As the Obama family continues to behave with dignity and solicitousness toward the incoming administration, progressives are — understandably! — upset. Where is the president’s righteous anger? Why have he and Michelle pledged to be helpful to a man whose campaign was founded on an attempt to invalidate Obama’s own presidency, and energized by the promise to undo whatever good that presidency has done?
You can read their equanimity as acquiescence if you want, but I suspect it’s actually a product of heightened alarm. The Obamas have realized that expressing personal outrage is a luxury the country can’t afford.
This is not a new reality for them, of course. Since becoming public figures, both Michelle and Barack have carefully navigated the racism embedded in America’s discomfort with black anger. But in the past couple of years, especially in the heat of the 2016 campaign, the man who staked his career on personal restraint gave the world a glimpse of what he might be like behind closed doors — or after a few beers. We saw some righteous anger, and flashes of passion and humanity. He engaged in memes, visited a federal prison, and openly and repeatedly mocked the GOP presidential field. He commuted the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. He literally dropped a mic. More to the point, he gave an extremely candid assessment of Donald Trump’s fitness for office, calling him “insecure” and someone who “doesn’t care much about the basic values that we try to impart to our kids.”
But sometime between November 8 and the Trump family’s gobsmacked tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama (and his wife) discovered some more fucks left to give.
The headlines that came out of that first awkward meeting mostly had to do with Trump’s surprise at the scale of the job and his team’s ignorance of how the whole “transfer of power” thing actually works. But the most significant aspect of Obama’s interaction with Trump was his decision to not just welcome Trump to the White House, but (according to White House sources) actually put himself at Trump’s service. He offered to advise Trump — an offer which Trump has apparently taken him up on. According to both White House and Trump sources, the pair have “been talking regularly.”
Now, who knows how much good that’s done. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, that Trump ran any of his Cabinet appointments by Obama, though it’s also possible Trump’s non-Obama-advised ideas were even worse. (Don King at the Department of Justice?) But the point is, Obama’s relatively conciliatory behavior has kept the line of communication between the two open. If Obama were to express the rage and despair that much of the nation’s progressives feel, do you think Trump would call? And if Trump calls, do you want Obama to pick up, or do you want to experience history’s most cataclysmic version of “New phone, who dis?”
Michelle has explained her family’s grace as another example of “going high,” but it’s not altogether high-minded or selfless. It’s the president using the tools he has available in order to save the country from disaster. It’s an attempt to use Trump’s ego as a lever to move the world, Trump’s ego being the only thing big enough to shift policy over the demands of GOP hard-liners.
I’m unnerved but not surprised about the degree to which Obama’s strategy seems to have worked. Trump has refused to continue to vilify the Obamas; just last week he gave Michelle a pass for saying the nation now knows what it’s like to not feel hope. To me this suggests how horrifyingly responsive he is to mere flattery. After all, if Obama can manipulate Trump into uncritical dependence, there’s no reason why Putin can’t do the same.
Whatever you may think of Obama maintaining an open-door policy to Trump, I think it’s the only play he has. Before you get too upset with him, remember that the rest of us are not so constrained. We have more options: protest and organizing, showing up at town halls and holding journalists accountable. For eight years, liberals could look to the White House for moral guidance. Now we have to look in the mirror. If you’re angry at Obama for not being angry himself, then, by all means, use your anger. Maybe he’s counting on you to do exactly that. “Don’t boo, vote” was Obama’s frequent retort to raucous crowds. I’ve never interpreted that as an attempt to smother anger; it’s an admonition to do more than just be angry.
No one loved no-fucks Obama better than I did. But I don’t wish for his speedy return — that’ll mean the behind-the-scenes strategy has failed. We may yearn for catharsis; we may have to settle for merely avoiding tragedy.