He watches from the loftiest perch on the planet. Barack Obama has more than eight months left to his presidency, after seven grueling years of trying, to mixed reviews, to keep the country and the world, from being consumed by crisis. But even as he continues the grind, he has become a spectator as the nation lurches toward choosing his successor.
Only now is he condescending to really engage in the politics that he has disdained for so long. In his trademark self-consciously cool way, he’s starting to participate in a process that has given rise to a Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of a major party. Of course, from his point of view, it doesn’t hurt that it’s the Republican Party that’s in chaos. It’s the one that has been utterly shameless in thwarting his agenda, for philosophical reasons and ones that are not so philosophical, if you get my drift.
So here he was at his most recent news conference, taking on the master showman Trump: “This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.” He’s half-right. It truly is as entertaining as can be. What works, as it always has in modern times, is campaign buffoonery. Substantive issues have little appeal for many, if not most, voters. Trump’s supporters don’t care if he’s caught in a huge mistake or even a lie. A serious discussion about solutions to our glaring problems doesn’t cut it. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who tries to present herself as a policy wonk. Unfortunately for her, she has come across instead as inauthentic or dishonest. She and Trump compete for the highest unfavorability ratings, although Trump still leads in the race to the popularity bottom.
The current president is correct that it’s “not a reality show.” When the two party standard-bearers are regarded as substandard by their fellow Americans, we have a situation that is decidedly unreal.
Right now, it’s Trump who is also sucking up all the attention, as he usually does. What he’s done to the Republican Party has been described as a “hostile takeover.” Those who have run things for a long time are providing plenty of entertainment with their contortions over whether they will decide to stay in now that the Trump barbarian has stormed their gate. House Speaker Paul Ryan has managed to position himself as the voice of reason. He always somehow pulls that off, demonstrating that he’s right up there with Trump as a master of PR. Now that Ryan has in fact painted himself as the conscientious conservative who’s not sure he can even support Trump unless they have a meeting of the minds, Republican Chairman Reince Priebus, the party’s main cat herder, has arranged a physical meeting between the two. There’s plenty of time to create a rationale for papering over their differences, not the least of which is their mutual desire to beat Hillary Clinton.
Even with her Bernie Sanders problem, Hillary has got it pretty easy at the moment. She has plenty of time to mollify the Sanders supporters before Election Day. Of course, in the minds of her detractors, that’s also plenty of time for seriously damaging information to come out about secrets hidden in her emails.
Back to President Obama: He showed his usual low regard for media. Granted, we deserve much of it, but when he says, “What I’m concerned about is the degree to which reporting and information starts emphasizing the spectacle and the circus,” that goes into the thank-you-for-sharing file. It is a spectacle; it is a circus. And as he knows full well, Trump’s supporters don’t want to be confused with facts. Besides, the Obama administration hasn’t always been dedicated to fullest disclosure.
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Barack Obama has eight months left for the prose. As for the campaign, it’s less poetry and more incomprehensible babble.