While you won’t see former president Barack Obama appearing at any town halls or any public events as the Democrats seek to oust Donald Trump from the White House, you can, if you can afford it, see him in a series of rooms – ballrooms, conference rooms, small theaters – talking to donors about what he thinks everyone else is doing wrong. His exasperation has found several targets at these private events, from the young activists he accused of just being mad online to the old white men running for office he accused of “not getting out of the way”.
At this latest event in Singapore, Obama announced that women were “indisputably” better leaders than men. If the whole world was run by women, Obama speculated, “you would see a significant improvement across the board on … living standards and outcomes”.
While potentially opening himself up to a million hate tweets by Hillary Clinton supporters still upset about 2008 and 2016, the comments seem pointed at one old white man in particular: Bernie Sanders.
There are two old white men in running for the nomination: Sanders and his good ole pal best bud forever, Joe Biden. The billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer don’t count here because I’m not convinced they’re not both Spider-Man villains. And while Obama’s withholding of an official endorsement for his former vice-president does seem pointed, the more likely target of his continued frustration is Sanders.
Just last month, it was reported by Politico that Obama had privately spoken about the Vermont senator seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, saying that while he is mostly taking a hands off approach to the primary, if Sanders started to win he would “speak up to stop him”.
It’s not clear what Obama’s interference could do that the media’s strange silence about Sanders’s campaign hasn’t already done. The mass media has been avoiding using Sanders’s name like they’re trying to avoid summoning Beetlejuice. But Obama’s hostility is understandable, given that Sanders is the candidate most outspoken about putting a stop to the great neoliberal experiment that privatized all services, hollowed out the middle class and removed most social welfare safety nets, an experiment Obama was an enthusiastic facilitator of. This isn’t the first verbal subtweet the former president has made, insisting earlier this year that the electorate didn’t want revolution – which is I guess how someone like him sees a project like nationalized health insurance – only “improvement”.
What makes this latest statement even odder is that there is no clear candidate he could be supporting with his championing of women leaders. Elizabeth Warren is the highest woman in the polls, but his administration was excessively antagonistic toward her back when she was pushing for them to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It’s unlikely a lovefest will develop between the two now.
Maybe it was just vague virtue signalling and scoring easy points with centrist feminists? Just another bland platitude they can slap on a T-shirt and sell on Etsy? It would be boring to list all of the women leaders who would immediately disprove Obama’s claims about women leaders. Margaret Thatcher! Imelda Marcos! We gave Aung San Suu Kyi both a Nobel peace prize and a whole U2 song about her and even that couldn’t keep her from committing crimes against humanity. It’s almost – almost – like the real problem here is power and its morally corrupting qualities and not who is doing the wielding of it.
The Obama legacy is still in flux. He exited the White House with a rosy glow, and in the early days of the Trump administration, one could easily look back at the Obama administration with a nostalgic longing for its dignity, its lack of scandal and its “good” taste.
But as the offenses of the Trump administration mounted, from highly visible mass deportations to the Muslim ban to military interventions overseas, more and more people started to notice many of these policy positions were either started or continued by the Obamas.
Michelle Obama recently announced that she can be friends with the former president George W Bush because “our values are the same”. People were outraged, but if you compare administrations, you start to see what those values they share truly are. They both valued waging war in foreign countries and supporting the removal of their leaders. They both valued prosecuting government whistleblowers and conducting massive surveillance against its own people. They both valued bailing out and subsidizing banks and corporations over citizens.
Many of the candidates for the Democratic nominee also share these values, from Pete “Definitely Not CIA” Buttigieg to Amy “We Can’t Have Nice Things” Klobuchar to Elizabeth “Good Capitalist” Warren. Of course he’d be maneuvering against the one candidate who values different things, like economic justice and fewer deaths from people who can’t afford their medically necessary insulin.
Or maybe the Obamas just saw on Wikipedia that their net worth is somewhere around $70m, and they’re trying to avoid paying Sanders’s wealth tax. Either way, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who consistently scares the political establishment, and the Obamas can’t stop themselves from showing whose side they’re on.
Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast
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