Barack Obama’s first post-presidency public remarks were defined as much by what he didn’t say as what he did. Except by inference — as in when he joked, “So, uh, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” — Obama didn’t really mention Donald Trump let alone attack him.
I suspect that many, like me, wanted much more and are disappointed that he’s holding back — so far — particularly as the country faces the disaster that is Trump’s presidency.
I desperately want Obama to be an action figure — the kind I always had with me as a child, in my pocket or tucked under my pillow — that with the push of a button on its back would scale tall buildings in a single bound or perform precision karate chops. I want Obama to karate chop Trump, if not literally than at least rhetorically.
But Obama is not an action figure, he is a human being — with all of the faults and foibles that usually entails. And while he is a pretty exceptional human being, his biggest handicap as a politician has been his aversion to conflict. He’s not the guy in the tights and cape who’s going to plunge into the inferno.
This guy — certainly the guy we saw today in his first public remarks since office — is the guy who wants to narrate the story, bring together all the characters, solve the tensions and resolve the plot lines and tell us all the moral. If there’s a button on his back, the most it does it cause professorial reflection and self-deprecating jokes.
In the panel discussion with a group of activist students at the University of Chicago, Obama probably did as much listening as talking — and mostly it was an opportunity to highlight the sort of young leaders we rarely hear from in American politics and media. When Obama did speak, he often cracked jokes about his age and talked with glowing admiration about the energy and entrepreneurship of today’s youth.
He did give some hints about his post-presidency agenda, speaking about electoral gerrymandering, the corrupting influence of money in politics and the hyper-politicization of media — in that order. Indeed Obama is part of an initiative, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, to focus on the problem of gerrymandering — especially as Republicans have used it to manipulate elections.
It’s Obama’s stylistic inclination, we know, to take the high road — stay above the fray. Which is all well and good and laudable.
As we confront daily the style of our new president and his lack of basic civility and respectful discourse, it’s helpful to have Obama as a remaining example of what class and dignity and basic mutual respect in politics can look like.
Even his exchanges with a conservative student on the panel, which included some very interesting back and forth about whether campuses have a liberal bias, seemed extra respectful in contrast to what Trump has given us.
And yet this high road is not emotionally gratifying. Where was the karate chop? We live in a combat culture, as evidenced by the pro wrestling-esque melodrama that Trump both created and exploited in the 2016 election. Much though we might tsk, tsk when the other side does it, we all want our side to deliver a punch. That’s just not the kind of politician or person Obama is — that’s just not how he’s built.
If anything, Obama hinted that the young people he spoke with — and the younger generation in general — are the real action figures, the ones with the power and potential to really make change in America.
But he suggested they also aren’t going to get there by gratifying any retributive urges to lash out at Trump. Instead they must carve a new path on that high road, inspiring others toward leadership and solutions. That, especially in the face of Trump’s hollow presidency so far, is clearly the real action we ultimately need.