Obama Inserts Himself Into 2016 Race
Joe Biden may have decided to stay out of the 2016 presidential race, but President Obama has jumped in.
He can’t help himself. He has the job. A crowd of Republicans wants his job, and he finds their ideas “shameful,” “offensive,” and their rhetoric “posturing.”
Barack Obama may be cool about facing down the Islamic State, but he let off plenty of steam this week when talking about conservatives who say they would exterminate jihadists with bigger bombs and U.S. combat troops, out-negotiate Russian President Vladimir Putin, and keep America safer by closing its borders to Muslim refugees.
“These are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there,” the president said during remarks in Manila, Philippines, site of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. “But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion.”
Without naming the competitors for his job, Obama unleashed his ire, voiced in Turkey and again in the Philippines, at remarks made this week by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
He said the urgency to keep Syrian refugees, including children, out of the United States, and assertions that Christian migrants deserve preferential asylum were crass plays for conservative votes (although polls indicate Americans want to go slow on admitting Syrian refugees). Obama described the debate at home as politically motivated and tantamount to recruitment posters for ISIS, also known as ISIL or Daesh.
“That feeds the ISIL narrative,” he protested.
The president, who is half a world away from the White House, and from Paris, where 129 people were slaughtered by terrorists Friday, could barely contain his defensiveness in response to the questions posed by White House correspondents traveling with him. Assailed by Republican candidates as a rudderless president who is stubbornly unwilling to reassess the administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS, Obama shed his no-drama façade and punched back.
“They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns,” he said for the second time in two days. “And it’s irresponsible. And it’s contrary to who we are. And it needs to stop, because the world is watching.”
The president has also argued from time to time that he’s too busy with significant issues of governance, such as ratifying an international trade pact, finding a diplomatic solution to war in Syria, and locking in global climate change commitments, to focus on the 2016 race.
It’s a fiction, of course. At the end of second terms, almost all modern presidents trot out versions of the same mythology: They are ready to give up the competition and become ex-politicians.
President George W. Bush, at a comparable point in his second term, was refreshingly candid. “I’m going to miss the campaigning,” he told reporters. “I like campaigning. And if somebody ever says they don’t like campaigning, they’re not telling you – either that, or they’re a lousy candidate. I mean it’s fun; I enjoy it. I enjoy the crowds. I enjoy the noise. I enjoy giving that message. I enjoy the competition. And yes, I’m going to miss it.”
Obama, whose legacy is still in draft form, and who remains a gifted campaigner for himself, is struggling with that script. Feeling he knows the job best, he is clearly torn about handing it off, and leaving the competition of ideas to others. At the White House, he publicly jokes about “his” house, “his” food, and “my” Oval Office antiques. Heading into his eighth year, the “people’s house” is where Barack Obama exists.
During a recent interview for GQ magazine, sports columnist and author Bill Simmons asked Obama if he’s prepared to be an ex-president. Because it’s a familiar question, the president had a practiced reply. “Not as much as Michelle, but certainly ready,” he said.
But in the same interview, Obama put himself in the 2016 frame. “I would’ve enjoyed campaigning against Trump. That would’ve been fun,” he added. (Hillary Clinton has expressed similar relish.)
Clearly, Obama is not a disinterested observer disconnected from a high-stakes contest. In his mind, if he could run again, voters would keep him where he is. And there is a part of Obama that wouldn’t mind staying.
“I actually think I’m a pretty good president,” Obama said a few months ago. “I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t.”