WASHINGTON — It was a moment of peak Spock.
Hours after the globe-rattling election of a man whom Barack Obama has total disdain for, a toon who would take a chain saw to the former president’s legacy on policy and decency, Obama sent a message to his adviser Ben Rhodes: “There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.”
Perhaps Obama should have used a different line with a celestial theme by Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
As president, Obama always found us wanting. We were constantly disappointing him. He would tell us the right thing to do and then sigh and purse his lips when his instructions were not followed.
Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, Rhodes writes in his new book, “The World as It Is,” Obama asked his aides, “What if we were wrong?”
But in his next breath, the president made it clear that what he meant was: What if we were wrong in being so right? What if we were too good for these people?
“Maybe we pushed too far,” the president continued. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
So really, he’s not acknowledging any flaws but simply wondering if we were even more benighted than he thought. He’s saying that, sadly, we were not enlightened enough for the momentous changes wrought by the smartest people in the world — or even evolved enough for the first African-American president.
“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” Obama mused to aides.
We just weren’t ready for his amazing awesomeness.
It is stunning to me, having been on the road with Barack Obama in the giddy, evanescent days of 2008, that he does not understand his own historic rise to power, how he defied impossible odds and gracefully leapt over obstacles.
He did it by sparking hope in many Americans — after all the deceptions and squandered blood and money of the Bush-Cheney era — that he was going to give people a better future, something honest and cool and modern.
But by the end of his second term, he had lost the narrative about lifting up people, about buoying them on economic issues and soothing their jitters about globalization. They needed to know, what’s in it for them?
He pushed aside his loyal vice president, who was considered an unguided missile, and backed a woman who had no economic message and who almost used the slogan, “Because It’s Her Turn.” Then he put his own reputation for rectitude at risk by pre-emptively exonerating Hillary Clinton on the email issue, infuriating federal agents who were still investigating the case.
The hunger for revolutionary change, the fear that some people were being left behind in America and that no one in Washington cared, was an animating force at the boisterous rallies for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Yet Obama, who had surfed a boisterous wave into the Oval, ignored the restiveness — here and around the world. He threw his weight behind the most status quo, elitist candidate.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have seen it coming,” Rhodes writes about the “darkness” that enveloped him when he saw the electoral map turn red. “Because when you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to change.”
Bad time to figure that out.
Where were the next Barack Obamas? Obama had never been about party building. He was the man alone in the arena.
Even though he could make magic — like the time he sang “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for black parishioners murdered by a white supremacist in South Carolina — Obama did not like persuading people to do what they didn’t want to do. And that is the definition of politics. He wanted them simply to do what he had ascertained to be right.
President Obama could be deliberative, reticent and cautious to a fault, which spurred an appetite for a more impulsive, visceral, hurly-burly successor. He got tangled in a cat’s cradle on the twin F.B.I. investigations into Hillary’s emails and Russian meddling; in retrospect, he probably should have been more transparent about both.
Rhodes says that weeks after the election, he warned Obama that a narrative was developing that they didn’t do enough about the Russians and fake news.
“And do you think,” Obama replied, “that the type of people reading that stuff were going to listen to me?”
Obama was well aware during the campaign that his chosen heir sometimes seemed to be phoning it in. Campaigning together in Charlotte, he was nonplused to find out that Hillary had quickly slipped out of a barbecue joint where they had stopped to get food and greet people, while the president was left on his own, shaking every hand.
Afterward he told his aides: “Most of the folks in these places have been watching Fox News and think I’m the Antichrist. But if you show up, shake their hand, and look them in the eye, it’s harder for them to turn you into a caricature. You might even pick up a few votes.”
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The Clinton campaign, Rhodes reports, asked Obama to go the day before the election to Pennsylvania and Michigan, a state he had won by 10 points in 2012.
“Michigan,” Obama said in wonder. “That’s not good.”