more complicated than they seem. His caution is justified. He may feel passionate about this and that, but giving in to that passion can be deadly. A president should be cool. A president who isn’t could get us all killed.
That’s what he wanted to demonstrate at his last press conference and Politico provides the highlights:
The president revealed that he told Russian President Putin to “cut it out” during a one-on-one meeting in China in early September, warning of “serious consequences” if the hacking continued. “We did not see further tampering of the election process but the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred,” he said. “So when I look back in terms of how we handled it, we handled it the way it should have been.”
War wasn’t necessary here. Putin called off hacking our voting machines and servers. The leaks through WikiLeaks had already done their damage and there was no way to go back and undo any of that. What could be fixed was fixed. Case closed, but not quite:
In response to a question from ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the president confirmed publicly for the first time that he believed Putin personally directed the hacks. “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I mean, this is a pretty hierarchical operation last I checked. There’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States. We have said and I will confirm that this happened at the highest levels.” It’s not in the habit of Russian officials, Obama said, to “go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”
But it still pays to be cool and careful:
Obama hinted at “offensive capabilities” the U.S. possesses, but spoke broadly about his approach to preventing “some sort of cyber arms race.” His goal, the president said, was to put “some guardrails around the behavior of nations and states and our adversaries so they understand that whatever they do to us we can potentially do to them.”
Obama would not commit to declassifying evidence that would prove that Russia was behind the pre-election hacks. “We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods,” he said. “But I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and we’re not going to provide it because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know – and if we’re going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward, we don’t want them to know that we know.”
In short, don’t expect big announcements of dramatic actions. We’ll be deadly cool about this, but deadly nonetheless and there will be no whining about what had happened:
Asked if Clinton lost because of the hacking, Obama demurred. “I’m going to let all the political pundits in this town have a long discussion about what happened in the election,” he said. But he took a shot at the media, which he has faulted for focusing too much on trivia and pseudo-scandals. “I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election. I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling,” he said.
He also chided the press for its coverage of the hacked documents. “I am finding a little curious that everyone is acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton,” he said, “because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.”
He was more disgusted than angry, because anger solves no problem, and one must be careful:
Obama explained why he hadn’t been more vocal in calling out Russian hacking before the Nov. 8 election. “In this hyperpartisan atmosphere,” he said, noting the charged political environment surrounding the election, “I wanted to make everybody understood we were playing this thing straight.” He grew defensive in explaining why he didn’t react more strongly to the hacks. “Part of why the Russians have been affected by this is they don’t go around announcing what they are doing. It is not like Putin’s going around the world publicly saying look what we did,” Obama said.
Still, cool gets people killed:
On Syria, Obama called the situation in Aleppo, where the Syrian regime has crushed a pocket of rebel resistance in recent days, “one of the human hardest issues that I faced as president.” He called for “an impartial international observer force,” full access to humanitarian aid, and a broader cease-fire agreement – blaming Russia, Iran and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the ongoing violence. “The Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy,” he said. “The world shall not be fooled, and the world will not forget.”
He talked about the world, not the United States, but our options are limited:
Pressed on whether he felt any personal responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria, a somber Obama said, “I always feel responsible.” He added: “I ask myself every single day: Is there something I could do every day to save lives and make a difference?” He compared the feeling to his efforts to revive the U.S. economy after the Great Recession, when he said he was constantly reassessing whether he was doing everything he could to create and save American jobs. But ultimately, he said, he decided he had done all he could in Syria “short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited” and without the support of the international community and Congress. “It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said.
Trump will figure that out:
Obama downplayed the tensions between his White House and the Trump team, which have grown as the two sides have argued over the Russian hacks. “There’s still feelings that are raw out there,” he acknowledged. But he expressed confidence that “when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States,” he’ll change his behavior.
“There is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office,” he said. Obama said his conversations with Trump had been “cordial,” noting that he had made a number of “pretty specific suggestions about how to ensure that regardless of our obvious disagreements about policy, maybe I can transmit some thoughts about maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office” and “our various democratic institutions.” Trump, he said, had “listened.”
Fine, but will Trump change his behavior? Don’t bet on that. Never doubting the hearts of white people may be a losing bet, and Donald Trump’s heart went missing long ago. In fact, Obama’s whole approach may be wrong here, now, as Michelle Goldberg argues:
Most of the time, Barack Obama’s near-supernatural calm and dispassion are among his best qualities. Occasionally, as at Friday’s pallid press conference, they are his worst ones. Obama spoke to journalists at what should be a moment of acute political emergency. It’s increasingly clear that Donald Trump won the election with the deliberate aid of Vladimir Putin, and the president-elect seems intent on rewarding his benefactor with a friendly state department. Russia also appears to have intervened on behalf of Republicans in congressional races. If the situation were reversed – if the CIA concluded that Hillary Clinton won the election (but lost the popular vote) with an assist from a hostile foreign power – pitchfork-waving Republicans would be demanding that she resign for the good of the nation. Stunned Democrats, by contrast, have been leaderless, marching toward the post-inauguration abyss without a fight. Obama might have rallied them by laying out the alarming political implications of the CIA’s findings. Instead, he minimized them. It was not a reassuring performance. His refusal to acknowledge the intense alarm felt by his supporters only exacerbates it.
In short, stop being so damned cool! This is not the time for that:
To those who were paying attention, it seemed obvious during the election that Russia was trying to aid Trump, but no intelligence agency had confirmed it. The press coverage of the leaks was egregious, but the White House could have changed its tenor by speaking out about the geopolitical gravity of the situation. Obama suggested that he didn’t do that because he didn’t want to sow more paranoia at an already paranoid time. “Part of the goal here,” he said, “was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place – at a time, by the way, when the president-elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.”
Such a stance might make sense in an America where the two parties could unite against foreign adversaries and work together to maintain civic norms. But that is not the America we live in. “Some folks who had made a career out of being anti-Russian, didn’t say anything about it,” said Obama. “And then after the election, suddenly they’re asking, oh, why didn’t you tell us that maybe the Russians were trying to help our candidate? Well, come on.”
He’s right to be exasperated, but at this late date, absolute Republican bad faith should be assumed in all Democratic decision making.
Never doubting the hearts of white people, or Republicans, really is a sucker’s bet, so don’t do this either:
If the hack did have an impact, Obama argued, it was only because of America’s atmosphere of partisan derangement. “Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, and dysfunctional our political process is,” he said. “If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.”
These words had the odd effect of legitimizing Trump’s election while critiquing Trump’s party. Asked whether the election was free and fair, Obama stuck to the narrow point that there was no tampering with the voting process itself. He made it clear that he doesn’t believe any foreign power did this to America. America did it to itself.
Of course, there’s truth to that. Russia could intervene effectively only because the election was so close, and because so many Republicans hated Clinton enough to either ignore or welcome Putin’s intervention…
Yet the correct presidential response, at this late date, is not to urge Republicans to be better. They have no reason to be better; total partisan warfare has worked well for them. Obama has the dignified assurance that he is modeling the sort of politics he believes in. Republicans have everything else.
Now add this:
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” Obama said at one point. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us just like he’s trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”
These stirring words would have been appropriate during the election. Now they ring hollow. The values he was referring to have already been abandoned. Putin has been able to weaken us. Trump’s election has ratified notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, lock up political opponents, and discriminate against people because of their faith. At least, it ratifies those things if we treat his election as legitimate, which Obama insists on doing. He wants to shore up whatever faith remains in the integrity of our system by refusing to admit that the system is in crisis.
That won’t do:
Obama aspired to lead a better America. But right now, with only a month left of his presidency, we need him to lead the America we have.
Isn’t it too late for that? Our eight-year experiment comes to a close in thirty-four days. Obama was pretty damned cool. For eight years he walked on ice and never fell. The economy recovered. We got something vaguely like universal health care. We ended one major war and didn’t start another anywhere – and then that iced cracked. In the America we have now some like it hot. Someone else will have to deal with that. Obama is as good as gone. His final press conference was a demonstration of the cool in operation. Now no one is impressed.
A few of us will miss him. Miles Davis would tell you the “cool” is in the notes you don’t play – but then he wouldn’t tell you that. He didn’t talk much. You know or you don’t know. Some people never know.