Ex-President Barack Obama emerged from his wealthy isolation the other day to provide South Africa with his colorized view of the world and to discuss the dangers of populism in some unidentified countries..
We’ll have to wait more months for the bound wisdom of his memoirs that helped make him so wealthy. But Obama’s leennggtthhy speech to an adoring crowd in a chilly soccer stadium marking Nelson Mandela’s centennial gives those who care a peek into the evolution of America’s newest elder statesman.
After finishing eight years as president and nearly two now paying for his own housing, Obama is still not yet 57, only a year older than his predecessor when he started his two terms.
So, Obama can’t really be called an elder. But not really qualifying by age or experience has never bothered him before. Why should it now?
In that sense, despite their 15-year age difference, Obama and Donald Trump are really quite similar. Neither was qualified by experience for the Oval Office. In fairness, who ever is, except maybe Dwight Eisenhower?
Neither Obama nor Trump has a limited opinion of himself. Neither minds sharing his observations, whether you asked or not. Neither is shy playing to his crowds. Neither is immune to an affliction called tone-deaf. And neither is capable of publicly apologizing.
Remember Obama speeches? It seems like years already, doesn’t it? They’re meticulously organized and chronological, almost like a lawyer wrote them. Oh, wait. He did.
Both men use teleprompters. Trump’s remarks still can sound more like stream of consciousness. When Obama has points to make, he’s going to make them.
Remember his 2008 appearance standing in a rodeo arena ankle-deep in dirt and other material? The crowd had come for some bronco-busting. But the Chicago community organizer treated it to policy points from his script.
Or the 2012 campaign rally in a Roanoke plaza where audience members wilted like arugula in the sweltering heat. Did the president wrap it up to provide blessed relief? No, Obama offered advice on how to stand without locking knees while he completed his entire prepared remarks.
Obama’s South Africa speech was a tour du monde, almost 9,000 words, twice a usual State of the Union. Well-organized, at times eloquent, hitting on familiar themes, stricken with many convenient elucidations and, of course, cleansed of past mistakes.
Recall the trouble Obama got into in April 2008 for telling wealthy San Francisco donors how pathetic small-town Pennsylvanians confront social change:
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama in Johannesburg:
“Challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements — which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests.”
“These movements,” he continued, “tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores; fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”
Without mentioning the T-word, Obama also observed:
“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up … We see it in internet-driven fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.”
As everyone surely remembers, the Obama years had no scandals whatsoever, no Benghazi and definitely no serial lies about al Qaeda being on the run, guaranteed health insurance savings and keeping your doctor.
Obama, who warned that his wealthy 2012 GOP opponent wanted to reignite the Cold War, now bemoans the eruption of “politics of fear and resentment…on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago….Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly….those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
Some presidents even end-run legislatures with unconstitutional executive orders and international nuclear pacts.
But the Democrat has some solutions for all that. “We have to acknowledge,” he said, “that there is disorientation that comes from rapid change and modernization, and the fact that the world has shrunk, and we’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened.”
Thank goodness, Obama’s vice president never told black campaign crowds that Republicans want to put them back in chains.