All summer, millions of Americans this year worried about being evicted from their homes, catching the Delta variant, persuading recalcitrant loved ones to get vaccinated, or whether a COVID resurgence might keep schools closed in the fall. Former president Barack Obama was apparently loftily unbothered by any of these plebeian concerns.
The distinguished memoirist was too busy planning a ginormous sixtieth birthday party for himself on his vast and vulgar Martha’s Vineyard estate, a sprawling 6,892-foot tumor on a beautifully spare coastal landscape, which the Obamas bought in 2019 for $11.75 million. The 475 guests were to include George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey. Even people close to him argued for weeks that as the White House was urging caution, given the recent COVID resurgence, the optics of this shindig were not good. Last week he appeared, for a moment, to be conceding to internal Democratic Party pressure by disinviting most of the guests, limiting the celebration to family and close friends. But that soon turned out to be some kind of head fake.
While Obama’s party might not have caused a deadly outbreak — it was outdoors and the Obamas were requiring guests to be vaccinated — the former president’s birthday bash showed, at a minimum, a cavalier insensitivity to the fears and needs of his neighbors, as well as a general indifference to the political fortunes of his fellow Democrats and the sufferings of Americans. But the kerfuffle shouldn’t surprise close observers of Obama’s ex-presidency, which has been strikingly bereft of public-spiritedness.
He’s distinguished himself as an enemy of labor and friend of racist cops. NBA players began to go on strike last August after Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot by police seven times in front of his kids, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Amid a national uprising over the shooting and many other acts of racist police brutality, Obama called LeBron James and players’ union leader Chris Paul and urged them to get back on the court and finish the playoffs, which they did.
Obama was also instrumental in shutting down Bernie Sanders’s bid for the presidency, a huge setback to the movement for social democracy in the United States. When Sanders was leading in the primaries, Obama worked to organize the other rival candidates to drop out and back Biden, making it impossible for Sanders to win. He then persuaded the democratic socialist senator to drop out of the race.
And let’s not forget Obama’s awful museum in Chicago. The three-memoir author is erecting a garish monument to himself on Jackson Park, which community activists argue will wreak havoc on cherished green space and a fragile ecosystem, as well as upon the legal scaffolding for the very idea of the public interest (we wrote about this late last year).
In addition to his appalling Vineyard manse, Obama is also planning to live in an additional ecological monstrosity in Hawaii — owned by close crony Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation board — and developed for the Obamas. ProPublica reported last year that the Obama’s planned beach house has a controversial sea wall, which protects the estate in storms but is illegal because such structures disrupt the flow of the ocean and contribute to beach loss throughout the state.
Not surprisingly, the sellers paid a substantial sum to the state to grant a loophole, which will keep the seawall in place for another fifty-five years. In Hawaii, beaches are considered a public responsibility and extensive laws exist to protect them, but such easements to property owners are unfortunately common. Community members have been protesting the loss of the surrounding beach, demanding that Nesbitt take down the seawall. Instead, the state is allowing he — and the Obamas — to expand it.
Like most people with way too much money, the Obamas own way too many homes for the health of the planet. In addition to the Hawaii and Vineyard estates, they have an $8.1 million, nine-bedroom mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC. All this real estate necessitates an unconscionable amount of flying, sometimes on Richard Branson’s private jet, at a time when many middle-class Americans and even corporations are cutting down on air travel because of its climate impact. At this point, the Obamas’ carbon footprint must be catching up to Tom Brady’s.
We wouldn’t expect Obama, a centrist, to become a convert to socialism in his late middle age (though as a young person he did attend the Socialist Scholars Conference). But as a liberal he’s been badly deficient, squandering his considerable public platform and influence, providing little leadership on any of the major issues of the day, like income inequality, voter suppression, and climate change. Instead, when he’s not actively agitating against social and environmental progress, he’s been lounging on the Vineyard and on Branson’s yacht.
With the obvious exception of Trump, who has used his ex-presidency mainly to whine about his personal grievances and fuel far-right conspiracy theories, Obama might be even less public-spirited than many other modern ex-presidents. All of them are war criminals who faithfully served the capitalist class when in power. But Ronald Reagan at least had the decency to retreat from public life into a tasteful (and sadly relatable) senility. Jimmy Carter built houses for poor people and defended democracy in Venezuela. George H. W. Bush declined to serve on corporate boards and engaged in humanitarian activities, raising funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Granted, Bill Clinton’s business and foundation dealings in Haiti were a travesty, and he has, like Obama, amassed an indecent amount of wealth since leaving office, but he has also, more than Obama, spent time on humanitarian causes like disaster relief. Clinton also did work hard on his wife’s effort to defeat Trump in 2016. George W. Bush has kept a tactfully low profile, becoming an amateur painter.
Ex-presidents would be nothing without the trust the public once placed in them by electing them to the presidency in the first place. After the presidency, all their earning power and cultural influence stems from the fact that people once voted for them. Obama has not only largely opted out of using his high profile to serve the public interest, but he’s also chosen insultingly to flout it. It’s long past time to end the cult of hero worship around this narcissistic plutocrat.