Stop Waiting for Obama to Fight For the DREAM
I Don't Have To TryWin McNamee / Getty Politics Features Barack Obama
Trump is closing down the DREAM act, and Obama did nothing. The political press seems confused: the current President ended DACA, and the former President hasn’t fought back. He issued a statement, and that’s pretty much it.
Politico had a story about it:
The two of them were sitting in the Oval Office barely 30 hours after their first conversation ever, when Obama called Trump to say, “Congratulations, Mr. President-elect.” Maybe he’d gotten through, Obama told people afterward. But if not, and Trump still revoked protections for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, it “would be something that would merit me speaking out,” Obama promised at his final news conference. That moment arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and Obama issued a statement. It was the longest and most confrontational statement of his post-presidency. But it referred only to “the White House,” not the president, or Trump. It called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision “contrary to our spirit, and to common sense” and “self-defeating,” “wrong,” “a political decision, and a moral question.” But Obama won’t be leading any rallies or doing any interviews. Just as he did during the Obamacare repeal fight, he’s purposefully keeping quiet — even as his team was already quietly consulting on steps forward Tuesday with activists and strategists.
Why is this news? Why is anyone on land or sea or anywhere else surprised? This is what Obama does. Obama is not a hero. Obama is the system. Expecting Obama to challenge any part of the American establishment is like praying for Taylor Swift to embrace full communism: it will never happen. The hammers made by the anvil will refuse to strike their maker.
Here’s the voice of Obama, speaking through one of his advisors:
“We are mindful of the dynamic that we’re in — which is the risk of backlash is real, and so we don’t want to give this administration an excuse to do the wrong thing, and we also don’t want to give Congress an excuse to do nothing,” said an Obama adviser involved with the deliberations on Tuesday.
Listen to that: “mindful of the dynamic.” Christ. Not only do these people act in clichés, they think in them too. Obama’s staff would write to Penthouse in PowerPoint slides: “You won’t believe what happened next … I suggested that we could build a dynamic brand together through synergy.”
The former President’s reluctance is as expected. It would only surprise you if you view Obama as a moral crusader, as the Pope of the Church Left. He is not. On his best day, he is mildly liberal, which means he’s pretty much fine with the state of the world; he’d just like more coffee shops instead of bars in Hyde Park.
On the other hand, if you see Obama as I do—a disappointing centrist with a killer sales technique—this is no shocker. Submission to established authority was Obama’s hallmark as Chief Executive. This is how he interacts with the world, and how he handles challenges. His nature is essentially passive, and technocratic. Obama will not criticize Trump, for the same reason he couldn’t challenge his own Defense Department’s predilection to drop 25,000 bombs a year. He believes in the church of the holy process. The process decrees that the President is, ah, well, folks, ah, a dialogue between the people and the institution … or whatever rationalizing rhetorical bullshit that Constitutional professors tell themselves.
The Oval Office is a great iron wheel with flowers occasionally draped over it. It facilitates the national security state and signs bills. That’s what it is, and that’s what it does. Obama is a creation and caretaker of that process, and of that wheel. He was before he became President, during his presidency, and after. Here’s his position: The system works, because the system elevated him, so it must be right. He will never challenge the wheel, never break it, never even try to break it.
And now the Oval Office is in the microscopic hands of a man who has no interests outside of his own vanity. There’s a hideous irony in the entire interaction here: Obama didn’t want to try in his Presidency, so he can’t try here; Trump didn’t care before he was President, so he won’t care now. It doesn’t matter if Obama cares, if he’s not willing to do.
Trump’s abolishment of DACA has its roots in the Obama Presidency. You cannot understand Trump if you don’t understand the disappointment of Obama. The election of Trump happened because millions of Americans hated the system. Eight years ago, they voted Obama in for the same reason. In 2008, Obama seemed like he would challenge the machine, the cunningly-oiled gears of a system that serves itself, and perpetuates itself, and keeps powerful people from interfering with it.
In 2017, Obama’s moral posturing reads like a bad parody of the former Senator from Illinois:
His nine-paragraph statement — written in his Washington office on Tuesday and so much in Obama’s voice that it even includes his “let’s be clear” tic — there’s nothing about what to put in a bill, only the principles at stake and the need to do something. Obama sees protecting Dreamers as a major part of his legacy, but he doesn’t want Republicans to back away from a bill because they’re supporting something that their base’s favorite boogeyman wants. … Obama and his aides spent the past week bouncing between cynical dread and insistent optimism. Maybe Trump wouldn’t really do it. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as they thought.
Why would there be details? Empty performative action is what the modern Democratic party does. Even when there’s a real issue at stake—an issue that the party’s corporate backers agree with—Obama will not act. Like most modern Democrats, he fundamentally misunderstands politics. Compromise is his end, not his means. Which makes sense. Centrists don’t want to change the world. They’re pretty much fine with how it is. Just tinkering, here and there. This worldview calls for a managerial mindset. It is a perspective which is designed to keep the status quo functioning. And, as Obama has discovered to his own dismay, it is wholly inadequate when faced with an opposition that has purpose, agenda, and a plan.
The Presidency is not just an imperial pilot-house; it is a carefully maintained series of interlocking norms. Don’t say this, don’t challenge the national security blob, put troops here, agree with this, sign this, Mr. President. As Emmett Rensin just wrote, the empire doesn’t care who the President is. Compared to Hillary, Trump was a rock through a glass window. No wonder people voted for him. Trump voters imagined their Orange God would end the machine.
Which was a fantasy. Trump doesn’t have the sand to challenge the establishment. He wants to be part of the club, not to destroy it. Trump’s entire narcissistic life has been in defiance of decent norms—that was the secret of his appeal. But that repudiation of public decency didn’t come about because Trump had deeply-held beliefs about human dignity. It happened because Trump is too lazy and self-involved to care about being polite in public.
Burke said all that was essential for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. He should have been more specific about motivation: What sinks the world isn’t the activity of evil, since evil is lazy. It’s the tendency of the good to be self-satisfied.
Obama can see just as well as everyone else that the most reliable predictor of what Trump will do as president is the opposite of what he said or did. He’s decided the best play is to not give Trump any more to play off of than his successor already has.
This is exactly what he did during his Presidency. In his universe, it was always the other guy that had the high hand. The other team always determined the ballgame. Augustine and Tolkien had this idea, that the Devil can’t actually make anything, can’t create on his own: he can only pervert what already exists on his own. Good has the creative advantage.
Obama turned this notion on its head. In Obama-world, the forces of goodness and progress exist only as stunted mirror of what reaction will do—liberals can only ever act in reaction to what the other team does. Enough. Enough.
Obama’s ambition is clear. He’s a man who waited his whole life to be an ex-President. All the gravitas, none of the need for action. Which explains his Presidency too. He is not the answer to Trump. We are the answer. All of us.
Even after eight years of obvious and documented failure, the mirage of Obama, King of Hope, is still accepted by people who ought to know better. Forget the Prince who was Promised (and never delivered). Only when the fantasy of Obama is forgotten, can the dream—and the Dreamers—be rescued.