“Please stop smiling,” I politely asked Barack Obama as I passed him in Boston’s airport.
It wasn’t just any smile. It was that infectious, magical grin that helped him deflate the Clinton machine and win the White House as a novice senator, a smile full of charm and promise that we didn’t see all that often after 2008.
No answer was forthcoming since I was only talking to the former president’s glossy image, cuddling with the glamorous Michelle on the cover of People.
But there is something disorienting about seeing Obama look so genuinely blissful, cavorting around the world with celebrities and billionaires, while so many others freak out about his successor.
As TMZ put it Friday, when it published pictures of Obama grinning and golfing at St. Andrews in Scotland: “Barack Obama’s not just on vacation – he’s on the most EPIC vacay, and it’s starting to feel like he’s rubbing it in your face.”
If everything is as dire as Democrats say, if the very Republic is in peril and the leader of the free world is unstable, if President Donald Trump is trying to trample on Obama’s legacy and gut Medicaid and rip up the social safety net, why is Obama acting so jolly and carefree?
Publications have worn out the word “luxe” describing Obama’s new jet-setting, kitesurfing, paddleboarding, golfing, memoir-writing, buckraking life. It is odd to watch the ex-president avoid any direct criticism of Trump while Democratic officials and former Obama advisers tweet and cable-chat all day, every day about Trump being a danger to democracy.
It’s a resistance in search of a leader.
“We’re beyond grief and into disbelief,” David Axelrod, Obama’s old guru, told me. “I feel like a 6-year-old has gotten controls of the 747 and we’re all strapped in our seats hoping either he'll land the plane or somebody else will co-pilot. But meanwhile, we’re just getting jerked around in turbulence on a constant basis here. It is just debilitating.”
While Obama certainly ruffled feathers in Washington as president, it seems like nothing compared to the daily emotional traumas, family soap operas and Byzantine Russian scandal twists and turns gushing out of the Trump White House.
In the latest scorching development, The Washington Post revealed Friday that the Russian ambassador had reported to his superiors in Moscow that Jared Kushner “discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin.” At the rate things are unraveling, Trump may have to pardon his son-in-law to prevent Jared from flipping on him.
It looks like the three happiest guys in a jangled, coarsened, belligerent, riven country are Barack Obama, George W. Bush and John Boehner.
At a recent Texas Rangers game, there was W., playfully photobombing a Fox Sports reporter doing her standup. And at an energy conference in Houston Wednesday, “Drunk-on-Life” Boehner, as Vanity Fair dubs him, gushed, “I wake up every day, drink my morning coffee and say, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.’” The former speaker doesn’t have any smoldering ambitions for higher office, noting contentedly: “I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. I golf. I cut my own grass. I iron my own clothes. And I’m not willing to give all that up to be president.”
Unlike Obama and W., Boehner is willing to speak out about Trump’s know-nothing and hurt-everyone domestic policies, calling them “a complete disaster.”
Axelrod defended 43 and 44 on their reticence, saying it will help if they just emanate optimism and “an alternative message,” as Obama did with a beaming Angela Merkel in Berlin last week. “There is something to be said for having a positive feeling about the larger project of democracy,” Axelrod said.
But will we be OK?
Trump thinks the way to represent America is with a caricature of strength, without understanding it comes across as weakness and boorishness. Even with the weightiest job in the world, he can’t seem to mature beyond the schoolyard bully. Where are you, Melania, anti-bullying spokeswoman and Donald-hand-slapper?
Things have gotten into such dangerous territory with verbal and physical violence that in Montana Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter hours before winning a House seat, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, watched as his security goons roughed up protesters in front of the Turkish Embassy during his recent visit here. And that brings us to Trump’s strange love of dictators.
This is a treacherous spiral, as conservative author Charlie Sykes told The Post, because “every time something like Montana happens, Republicans adjust their standards and put an emphasis on team loyalty. They normalize and accept previously unacceptable behavior.”
Summits are always elaborately choreographed, but never before have allies had pre-emptive plans on how to counteract a U.S. president’s handshake. Trump’s are more like dominance tests than greetings. First Justin Trudeau in Washington and then Emmanuel Macron in Brussels prepared to out-grip him on his patented “I'll-rip-your-shoulder-out-and-show-you-who’s-boss” handshake.
When Trump pushed aside Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, to get in front of the NATO pack in Brussels and then straightened his jacket with primate panache, J.K. Rowling tweeted: “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man.”
Donald Trump is not a tough guy. He’s a faux tough guy. That is not even in the American tradition. All of our famously tough icons, on screen and in life, were able to exude strength without using brute force. And they did it while standing up for people, not smacking them down.