Obama and the Promised Land: Picking Up the Pieces

By Jamie Stiehm

November 18, 2020 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Tall and strikingly handsome, he's the coolest guy in the Situation Room, on the dance floor and on the planet. His blockbuster memoir is out, "A Promised Land."

His name is Barack Obama. My blue world loves him. There's no question I'd fall under the beam if I met the man. But you tell me, are we living in a promised land?

Obama is a man of reason in unreasonable times.

The pandemic's fourth season, winter, is on the way. We are hurting, a nation living in a divided house. The White House door was left unlocked for Donald Trump to steal in, four years ago.

There were things President Obama didn't do — things that opened the door to where we are now, one of history's harshest "crisis" chapters ever. Only the Civil War and the Great Depression were worse.

First, Obama did not stand up to Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, on two counts of presidential power. He failed to resist McConnell's blatant refusal to fill a Supreme Court seat in 2016, when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.

Obama let the year go by with that seat vacant when he had a strong nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

When you're president, you don't let the Senate majority leader get away with such bluff and stuff. You use your greater power to coerce cooperation. You say what would happen to Kentucky. You channel Lyndon B. Johnson's chops. But Obama's style is cool and detached, and he backed off, just as McConnell bet he would.

Politics ain't beanbag, as they say.

As a result of Obama's silent surrender on the court, McConnell became emboldened. When the president pressed him and other congressional leaders to issue a bipartisan warning to the American people about Russian hacking before the 2016 election, McConnell turned him down flat. Even though the CIA made the finding. Sly as a fox, McConnell felt there was no price to pay in crossing Obama.

In both cases, Obama shrugged as if to say, "Hillary's going to win, anyway." So, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and former spy for the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency, sought to influence the election for Trump. Obama told Putin to cut it out.

Former first lady, Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was favored to win against a rough and raging novice, Donald Trump. How could she lose, with the president's blessing and speeches by her side? All signs said she was the front-runner and likely the first female president.

There's the rub. Obama did not get out and campaign that much for his chosen successor. Like the Sherlock Holmes dog that didn't bark, he let it go. He neglected guarding and burnishing his own legacy, which the best presidents preserve for the long run.

Here in Washington, it's whispered on the underground that Obama's a brilliant campaigner, but only for himself. He's a solo artist, an American prose poet who sat by Abraham Lincoln's portrait in a "60 Minutes" interview.

Whoa, Nellie.

In 2016, turnout was low in Midwestern cities where Obama could have energized Democratic voters. But no, not to be. Obama was more generous campaigning for President-elect Joe Biden in this cycle, which we found good to see. He learned a bitter lesson about overconfidence.

Finally, Obama failed to rein in his FBI director, James Comey, when he hurt Clinton for no reason — twice. He didn't fire Comey, a Republican rogue director, for making public statements about Clinton's emails when investigations went nowhere. Clinton's poll numbers sank.

You may ask yourself: Why did Obama hire a Republican who ran amok? Perhaps he fell for Comey's piety. Obama enjoys philosophy. They could rise above the political fray together, strolling on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But the president must be in the political fray. He ought to win big close votes on the House and Senate floors, even if he haggles in shouting matches. President Bill Clinton delved into details, trading favors. He won the big ones. Obama lost on close immigration and gun control bills.

When Trump came in, he set fire to many of Obama's good works and important treaties. If only he'll leave us in peace to pick up pieces — of the promised land.

Jamie Stiehm writes on Washington politics and history. She may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

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