Barack Obama Still Doesn’t Get It

A recently unearthed conversation between Barack Obama and reporters, held days before Donald Trump took office, reveals an outgoing president unable to let go of his allegiance to the “norms”-venerating, elite-driven politics that doomed his presidency.

Former president Barack Obama listens as President Joe Biden, not pictured, speaks about the Affordable Care Act and lowering health care costs for families during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Since his departure from the White House, Barack Obama has cultivated something of a Jupiterian postpresidency. Maintaining a deliberately removed public image and mostly preferring to publish playlists or hang out with celebrities, the former president has made only a few select interventions into politics — and has mostly refrained from speaking about current events directly. For that reason, it’s pretty rare these days to hear Obama speak candidly, and the results can prove both interesting and revealing when he does.

That’s very much the case vis-à-vis the freshly published transcript of an off-the-record conversation between Obama and reporters that took place on January 17, 2017 — exactly three days before the inauguration of Donald Trump. Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by investigative journalist Jason Leopold and published by Bloomberg last Friday, the conversation, which took place in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, is billed “Remarks by the President in Roundtable with Progressive Columnists.” For a number of reasons, it’s a fascinating document, both in terms of what’s contained and also what isn’t.

In many places, Obama’s remarks unsurprisingly read like those of a typical US president. Chelsea Manning (whose sentence he commuted), for instance, is described as “a young person [who] did significant damage because they hadn’t thought through sort of the approach that that young person took” and “deserved punishment.” Elsewhere he speaks at length about the difficulties of health care reform and complains to the assembled journalists about getting insufficient credit for cutting the federal deficit:

People still think I increased the deficit. I mean, it’s just — I mean, I’ve given — you guys have seen me on the campaign trail. I will repeat over and over again: We’ve reduced it by two-thirds. It does not matter. . . .

A few of Obama’s remarks, though hardly unconventional, are quite perceptive. Observing that “the media is not credible in the public eye right now,” for example, he urges reporters covering Trump to avoid “jumping after every insult or terrible thing or bit of rudeness that he’s doing and just chasing [it].” Ascribing 2016’s shock election result to a number of different factors, he alludes somewhat suggestively to “some failures of polling and analytics leading a leading Democratic candidate never to appear in Michigan or Wisconsin, or show up in a union hall.” The one-time junior senator from Illinois did not carry out a meteoric rise to the top of American politics by having poor political instincts, and, in instances like these, Obama manages to sound a bit more plugged in than some of his liberal contemporaries.

The transcript, however, is arguably more striking for what he doesn’t say. In characteristic fashion, Obama makes various concessions (though sometimes backhanded ones) to critics of his administration and issues an occasional nod to the idea that not everything is sunbeams and light. Here’s one particularly emblematic example:

I’ll be honest, I do get frustrated sometimes with, like, the [Glenn] Greenwalds of the world. There are legitimate arguments to be made about various things we do, but overall we have been a relatively benign influence and a ballast, and have tried to create spaces — sometimes there’s hypocrisy and I’m dealing with the Saudis while they’re doing all kinds of stuff, or we’re looking away when there’s a Chinese dissident in jail. All legitimate concerns. How we prosecute the war against terrorism, even under my watch. And you can challenge our drone policy, although I would argue that the arguments were much more salient in the first two years of my administration — much less salient today. You can talk about surveillance, and I would argue once again that [Edward] Snowden identified some problems that had to do with technology outpacing the legal architecture. Since that time, the modifications we’ve made overall I think have been fairly sensible.

Thus, even when Obama concedes things or appears to acknowledge the legitimacy of criticism, he is rarely if ever willing to render problems as structural in nature. In the political ontology of Obamaism, the Democratic Party faced some bad luck in the 2010 midterms and in 2016 nominated a presidential candidate who made avoidable strategic errors. The United States, by the same token, may occasionally err in its conduct on the world stage, drone innocent people, or spy on its own citizens, but insofar as there are issues, they are issues of process. The administration’s health care package could have been better, and its stimulus might have been bigger, were it not for a few recalcitrant lawmakers who wouldn’t lend their votes, and so on.

Nothing that has unfolded over the past fourteen years, it would seem, has shaken either the core of Obama’s small-c conservative worldview or his Panglossian conviction that, come what may, his presidency still represented the best of all possible worlds. The simple truth that there is something fundamentally rotten about America’s political order that cannot be addressed through conventional elite means continued to elude its forty-fourth president even as he prepared to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump.