As Legacy Gets Trashed, What’s Next for Obama?
Early in filmmaker Greg Barker’s new movie, “The Final Year,” which chronicles Barack Obama’s last 12 months in office, the 44th president utters these ironic words about his legacy: “Hopefully you set a course, and when you pass a baton, you know you’re going to have to trust some other folks to continue that process.” Like many, he obviously expected Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 presidential election.
Instead, his successor seems motivated by only two things: self-aggrandizement and the desire to erase Obama’s legacy. President Trump has acted on the latter by withdrawing from the Paris agreement on climate change, rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and trying (and failing) to undo Obamacare.
In limited release, “The Final Year” coincides with what could be called the Obama Spring. Following a year of mostly silence, he was interviewed during Christmas week by Britain’s Prince Harry for the BBC. And this month, he appears in a one-hour sit-down with a bewhiskered David Letterman for the inaugural episode of the former talk show host’s new Netflix series.
Apparently granted limited time with Obama, Barker relies more on profiling key players, such as Ben Rhodes, aspiring novelist-turned-adviser-to-Obama, and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, who moves herself to tears with the story of her own immigrant roots, which she recounts to a group of new immigrants.
Barker accompanies Power on a trip to Nigeria, where she lends vocal support to the mothers of missing daughters. The scene is emblematic of both the film’s “West Wing” PR patina and the wan support offered by Obama’s administration in the form of military advisers and on-again, off-again training during a strained relationship between Washington and the country’s capital, Abuja. Barker’s film conveniently ignores such details, as well as the death of a child hit by a vehicle in Power’s motorcade during her visit to Cameroon. Power later paid a visit to the family to express her condolences.
Meanwhile, Rhodes burns the midnight oil as he pecks away at Obama’s then upcoming Hiroshima speech, the first time a sitting president would visit the site. “The world has forever changed here,” Obama later told a gathering at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in an address that envisioned a world without nuclear weapons. “That is the future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not for the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” Never mind the fact that the Obama administration decreased nuclear stockpiles by only 5 percent, a reduction less than George W. Bush’s.
Power and Rhodes clash over the tone of an Obama speech to the United Nations, with Rhodes favoring an upbeat approach that acknowledges an intolerable level of human suffering and injustice in the world, while also emphasizing that we live in historically prosperous and peaceful times.
“A person born today is more likely to be healthy, to live longer, and to have access to opportunity than at any time in human history,” Obama told the assembly, after overriding Power’s concerns that the remarks ignored refugee numbers at their highest since World War II, an omission deemed insensitive by some.
Lending star power to the film, an impeccably coiffed John Kerry stops in for some generic huffing and puffing over Syria, a crisis that is clearly beyond Washington’s grasp. Susan Rice also appears for a candid sound bite or two, greeting the camera looking like a hostage.
Not surprisingly, Obama did what most presidents do in their first year out of office: very little. Bill Clinton campaigned for Hillary in her run for New York’s Senate seat. George W. Bush became a painter of dubious distinction, while Ronald Reagan spent his post-presidential years briefly involved with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation before succumbing to Alzheimer’s in 2004. But, like Clinton, Obama left office as a relatively young man, which implies further ambitions.
Clinton had the Clinton Foundation. Obama will have the Obama Foundation, which is what, exactly? Judging by the Prince Harry and Letterman interviews, a nascent vision is emerging. While education, employment and environmental concerns are compelling themes in Obama’s post-POTUS period, encouraging civic engagement and cultivating leaders among the next generation appear to be priorities.
“I’m really obsessed now with training the next generation of leaders to make their mark on the world,” he told Prince Harry, comparing himself to an athlete who has retired to the sidelines to coach.
In another exchange, he describes what sounds like a return to his community-activist roots, albeit with wider scope. He applauds the Young Leaders Program, which gathers roughly 1,000 kids from all over the world each year, building a network of applicants to exchange ideas on solutions to crises affecting their communities. “We have 1 million around the world, setting up health clinics in rural Africa or setting up human rights programs in countries that need them. So I’ve seen the power of young people,” Obama told Prince Harry.
Social inequality is another emerging theme. “Working-class people have less leverage and less control in the marketplace. And part of that is because unionization has declined precipitously. I believe that the ability of workers to collectively organize and bargain is important to balance their interests against the interests of multinational corporations.”
He echoed such thoughts with Letterman, expressing concern about long-term trends in the economy and warning of a financial bubble, adding, “You still have growing inequality. The combination of technology and globalization means that there are entire industries and categories of jobs that are being eliminated.”
Obama’s 2008 run was a milestone in social media campaigning, pioneering what has since devolved into a morass of “fake news.” His optimism for the new technology has since jaundiced. “I think what we missed was the degree to which people who were in power, special interests, foreign governments, et cetera, can manipulate and propagandize.”
He describes the proliferation of fake news as a primary threat to democracy, in that baseline facts cannot be agreed upon, precluding the possibility of meaningful discussion.
“If you’re getting all your information off of algorithms … whatever your issues were, that’s where you were being sent. And that gets more and more enforced over time. That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages, where more and more people are getting their news from,” he told Letterman. “At a certain point, you live in a bubble, and that’s part of why our politics are so polarized right now.”
Make no mistake: Obama wasn’t idle in 2017—just idler than usual, though he did find time to block Keith Ellison (endorsed by Bernie Sanders) from last year’s Democratic National Committee chairmanship election by pushing his former labor secretary, Tom Perez, to run instead. Obama is said to have personally lobbied committee members on behalf of Perez, who had to walk back statements he made to Kansas lawmakers admitting the DNC rigged the race for the Democratic nomination in favor of Clinton.
“If you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interests,” Obama said months later, without a hint of irony, during a speech in Milan.
At the “inaugural summit” of the Obama Foundation in Chicago last October, he addressed such celebrities as Lin-Manuel Miranda, statesmen like Prince Harry, philanthropists, artists and entrepreneurs who had gathered for what the former president called a “big brainstorming session” and a “big hackathon.”
“Our goal is not to present some fixed theory of how change happens,” he elaborated. “In a way, we want to learn from you as much as you want to hear what we’ve learned.”
Plans for his foundation include the construction of a modernist stone tower on Chicago’s South Side, with a significant portion of the design rolling under the ground of Jackson Park, at a revised cost of $350 million. Earlier this year, an amended plan was unveiled in response to community concerns.
The foundation’s website says its mission is to “inspire and empower people to change their world. From leaders who are already making an impact, to people who are interested in becoming more involved, but don’t know where to start, our goal is to make our programs accessible to anyone, anywhere. We’ll equip civic innovators, young leaders, and everyday citizens with the skills and tools they need to create change in their communities. It’s a big job, and we’re just getting started. Learn about our first set of projects and join us in this experiment in citizenship for the 21st century.”
The fact that it sounds more aspirational than practical might stem from Obama’s own rhetoric. “I have confidence in giving young people the ability to make decisions in their own organizations,” he told Prince Harry. “Get them the tools to go out there and change the world.” By what mechanism he aims to do that remains unclear. Perhaps that’s where the “experiment” aspect comes in, perhaps not. Either way, as Obama 2.0 powers up, beware of underestimating the former president.