Opinion: Behind the Scenes, Obama Never Left

Former president Barack Obama's new book in a bookstore in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

The publication of Barack Obama’s new memoir was timed to carry the news cycle, regardless of the election’s outcome. The opinions expressed in “A Promised Land”—on America, race, Donald Trump, and so on—are more vivid than anything the Democratic candidate has said in his last year of campaigning.

And so, even after Joe Biden and the press corps have declared him president-elect, he continues to walk in the shadow of his former boss.

That’s intentional. Obama wants it understood that Biden is an avatar for a third Obama term. Now, he can complete the work of “fundamentally transforming America,” as he put it days before the 2008 election. Hillary Clinton was expected to at least protect what she inherited from Obama. But the victory of Trump, who had campaigned on undoing Obama’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives, left the outgoing president with only two options—watch his successor dismantle his legacy or stop him.

The coup is evidence of his choice. The senior U.S. officials, Democratic Party operatives, and media personalities who targeted the Trump circle for four years weren’t simply defending the privileges of the “Deep State.” These are bureaucrats, deputies, and courtiers who would not dare an attempt that bold unless it was OK’d from above.

The purpose of the coup was to block Trump from destroying Obama’s legacy until he could find an opening for him to return.

In a sense, Obama never left. He was the first president in a century to stay in Washington after the end of his term; Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke and couldn’t easily leave the capital. Obama explained that he and the first lady wanted their youngest daughter to graduate from her private high school before they moved on. Their child entered the University of Michigan last fall, but with the 2020 election cycle underway, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party wasn’t going anywhere.

In political circles, it was no secret that Obama had thrown his support behind Kamala Harris. She’s ambitious and appealing and, without any strong ideas or opinions of her own, poses no threat to him. She was Obama’s ideal heir, but primary voters found her fake and unlikeable, and she was out of the race in early December. He’d find a way to restore her, but, in the meantime, needed a horse to ride through the primaries.

His onetime vice president rambled incoherently, dropped lines, and finished fourth in the Iowa race. Nonetheless, in the first week of March, Obama’s establishment pushed out Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren to consolidate support behind Biden. In the age of coronavirus, a politician who was obviously disoriented reflected the state of the country.

A voluntary shut-in was the perfect role model for Americans forced to stay home. And Obama made sure they did.

In April, he told Democratic mayors on a conference call not to reopen their cities until coronavirus testing and monitoring were available nationwide. Shutting down the economic activity of major U.S. cities would put limits on any economic rebound and thereby hamper Trump’s reelection chances. COVID-19 also became the platform for the massive vote-by-mail campaign, which Obama promoted the same month in a succession of tweets that also alerted Democratic voters that his was the hand driving the Biden campaign.

When details of the coup started to seep through the media blockade, Obama played defense. In May, he leaked part of a phone call with Democratic officials in which he expressed dismay that the Justice Department had dropped charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He said that Flynn should be charged with perjury, a recommendation soon picked up by the judge in the Flynn case, who appointed a former prosecutor to make an argument for charging the retired three-star general with perjury.

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