Former President Barack Obama was back in the news last week, finally breaking his polite post-Presidential silence on the great political crisis our nation finds itself facing at this moment of constitutional strange and social disunion: college kids, tweets, and hashtags. This was during the third annual “Obama Foundation Summit” at the Illinois Institute of Technology, just a few miles north of Jackson Park, a historic Chicago greenspace originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and the potential future home — lawsuits pending — of the Obama Presidential Center, shorthanded as the OPC. The Obamas’ choice of location has been controversial along lines familiar to anyone who’s observed or been involved in large-scale urban rehabilitation projects: on the one side, developers and philanthropies promising “investment” and “opportunity” and “economic development”; on the other side, locals and preservationists worrying about gentrification and complaining that promises of economic miracles never seem to involve any substantive community benefits to those who already live and work in the shadow of the future dream.
Obama’s comments about “woke” culture and hashtag activism — “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” the former President said — earned him plaudits from the usual bipartisan rogues’ gallery of middlebrow hacks and political jobbers, although it lacked the apocalyptic tenor that’s come to characterize the public discourse about wokeness’s near-twin, “cancel culture,” in which getting heckled on Twitter is the equivalent of being put in the stocks.
Obama famously scandalized an innocent pre-Trump political media with his tan suit and dad jeans, but there is a certain satirical aptness to his sartorial missteps. For all his many accomplishments, for his meteoric rise from minor politician to the most powerful man in the world, he is at heart precisely the sort of temperamentally suburban dad who worries that “PC culture” has gone too far, enjoys David Brooks, and dispenses guidance-counselor bons mots like “worry more about what you want to do than want to be,” which is awfully rich coming from a guy who became President of the United States at 47 years old.
It’s not surprising that Obama would wade directly into this cooked-up controversy even as he has studiously avoided any but the most oblique critiques of the madman who succeeded him in office, the psychos who run the Senate, and an ever-increasing portion of the federal judiciary. John Quincy Adams famously — albeit apocryphally — said upon leaving his own hemmed-in, Congress-scuttled presidency that “there is nothing more pathetic in life than a former President,” but over the last few decades, the non-office of post-presidency has evolved its own sort of ceremonial role in America’s increasingly ceremonial public life.
Obama as a historical figure feels like something you only glimpse out of the corner of your eye, real but evasive.
Whether in what at least appears to be a genuine commitment to charity in the form of Jimmy Carter, or a frosting of charity glazed hastily over a get-rich-quick edifice of influence peddling like the “Clinton Global Initiative,” the elder statesman ex-president who graciously steps aside for his often-enemy successor is now a stock media figure. I’m old enough to remember how scandalized the press corps was when rumors that departing Clinton officials popped the Ws off White House keyboards for the incoming Bush team — probably false, and in any case a harmless office prank.
I’m sure Obama believes he is simply hewing to tradition by keeping his trap mostly shut about Donald Trump, whom he obviously disdains, although like every other bit of so-called normalcy and comity and bipartisan blah-blah-blah upheld in the face of the grabby, demented lunatic President this restraint is utterly pointless. Whether he is driven from office by impeachment, loses in 2020, or hangs on for another miserable, unpopular term, of course Trump will, upon leaving office, immediately break every single norm of decency and silence to trash the new president and accuse her of satanic sex magic and ritual baby eating. CNN will cover it live, for hours on end.
But quite aside from the unique circumstance that is the very existence of President Trump in this boiling, irradiated timeline, there is something about Obama’s post-presidency that has crystallized an under-remarked aspect of his presidency itself: the uncanny-valley unreality of a too-perfect reproduction. In both his presidency and its afterlife, there was and is something ineffable, a sense that he is always gesturing toward a position that he does not actually occupy, that he is acting rather than being. This accounts, I think, for the frequent feeling of centerlessness that was at the core of those 8 years, the sense of watching the most studied and ingenious performance of an ideal president: measured and calm, oratorically fluent, sensible, faithful, and diplomatic.
Now his post-presidency seems to circle the same artificial star. From boating with goofball billionaire Richard Branson to partnering with Netflix to produce several series of uplifting and socially responsible content, he has created an extremely photogenic version of the expected post-office cashing-in. Meanwhile in Chicago the OPC — a presidential center, by the way; not, emphatically, a mere library (indeed, not really a library at all) — promises to plunk a monolithic piece of gormless contemporary starchitecture in the middle of a High-Line-ized garden landscape, so precisely a parody-pastiche of a Caesarian god-head temple that it threatens to collapse in on itself like a bad effect in a worse sci-fi movie.
I am not sure what any of this means, but I suspect that by even asking what it means I am asking the wrong question. Obama as a historical figure feels like something you only glimpse out of the corner of your eye, real but evasive. He is deeply resistant to meaning, and now that he is no longer president, his person and persona feel even more protean. Like the famous slogans of hope and change, his is an aspirational image that seems paradoxically to lack both any actual aspirant and any real aspiration. What a weird sensation, to watch the man criticize an audience for wanting to be woke, all the while wondering: am I awake, or am I dreaming?