Why is this man smiling?
President Barack Obama’s chosen successor suffered a devastating loss last week to a man who made a primary campaign issue of Obama’s “disastrous” management of the country. The Democratic Party is in a shambles, outnumbered in state legislatures, governors’ mansions, the House and the Senate. Conservative control of the Supreme Court seems likely for another generation. Obama’s legacy is in tatters, as his trade policy, his foreign policy and his beloved Obamacare are set to be dismantled.
And yet when Obama entered the White House briefing room for a post-election news conference Monday afternoon, everything was, if not awesome, then pretty darned good.
“We are indisputably in a stronger position today than we were when I came in eight years ago,” he began. “Jobs have been growing for 73 straight months, incomes are rising, poverty is falling, the uninsured rate is at the lowest level on record, carbon emissions have come down without impinging on our growth… .”
The happy talk kept coming:
“Unemployment rate is as low as it has been in eight, nine years, incomes and wages have both gone up over the last year faster than they have in a decade or two. … The financial systems are stable. The stock market is hovering around its all-time high and 401(k)s have been restored. The housing market has recovered. … We’re seeing significant progress in Iraq … Our alliances are in strong shape. … And gas is two bucks a gallon.”
It’s all true enough.
But Obama’s post-election remarks seemed utterly at odds with the national mood. Half the country is exultant because Donald Trump has promised to undo everything Obama has done over the past eight years. The other half of the country is alarmed that a new age of bigotry and inwardness has seized the country. And here’s the outgoing president, reciting what a fine job he has done.
This has been Obama’s pattern. At times when passion is called for, he’s cerebral and philosophical and taking the long view – so long that it frustrates those living in the present. A week after an election has left his supporters reeling, Obama’s focus seemed to be squarely on his own legacy.
He didn’t mention Hillary Clinton’s name once in his news conference, and he went out of his way to praise Trump. On a day when the country was digesting the news that Trump has named as his top White House strategist Stephen Bannon, a man who has boasted of his ties to the racist “alt-right,” Obama was generous to the “carnival barker” who led the campaign questioning his American birth.
Obama noted the president-elect’s “gifts that obviously allowed him to execute one of the biggest political upsets in history.” He praised Trump as “gregarious” and “pragmatic,” a man who favors “a vigorous debate” and was “impressive” during the campaign.
“That connection that he was able to make with his supporters,” Obama said, was “powerful stuff.”
Obama’s above-the-fray response to the election result may be that of a man who believes his approach will be vindicated by history. It may well be, but that is of little comfort now.
As Obama retires to a life of speaking fees and good works, he sounded less concerned about what will happen next than with what he had achieved – including a mention, for those who forgot, that he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
He took a bow for his “smartest, hardest-working” staff, his “good decisions” and the absence of “significant scandal” during his tenure. And he speculated that Trump would ultimately find it wise to leave intact the key achievements of his administration: Obamacare, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, trade and immigration.
The deep disenchantment among white, blue-collar voters that propelled Trump won only a passing mention. “Obviously there are people out there who are feeling deeply disaffected,” the president said with his cool detachment.
In an election this close – Clinton, let’s not forget, won the popular vote – any factor could have made the difference: being a candidate of the establishment in a time of change, resistance to a woman as president and backlash against the first black president, and FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute intervention in the election.
But millions of Americans are justifiably anxious about their economic well-being. And if Clinton and Obama had limited the build-on-success theme during the campaign in favor of a more populist vision and policies, they really would have had something to smile about this week.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.