In her classic study, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of reaction in patients suddenly informed of a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. President Barack Obama, in the lame-duck period following his anointed successor’s unexpected defeat and across-the-board electoral setbacks that have left his party with fewer officeholders than in nearly a century, has reversed this process.
Obama began with acceptance; he welcomed Donald Trump to the White House as President-Elect, and extended a pro forma fifteen-minute visit into an hour and a half tour followed by a joint press session. More than that, he seemed to beam with pleasure at the task.
The President followed this up with a tour of Europe, revisiting some of the foreign capitals that had welcomed his own election eight years before with rapture after the dark years of George W. Bush. He began, curiously, in Athens, the capital to be sure of Western culture but also of a country for which he had shown little if any regard as it struggled through seven years of the brutal austerity inflicted on it by his good friend and chief ally, Angela Merkel. He allowed Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, a prime political victim of Merkel’s, to bask for a moment in his fading glow. But perhaps the choice of Greece lay not in anything to do with the country itself—no one is likely to mistake Barack Obama for Pericles—but in its proximity to Balkan Europe and Russia. Nothing is worrying Europe now more than Donald Trump’s intended rapprochement with Moscow and his public bromance with Obama’s own bête noire, Vladimir Putin. The European Union, in contravention of assurances given at the fall of the Soviet Union, had aggressively extended itself into its eastern borderlands for twenty years, and with the U.S.-sponsored coup in 2014 against the elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, into the former heartland of Russia itself. Obama’s photo-op on the Parthenon was doubtless intended to assure Europeans of America’s long-term commitment to its new Cold War against Russia. The problem, of course, was that it was no longer his commitment to give.
Obama returned home to face a less nostalgic reception. His fellow Democrats reacted with shock at his fulsome embrace of a man they’d decried as a demagogue for twenty months, a performance that suggested not only indifference to Hillary Clinton’s defeat but his party’s general rout. Only when the media began to point out that Clinton’s failure was not merely her own but a stinging verdict on his own tenure in office did he suggest an awareness of his situation. At this point, his response shifted towards anger and denial.
Hillary Clinton herself, after a period of seclusion, began to suggest strongly that her defeat was the result not of shortcomings on her part but, crucially, of the steady stream of embarrassing information about her leaked by alleged Russian hacking during the campaign. Obama now took up this theme, and made public an interagency intelligence finding (with hasty last-minute coordination between the CIA and the FBI) that Russia had indeed attempted to influence the election. The clear implication of this was that Trump had not been properly elected, and was therefore a less than legitimate winner, if legitimate at all. Worse yet, given his Russian business connections and his frequently expressed admiration for Putin, the suggestion was aired that he might be considered a Manchurian candidate, the cat’s-paw of a hostile regime. So much for tea and handshakes at the White House.
How Trump’s personal interests might affect his conduct in office is a fair enough question. (It is equally fair to ask how Joe Biden’s family business dealings in Ukraine could have affected American policy toward Russia in recent years too.) It’s another matter, though, to suggest that a foreign power sought to manipulate an American election in its own interest. The question that raises is whether such interference is or ought to be considered beyond the pale of interstate relations, and whether, assuming that it did in fact occur, it might have tipped a close race against Clinton.
As regards the first issue, it certainly offers us a Casablanca moment. Americans would be shocked, simply shocked, at the idea of interfering in other people’s elections, wouldn’t they? Of course, the U.S. has been doing just that at least since the 1948 Italian election that brought its favored candidate, Alcide de Gasperi , to power against stiff Communist opposition. And a roll-call of elected leaders deposed and/or assassinated by direct or indirect American intervention—Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, Jacopo Arbenz in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, João Goulart in Brazil, Salvador Allende in Chile, et cetera, et cetera—would go on for a good while. Nor is this simply a practice of former administrations, as the overthrow of Yanukovich in Ukraine has recently attested. It’s only forbidden to interfere with, or even spit in the direction of an American election. We are, after all, the Superpower.
As to the idea that the Russians turned the 2016 elections, that is sheer fancy. The Clinton leaks, while distracting, were for the most part trivial, and contained little that was new. They certainly paled before the steady stream of Trump scandals and embarrassments throughout the campaign, which led Time Magazine to twice depict Trump on its cover in a condition of sheer meltdown—before, that is, his election made him its Person of the Year. No, indeed: Hillary Clinton’s defeat, with whatever assistance Wikileaks could provide, was all her own.
The problem for Obama, however, was that Clinton had tied her campaign so closely to his presidency that her defeat would necessarily be read as a repudiation of him as well. Obama thus vigorously campaigned for her in the waning weeks of the campaign, and put Michelle Obama out on the trail too. He particularly challenged African Americans to vindicate his legacy as the country’s first black president. Devastatingly, this appeal failed to raise the inner city turnout. In Philadelphia and Detroit, Democratic votes failed to offset Republican ones in rural counties, and those deficits were decisive in electing Trump.
The denial phase of Obama’s response to Trump shifted into second gear with his claim, in an “interview” with his former campaign manager David Axelrod, that he would have beaten Trump had he been running against him. Let us leave to the side that this untestable boast was spectacularly ungracious toward Clinton, and that it undermined the Russian interference argument as well. Since, however, Obama opposed Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic nomination and discouraged Joe Biden from running for it as well, the implication is that only Obama himself was truly capable of defending his legacy. The Greeks have a word for this, hubris; but there’s a phrase in common parlance that applies as well: sore loser.
Obama has also issued a flurry of last-minute executive orders designed to burnish his credentials. They include the designation of two large new Western monuments, which give belated protection to wilderness areas increasingly encroached on by commercial interests. Most of the orders, however, are largely symbolic, or phony gestures to begin with. Among these, the order banning fossil fuel drilling in American areas of the Arctic Sea is particularly egregious. Obama had paid a well-publicized visit to Alaska to underscore its endangered wilderness heritage, only to then license drilling both in the Arctic and the Atlantic shelf. Oil and gas companies quickly determined, however, that Arctic drilling was economically unfeasible, and abandoned their plans for exploration. Obama’s Arctic order, therefore, only tells companies they can’t do what they don’t want to do anyway; the Atlantic remains open for business.
Another example of post-election grandstanding was the order to suspend completion of the North Dakota pipeline, an issue that has for months galvanized Native American tribes, liberal activists, and even military veterans. This order is almost certain to be lifted by Trump; its chief purpose, transparently, was to align Obama temporarily with the angels, and to avoid a potentially bloody showdown that would have marred his final weeks in office. But had the environmental impact investigations a project of this magnitude required been conducted from the beginning, the pipeline standoff need never have occurred, and a decision not to build it would have been far more difficult to reverse. But the President was nowhere to be seen when it counted.
Obama’s other stab at legacy damage control has been in an area in which he is particularly vulnerable, foreign policy. There’s little he can do at this point about the steady ebb in American influence in the Middle and Far East, or the slow implosion of the European Union. The Russian-led victory of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war caps a sorry record of American diplomatic and military failure in what has been the world’s worst conflict over the past six years. There’s one theater where rhetorical posturing can still score points, however: the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Obama administration’s record with Israel is more complex than it looks. If Obama has had sharp public disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his rapprochement with Iran and over Israel’s continuing settlement expansion, security arrangements between the U.S. and Israel have remained in place. Israel has been supplied with advanced weaponry, both offensive and defensive, and it recently received the largest commitment of military aid in its seven-decade relationship with the U.S. It was therefore a major lame-duck surprise when the U.S. not only permitted a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank of the Jordan River to be illegal to pass but (as Netanyahu charged and the Obama administration met with only scant denial), sponsored and even scripted it.
Personal petulance very likely played a role in this affair, as it did in Obama’s end of the year decision to expel thirty-five Russian diplomats from the U.S. in reprisal for the alleged hacking campaign. Both Putin and Netanyahu have expressed their pleasurable anticipation of a Trump administration, and Trump has nominated a strong supporter of the West Bank settlements, Donald Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel. Putin, for his part, shrewdly refused to respond in kind by expelling American diplomats, inviting them instead with their families to Christmas celebrations at the Kremlin. This was not merely turning the other cheek. In effect, Putin was saying that America’s diplomatic corps and foreign policy now belonged to Donald Trump, and that the toothless provocations of a departing president could be safely ignored.
As for the U.N. resolution, it will certainly make the presumed policy of the Obama administration more difficult to achieve, if it is achievable at all. A two-state solution to the competing territorial claims of Israelis and Palestinians has been the stated goal of international diplomacy for seventy years. Successive American governments have attempted to facilitate negotiations between the parties to that end, at least in theory, but without success. Each new round of negotiation leaves the two sides farther apart, which is why neither wished to enter the John Kerry-brokered round of talks in 2013-14, and why its consequences—an acrimonious breakdown, followed by a fifty-day war—were so predictably disastrous. Without getting into the unhappy specifics of the problem, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians themselves now no longer see the two-state solution as viable. Repeating the formulaic insistence upon it at the end of his outgoing administration, and blaming the one side that has at least produced a negotiating position for its failure, is as unhelpful and frankly irresponsible a gesture as Obama could have made. A parting tirade by John Kerry himself, clearly speaking for his boss, added insult to injury. Since Trump appears set to reverse course, his position will doubtless be hardened as well. It is of a piece with the general outcome of Obama’s policy in the Middle East, from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Cairo to Benghazi: blunder, failure, and an elementary inability to see facts on the ground as they are.
Denial, in politics as well as elsewhere in life, means blaming everyone but oneself for what’s gone wrong. If Obama’s legacy—i.e., the way outgoing presidents like to preen before history—seems in jeopardy, it is because an incompetent candidate failed to defend it properly and a devious foreign leader sought to undermine it. If the country remains mired in war on half a dozen fronts, it is because others failed to win the peace. If the first African American president leaves behind a society more racially and ethnically polarized than ever, it is not because of an economy where corporate malefactors get off scot free and a widening underclass works harder and harder for less and less, but because of a citizenry unworthy of its leader’s enlightened and benevolent example.
Try as he may, though, there are two facts Obama cannot get around. The first fact is that, after eight years of his stewardship, the Democratic Party finds itself more disadvantaged than at any time since the 1920s. The second one is Donald Trump. In style and substance (whatever substance he may possess), Trump is the living repudiation of Barack Obama. His campaign was based on the premise that America had lapsed from greatness, and the promise to repeal, reverse, or renegotiate virtually every policy, treaty, or legislative enactment of the Obama administration. At his White House meeting with Trump, Obama’s posture of graciousness was an attempt to cast the transition as a normal affair in which the opposition candidate happened to have won. Trump, with nothing to gain from churlishness, played along until he got to the door. From that moment on, however, he has behaved not as President-Elect but President in Fact, directly dealing with foreign leaders, announcing policy initiatives, taking ostentatious victory laps, and in general burying Obama ahead of his last breath in office. There is no question, certainly, that much of Obama’s final political scurrying is an attempt to insist that he is still constitutionally alive. But Donald Trump’s world knows only two kinds of players: winners and losers. And Barack Obama, as he gleefully makes clear every day, is the biggest of losers.
This one-sided game will soon be over. What will remain is the presidency of Donald Trump. That will be a daily reminder of the legacy Barack Obama cannot escape. His successor in office is indeed a demagogue, and perhaps a would-be dictator. Certainly, many factors in our currently dysfunctional and possibly moribund democracy have produced him. But, as Harry Truman famously said, the buck stops at the Oval Office. And Barack Obama’s been the one sitting there.
Maybe Obama’s post-election trip to Athens was an attempt to suggest that while democracy has often been down, it need not be out. If that was indeed his purpose, he should have visited a lot sooner.