Don't call him a lame duck. Barack Obama is running free.
He’s so close to slipping the bonds of the US presidency and returning to life as a private citizen. The last major task on his plate is helping Hillary Clinton get elected to succeed him — and doing what he can to give her Democratic majorities in Congress so that she can actually get things done.
And along the way, he’s letting himself cut loose against not just Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but also the party that nominated him — and that frequently has stymied Obama’s own plans.
In the process, the president has become one of Clinton’s most reliable attack dogs, rivaling even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). His rant at a Democratic fundraiser on Sunday about Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, as reported by CNN, might be Obama’s fieriest yet:
The President said Issa had always been friendly to him -- during the annual White House Christmas party. Obama said some GOP lawmakers tell him they're "praying for you" during the holiday party photo-line.
"I don't question the sincerity they are praying for me," Obama said, before mimicking their prayer: "Please change this man from the socialist Muslim."
"I'm sure it's more sincere than that," he conceded.
Obama and Issa have something of a history. Issa was one of Obama’s most visible House opponents as chair of the Oversight Committee. But he’s now sending out mailers hyping his relationship with the president as he tries to save his seat in 2016. Obama, suffice to say, is not impressed:
"This is now a guy who because (Donald) Trump's poll numbers are bad has sent of brochures with my picture on them touting his cooperation on issues with me," Obama said. "That is the definition of chutzpah. Here's a guy who called my administration perhaps the most corrupt in history." [...]
"Beyond these interpersonal conversations, this is not somebody who is serious about working on problems."
It is not just Issa. Obama has a lot of pent-up frustration with congressional Republicans, who’ve stymied his agenda and repeatedly brought the federal government to the verge of (or all the way to) shutdown. He’s now having a lot of fun tying them to Donald Trump — in the hopes that as Trump sinks, they’ll be sunk with him:
“The things you're hearing Trump say, they're said on floor of the House all the time. The Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives are repeatedly promoting crazy conspiracy theories and demonizing opponents," Obama said. [...] "Donald Trump didn't build that. He just slapped his name on it and took credit for it."
Obama is basically conceding that Hillary Clinton was right in 2008
This isn’t a matter of Obama getting caught unguarded during a private event; the “Trump didn’t build that” line is part of the stump speech he’s developed while campaigning for Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Democrats in 2016.
Generally, Obama has used campaign season to vent his partisan frustrations and unleash his snarkier side. As early as 2010, during the first midterm election of his presidency (and when Democrats still held the majority in both houses of Congress), he joked that Republicans had driven the economy into a ditch and then, while Democrats labored to push it back onto the road, sat back “sipping on a Slurpee.”
But this was not at all the way Obama thought his presidency was going to go. One of the hallmarks of his political philosophy, going back to his Senate run in 2004, has been a belief in transcending partisanship for the sake of statesmanship.
It was one of his biggest disagreements with Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary. Clinton and her campaign implied that Obama was simply being naive in assuming he could effortlessly reach across the aisle, and that it would take the cold-eyed, combative realism of a Clinton administration to hammer through results. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd famously called him “Obambi.”
Obama won the primary, but Clinton won the argument. Congressional Republicans’ implacable obstruction of Obama during his first term — which started with a party-line vote on what the White House imagined to be a no-brainer stimulus package — demonstrated to much of the public that Obama’s cool, reasonable demeanor wasn’t enough to overcome partisan animosity.
“Perhaps we were naive,” Obama adviser David Axelrod admitted to the New York Times’s Peter Baker in 2010. “He believed that in the midst of a crisis you could find partners on the other side of the aisle to help deal with it. I don’t think anyone here expected the degree of partisanship that we confronted.”
Obama isn’t exactly going around admitting that he was wrong about partisanship and Clinton was right — in interviews as late as this year, he maintained that he was no more cynical than he’d been when he entered the White House. But he’s started acknowledging the factors — structural as well as interpersonal — that make compromise such an unappealing option for politicians of both parties. He’s still annoyed that this is the way it is (in fact, this is likely one of the reasons Obama’s expected to get involved in an anti-gerrymandering effort after leaving office), but he accepts it.
Clinton, at points throughout her campaign, has made a point of reaching out to reasonable Republicans and distinguishing Trump from the rest of his party. Obama is under no such compunctions of civility. Getting his former rival elected to succeed him is to remind the public, snarkily, that she was right the first time.