WASHINGTON – In the new Disney animated film “Moana,” the once mighty but now fallen demigod Maui, in the voice of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, sings about his earlier triumphs in hopes of earning admiration:
What can I say except you’re welcome
For the tides, the sun, the sky?
Hey, it’s OK, it’s OK
I’m just an ordinary demi-guy . . .
I lassoed the sun
To stretch the days and bring you fun
Also I harnessed the breeze
To fill your sails and shake your trees
Watching the final days of the Obama administration, one suspects the Hawaiian-born president could empathize with Maui.
Before the election, President Barack Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton by reciting the many achievements of his administration: economic recovery, rebuilt auto industry, 15 million new jobs, less foreign oil, cheap gas, more clean energy, fewer troops overseas, Osama bin Laden dead, agreements on climate change and Iran’s nukes, higher incomes, less poverty, same-sex marriage legalized, millions more insured. “Thanks, Obama!” he said, appropriating the meme his critics used ironically.
But Americans thought the country was on the wrong track, and voters demanded change. They rejected Obama’s handpicked successor in favor of the man who led the campaign challenging Obama’s legitimacy as a natural-born American.
Since the election, Obama has continued, in statements and in a year-end news conference, to recite his achievements. He declared his belief that he could have beaten Donald Trump. Announcing he was following in George Washington’s footsteps, he scheduled a farewell address next week; a promotion for the event on the White House website shows the president and first lady, arm in arm, gazing at the Chicago skyline, where he will give his speech. He’s holding a farewell bash Friday at the White House with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce.
Yet for all Obama’s legacy-burnishing rituals and recitations, Republicans, who now will control Congress and the White House, plan to undo as many of his achievements as they can. On Wednesday, Obama visited Capitol Hill to urge Democrats to be strong in their uphill effort to resist GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare, his signature accomplishment.
For a man who achieved so much, Obama, like Maui, must be wondering where the gratitude is. After nearly 90 minutes with Democrats in what Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York called a “very nostalgic speech,” Obama emerged to face not hosannas but hectoring.
“Mr. President,” bellowed CNN’s Ted Barrett, “do you regret you didn’t work more closely with Republicans when you crafted Obamacare?”
The outgoing president ignored this and other shouted questions, instead posing for photos with congressional pages.
Democrats leaving the meeting said Obama expressed regrets that he didn’t do better selling Obamacare over the past six-plus years. “The president said that, you know, I guess we all could have done a better job of messaging to the American people just exactly what the value of this is to our country,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), a party leader in the House.
Crowley, too, described a nostalgic parting speech. “This was about all the positive changes that have taken place over the last eight years that he’s been a part of,” he said. “The president said in a couple of weeks he’ll be a private citizen. . . . In fact, he said he was envious of us that we’re still in the arena.”
Paradoxically, Democrats are more unified now than ever in defending Obamacare. They are virtually unanimous in opposing GOP plans to repeal the act without a replacement measure.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) called it “political malpractice,” adding, “They’re endangering not just the health care of many people but the lives of people.”
But nary a Democrat used the term “Obamacare,” which Obama himself embraced, and they said the president had few specific ideas for fighting repeal. At a news conference after the meeting, Democratic leaders said little about Obama, keeping their focus on Trump and Republicans’ repeal efforts.
“He [Obama] was very inspiring, uh, telling us – we’re working out our strategy,” said Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader.
Pressed for details of what Obama proposed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi replied that “the president’s message was one of confidence.”
After eight years of achievements, it must vex the president that more aren’t lining up to say “Thanks, Obama.”
But what can he say except “You’re welcome”?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.