The Possibilities of Obama’s Last Lap

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U.S. President Barack Obama reacts while greeting members of the audience after speaking at the Chief of Missions Conference at the State Department in Washington
President Barack Obama reacts while greeting members of the audience after speaking at the Chief of Missions Conference at the State Department in Washington.Photo: © Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On Friday March 11, Senator Orrin Hatch appeared before a conservative organization and complained about President Obama’s forthcoming Supreme Court nomination. “The president told me several times he’s going to name a moderate, but I don’t believe him,” said Hatch. “[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man. He probably won’t do that because this appointment is about the election.” Five days later, Obama appointed Garland.

If you have seen past episodes of this program, such as “President Obama Proposes Mitt Romney’s Health-Care Plan,” or “President Obama Proposes John McCain’s Cap-and-Trade Plan,” you know what happens next. Republicans, including Hatch, declared themselves opposed to Garland’s confirmation to the Court this year. The Republican National Committee, circulating talking points to drum up opposition to Garland, noted, “He was viewed as liberal enough by the Obama administration to be considered for attorney general.” Here, laid bare, was the perfectly circular reasoning behind ­Republican opposition to anything Obama supports: The fact that Garland could win the endorsement of so liberal a figure as Obama was itself a disqualification.

And yet the fight over Antonin Scalia’s seat — likely the last major showdown between Obama and the Republican Congress — isn’t exactly a rerun. Substantively, yes, Obama seems destined to lose. The odds that 14 Republican senators join all 46 Democratic ones to break a filibuster and seat Garland in the Court before the election hover around zero. But the time when Republicans could assail Obama with impunity as some kind of radical may be coming to an end; they may now find themselves forced to acknowledge him as a legitimate and even popular president, the spokesman for the country they never acknowledged he could be. Obama’s approval ratings have edged into positive ground, after having been underwater through most of his two terms. Unemployment has fallen below 5 percent, and as employers have finally run short of spare workers to hire off the unemployment line, wages have begun to rise. Perhaps more important, the opposition party, which has heretofore usually confined its bouts of extremism to legislative stalemates, has undergone a very public descent into orange-haired madness. All this suggests the possibility that, in the twilight of his presidency, Obama may finally be occupying the place he has always craved: the center of American politics.

The ideological gestalt of Obama’s fourth quarter has not been broadly understood as centrist. Post-midterms, Obama has given off an air of liberation. He ended more than a half-century of isolating Cuba, negotiated an international climate pact, goofed around with a selfie stick. And yet left-wing opposition to Obama has defined itself more prominently than at any time before. Three new books prosecute the Obama administration from the left: Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank; Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.; and Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama and the Democrats Let Progressives Down, by Bill Press. The last has a blurb from Bernie Sanders, who has borrowed these themes for his campaign.

Though liberal dismay has stalked Obama from the beginning of his presidency, Sanders has galvanized the dejected, articulating their complaints and nominating himself as their leader. Rather than express generalized disappointment with the president for overcompromising with Republicans and corporations, Sanders has defined a programmatic and philosophical alternative. Obama has always emphasized that his innovations, like state-based health-care exchanges and tougher capital requirements, are fundamentally market-friendly, but the defense barely registered (to liberals or conservatives). Sanders has rendered this idea in vivid Brooklynese. A candidacy that openly calls itself socialist, and that has mobilized a rising generation of Democrats who embrace the term, puts seven years of smearing Obama as a socialist in a whole new light.

In other words, Obama hasn’t so much moved from the center to the left as he has moved the center to the left, redefining it in the process. Some of this shift is political physics. Any president whose eligibility has expired will find some measure of relief from the gravitational pull of partisanship as the opposing party redirects its fire at his successor. As Republicans decide that Hillary Clinton is the new Worst Thing Ever, they are inevitably softening the edges of their anti-Obamaism. Neither of the last two presidents rode off into the sunset, though. George W. Bush left office as a comprehensive failure. Bill Clinton left a legacy of peace and prosperity mixed with personal disgrace, so that his vice-president’s campaign felt compelled to distance itself from him. Even Ronald Reagan had to cope with the fallout from the Iran-contra scandal that exploded in his seventh year.

You can see Obama, having run an administration shockingly free of major scandal, flexing his elder-statesman muscles in subtle, interesting ways. The other day, after rowdy clashes in Chicago led Donald Trump to cancel a planned rally and boisterous protesters chanted “We stopped Trump!,” a sober president pleaded for calm and normalcy. He denounced “vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities, at Americans who don’t look like us or pray like us,” and also “misguided attempts to shut down that speech.” Obama has always urged a more elevated and reasonable politics. Here, as the anger he has diagnosed burst forth in violent, chaotic displays that seemed to threaten the stability of American democracy itself, his critique had new credibility and breadth. And while Obama will certainly serve as a Clinton surrogate in the general election, his comments hinted that he might, at the same time, finally climb out of the partisan maw that has engulfed every public question during his presidency.

Race has always defined the national fissure over Obama, but the racial resentment that drove opposition to him is now chewing up the Republican Party, while the president has displayed a visible comfort with his own racial symbolism. In the first term, Fox Nation turned what was intended to be a low-key visit with African-American entertainers into the race-baiting headline, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” The White House had to release his birth certificate to refute Republican claims he had been secretly born abroad. In 2015, Obama actually visited Kenya, without fearing this would make Americans believe he had been born there. This month, he hosted the cast of Hamilton and held a public rap session. He seems to have realized that white racial resentment has become the Republican Party’s problem, not his.

The Garland nomination will test whether Obama can yield tangible gains from his command of the center. The Democrats’ pressure point is the handful of Republican senators facing reelection in states Obama won twice and who are blocking his flamboyantly moderate nominee. If that position costs them, then Democrats could win back the Senate and confirm Clinton’s nominee (who might be younger and more liberal than Garland). Maybe the Senate leadership will fold and hold hearings. If blue-state Republicans insist that President Trump name the next justice, they will have chosen a bad hill to die on. Either way, Obama’s strategy of reasonableness will have the high ground — and be broadcast by a sophisticated campaign operation he’s built to support Garland.

There is something fitting about the denouement of the Obama presidency. A Republican Party that began his administration with tea partyers in tricorn hats, Glenn Beck chalkboard rages, government shutdowns, and Mitt Romney diatribes against the 47 percent is culminating in meltdown. The contrast between the president and his antagonists is visibly one not just of worldview but of temperament. Reasoned negotiation is the foundation of his political style, stretching back from his time as a Harvard Law ­Review president conciliating between warring right- and left-wing factions. What Republicans have made impossible for most of his presidency may finally come to pass.

*This article appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.