What comes with a new administration is an inaugural speech and a State of the Union address, in which, relieved of the baggage of campaign promises, the new president announces what his (or, someday, her) plans really are. The outgoing president gets a last ride in a limo on the public dime, and then gets to listen to his successor indicate promise the moon. What he doesn’t do is to butt in; his job is silence.
The only significant exceptions to this rule have been in the farewell addresses delivered by George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both men had specific objects in mind. Washington wanted to warn the country of the perils of entangling alliances abroad, which was good advice in the 1790s and is even more to the point today, though it is we now who entangle others. Eisenhower wanted to alert us to a more insidious menace, the rise of the military-industrial complex, for which his own administration had been largely responsible. Ike didn’t exactly blame himself, but he did make the rueful point that presidents not only don’t do exactly what they’d like to, but sometimes the very opposite.
Washington and Eisenhower occupied unique positions among our presidents; one had won the war that established American democracy, and the other the one that had preserved it. Their fellow-countrymen were willing to give them a final hearing, and both of them had something serious to say.
Barack Obama hasn’t come close to winning any wars, although he will go down as the first president to have waged them from the first day of his term to the last. It isn’t that we haven’t heard enough of his lectures, either. Governing by lecture seems to have been his fundamental approach to the job. But he has chosen to give us a final one anyway, and you’ll already have been able to hear it by the time you read this, at least if you cared to. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what will be in it, and it won’t include any of Eisenhower’s implicit mea culpa. If Obama really wanted to tell the tale of the past eight years, though, it would probably have gone like this:
My fellow Americans, folks I mean.
Who among us would have dreamt I could turn a mandate into a nightmare in eight short years? When we swept to victory in 2008, not only was I elected as the first African American president in history—heck, the first minority president of any kind—but the Democratic Party had airtight majorities in both houses of Congress. The Republicans were so flummoxed after the Bush years that they themselves didn’t expect to recover for a generation, if ever. It was our time to roll! Teddy Kennedy personally anointed me the heir to Camelot, and the Europeans were so happy about me that they gave me a Nobel Peace Prize for doubling down on the war in Afghanistan.
Well, you know how it went. I gave the Republicans mouth to mouth resuscitation and, as I was just saying the other day to George Stephanopoulos, if you don’t give me credit for creating the Tea Party, what justice is there? I staggered so badly through a year of legislative ineptitude over health care reform—after borrowing the Republican plan hatched by the Heritage Foundation and already slapped up in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney—that it wound up a wet kiss to the hospital giants and Big Pharma. With all that, I got not a single GOP vote when Obamacare passed: at least they call it that, though it was Nancy Pelosi who bailed me out when I couldn’t even deliver my own party. So it should really be Pelosicare, but Nancy wouldn’t think of taking credit for the mess I’d made. That’s how I came to own a boondoggle that gave the medical-industrial complex a huge new profit center at taxpayer expense while raising everybody’s rates to pay for those lifesaving, $100,000-a-pop wonder drugs and killing single payer health care for another generation. Our just reward? Giving the Republicans control of the House again in 2010 (sorry, Nancy), and the Senate in 2014—twenty years ahead of schedule!
Of course, it’s not as if I didn’t have plenty of other stuff on my plate. I inherited an economy in freefall, shedding jobs at the rate of 600,000 a month. They misnomered it the Great Recession instead of calling it what it was, Great Depression II. And, just as the Republicans (bless their greedy, wicked hearts) never gave me a vote for their own health care bill , so they’ve never thanked me, not publicly anyway, for bailing out the banks and insurers and the big corporations like GM that had turned themselves into fronts for financial scamming. No thanks, either, for letting banks recapitalize themselves on the backs of millions of home foreclosures, or for making Wall Street more obscenely profitable than ever while I tooled along a “recovery” that provided jobs for slinging hash as the robots and the wage slaves in Bangladesh took over the work that used to pay at least a halfway decent living. Do I get credit, either, for the fact that the national minimum wage is still exactly what it was the day I took office, $7.25 an hour, even if some municipalities have gone crazy and tried to offer $15? Not a bit of it! Or that I’ve frozen Social Security hikes three times and barely tossed anyone a dime in between, so that the purchasing value of your retirement check from the U.S. Gov—you know, the racket you’ve paid into your entire working life through the most regressive tax that ever got on the books—has declined 22% since 2000? But then, how could have I have been the savior of the 1% if they’d truly hailed me as their Redeemer? Some good works—great ones, even!—can’t get the nod.
What I’m really proud of, though, is that not a single bankster has ever done the perp walk on my watch. You remember how even the sainted Reagan sent the Keating Five to jail after the small potatoes of the Savings and Loan scandal in the 1980s? That was tokenism at its finest, but I improved on it! No jail time for anyone, fatter bonuses than ever, and only corporate “fines” that hardly dented the balance sheet and came out of shareholders’ pockets anyway. No actual finance reform, just that toothless Dodd-Frank, no oversight for financial reserves or derivatives or bundling . . . Nada! Do you think McCain or Romney could have done a better job? But, no, all they do is gripe at me for not getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership through.
Speaking of nonaccountability, how about the way I let the Bush gang off the hook for sleeping at the switch on 9/11, lying us into the Iraq War that collapsed the whole Middle East, and legalizing torture by Justice Department memo? Then I took Superhawk Hillary on as Secretary of State and Bush’s own Defense Secretary, that Bob Gates, so I could continue the grand tradition of the Permanent War that George Orwell preached to us in 1984. Sorry about that, Ike: blessed are the peacemakers, but thrice-blessed are they who clip their coupons from General Dynamics or Lockheed or Raytheon.
But what, you may ask, is the true essence of my legacy, my most historic accomplishment? Well, you might say, what about letting the Walmart heirs, the Koch brothers, and a few other favored families accumulate more assets than half the U.S. population combined? Or, how about letting eight years of near-zero interest rates go by without a single significant infrastructure project, so that our gas lines explode and our roads crater and our bridges collapse while we build highways in Afghanistan for the Taliban to blow up? Or, gutting public education through Common Core and charter schools; or, finishing off the last of the unions . . . really, the list is too long.
I’m proudest of all, though, of this: I inherited a monstrous surveillance state that, under cover of 9/11, had expanded to spy on every American (Cabinet members not excluded, chuckle!), and . . . I built it bigger than ever. When guys like John Kyriakou tried to blow the whistle about it, I jailed them under an espionage act from World War I. Creative use of law, huh? And as for that character Ed Snowden—if I were a Tweeting Man, I’d say really BAD—I hope his Russian’s coming along, because he’s gonna be the Kremlin’s guest for many long nights to come.
So, that took care of the Fourth Amendment, or what George W. had left of it. Then I got to work on the Fifth and Sixth, condemning assorted bad guys to Death by Drone on my famous Terror Tuesdays, U.S. citizens included. No trial, no error—right? When some of those legal carpers complained about due process, facing charges and confronting accusers, all that Founding Fathers folderol, I just trotted out Eric Holder—you remember him, Attorney General?—to explain how condemning folks behind closed doors on the basis of intelligence hearsay is just as due a process as that old-fashioned trial by jury stuff. How about that for a legacy? Presidents can kill you.
I have to say this much for my successor. When he breaks the law, he doesn’t know what he’s doing because he knows nothing about it. But I’m the guy who taught constitutional law, and I knew exactly what I was doing every step of the way.
That’s what you get for electing a lawyer your president.
Good luck with the businessman.