Taibbi rips Obama a new one

August 15, 2021 • 12:30 pm

You won’t be able to see this article unless you subscribe to Matt Taibbi’s Substack column (some other pieces there are free), but this is certainly worth reading, as it’s the strongest attack I’ve seen by a non-Republican on Obama and his legacy. You can click on the title, but it will just take you an excerpt of his piece—granted, an excerpt worth reading. But it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Taibbi is well acquainted with the doings of Obama, for he reported on the man for Rolling Stone and has been following him closely ever since. And, unlike most of us (well, at least unlike me), he never saw Obama as a lodestar of hope, but spotted him for a grifter from nearly the outset. And this has only been confirmed by Obama’s grasping behavior since he left office.

Click below, and I’ll fill in some of the the rest.

As you probably know, Obama threw himself a fancy 60th birthday party at his mansion on Martha’s Vineyard, inviting a galaxy of stars from both the political and entertainment world.  But then he realized that there was a pandemic on, and his advisors told him to cut back the festivities. And so many people were disinvited. As Taibbi notes:

A former president flying half the world’s celebrities to spend three days in a maskless ring-kissing romp at a $12 million Martha’s Vineyard mansion, at a moment when only a federal eviction ban prevented the outbreak of a national homelessness crisis, was already an all-time “Fuck the Optics” news event, and that was before the curveball. Because of what even the New York Times called “growing concerns” over how gross the mega-party looked, not least for the Joe Biden administration burdened with asking the nation for sober sacrifice while his ex-boss raised the roof with movie stars in tropical shirts, advisers prevailed upon the 44th president to reconsider the bacchanal. But characteristically, hilariously, Obama didn’t cancel his party, he merely uninvited those he considered less important, who happened to be almost entirely his most trusted former aides.

Cast out, the Times said, were “the majority of former Obama administration officials… who generally credit themselves with helping create the Obama legacy,” including former top aide David Axelrod, who’d just called Obama an “apostle of hope” in the Washington Post and sat for a three-hour HBO documentary deep-throat of his ex-boss. Remaining on the list were celeb couples Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, as well as Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, along with Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Questlove, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Don Cheadle, and other Fabulous People, who drank “top shelf liquor,” puffed stogies, and hit the links at the Vineyard Golf Club (membership fee: $350,000). An early report that Pearl Jam had been hired to perform was later refuted. Eddie Vedder would just be there, but not to play.

I have been disturbed by Obama’s efforts to rake in the cash since he became President, an increasingly accepted effort of ex-Presidents. You may argue that he’s entitled to do that, to get a $65 million advance on his book and buy a $12 million mansion on Martha’s Vineyard (the Vineyard, for chrissake!), and charge $400,000 per speech (remember when people criticized Hillary Clinton for charging half of that?). And yes, capitalism allows it all. But compare that to Jimmy Carter, who lives in a modest house, drives a modest car, and, at 96, still hammers nails in houses for Habitat for Humanity. Who do you admire more? Who has lived his principles better?

Not only that, but the people who really helped Obama govern—folks like Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and (apparently) Nancy Pelosi—were disinvited when the guest list was pared, while George Clooney, Tom Hanks, and Chrissy Teigen and John Legend (for chrissakes) were still invited. That is the sign of a man who prizes star power more than his legacy.

But I don’t have a tenth of the knowledge that Taibbi has about Obama’s political machinations, so I’ll just give a few quotes.  Taibbi is particularly disturbed by Obama’s cronyism and cozying up to banks and business, but I won’t get into that. I can’t evaluate his claims, but I put them out there for you to see and judge.

Obviously, getting rich and not giving a shit anymore is the birthright of every American. But this wasn’t supposed to be in the script for Obama, whose remarkable heel turn has been obscured by the Trump years, which incidentally were at least party his fault. The history books and the still-starstruck press will let him skate on this, but they shouldn’t.

Obama was set up to be the greatest of American heroes, but proved to be a common swindler and one of the great political liars of all time — he fooled us all. Moreover, his remarkably vacuous post-presidency is proving true everything Trump said in 2016 about the grasping Washington politicians whose only motives are personal enrichment, and who’d do anything, even attend his wedding, for a buck. Trump’s point was that he, Trump, was already swinishly rich, while politicians have only one thing to sell to get the upper class status they crave: us.

Obama did that. He sold us out, and it’s time to start talking about the role he played in bringing about the hopeless cynical mess that is modern America.

One example of cronyism:

Many Democrats remember vaguely that the early Obama years were a disappointment, but the disappointment has been glazed over by a propaganda point: it wasn’t his fault. Tilting at the windmill of a corrupt Washington establishment, his talk about learning to “disagree without being disagreeable” shattered by viciously obstructionist Republicans and race-baiting Fox audiences, Obama accomplished what he could, which wasn’t much.

The reality is much more grotesque. Obama sold out the instant he moved into the White House, before the likes of Mitch McConnell even had a chance to figure in the picture.

Example: as mentioned here before, Obama as a candidate had run an ad denouncing Louisiana’s Democratic congressman Billy Tauzin for taking a $2 million job at the the drug lobby firm PhRMA right after passing a monster prescription drug handout bill. “That’s an example of the same old game-playing in Washington,” Obama said, in an ad called, Billy. “I don’t want to learn how to play the game better. I want to put an end to the game-playing.”

Immediately after Obama took office — between February 4th and July 22nd of 2009, to be exact — “Billy” became a regular visitor to the White House, visiting an average of once every 15 days. Those meetings culminated in a deal struck between the Obama White House and PhRMA, in which the trade group would donate $150 million to lobby for the passage of Obamacare, and Obama in return would abandon two of his key campaign pledges (among other things): allowing Medicare to negotiate pharmaceutical prices in bulk, and allowing citizens to import cheaper drugs from Canada. Right out of the gate, Obama’s signature bill was built atop the exact slimeball game-playing, with the exact slimeball players, he pledged to avoid.

Every politician breaks promises, but the issue with many of Obama’s long list of reversals was not failure but betrayal, in the most profound and devastating sense of the word. I was relatively a booster of Obama in 2008, but once assigned to cover the financial crisis found myself stunned at choices he made, beginning with the appalling decision to invite still-employed Citigroup officials to run his economic transition. This move led to one of the more breathtakingly corrupt deals in modern presidential history, one the press gave almost a complete pass. I heard about it from a senior Democratic Party official, a great believer in Obama who was flabbergasted by the lack of press attention and still I think hopeful on some level that the King simply didn’t know what was going on at his court.

But wait! There’s more!

I could go on about Obama’s betrayals and broken promises, which included the expansion by the gentle constitutional lawyer of both a brutal drone murder program and a vast illegal surveillance operation, the instantly violated pledge to have no registered lobbyists in the White House (Obama brought former Goldman lobbyist Mark Patterson in to serve as Deputy to Tim Geithner right after inauguration), the ignored promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the waived plan to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and walk with union members in a picket line (he never did this), the decision to make the Bush tax cuts permanent while blowing off promises to lift the payroll tax cap above $250,000 or end the carried interest tax break, the repeated use of the Espionage Act to bully non-compliant reporters and their sources, and so on, and so on.

Just yesterday the Washington Post published an excerpt from a new book about the “baldfaced” deception of December 28, 2014, when Obama furled the green flag of coalition forces in Afghanistan to mark the supposed end of our “combat mission” there, in what he called a “milestone for our country.” This was despite the fact that the Administration never had any intention of leaving Afghanistan, and didn’t, and systematically covered up our failures there.

The approval of drone strikes and the failure to close Gitmo particularly upset me. But I kept my mouth shut.

And I want to show this:

This was before I knew that Obama would immediately start monetizing his name with a battery of $400,000-per-hour speeches to Wall Street, and also before I knew the incredible details of his May, 2016 trip to Flint, Michigan. The city had been plagued by outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Disease and lead poisoning, with children sickened with neurological and behavioral problems, after years of drinking and bathing in poisoned water in as pure an example of sociopathic negligence as we’ve seen in American governance. Flint was true Evremonde politics, the kind of gross mistreatment that inspires revolutions, leaving people with nothing but rage for their injured children.

When Obama came to town, residents of the predominantly black city expected him to ride to the rescue by declaring a federal disaster and sending in FEMA for a cleanup. Instead, he told a story about how he was sure he ate lead paint as a kid (and turned out fine!), then took a micro-sip of Flint water, as if to show how safe it was. When the assembled gasped in horror, he chuckled with annoyance, “This is a feisty crowd tonight!” After, he held a quick presser where he repeated the sipping trick and zipped back to Air Force One in his limo. The scene is as close to pure political evil as you’ll ever see on stage”.

You be the judge about whether this is evil. It’s sure not good “optics”! It does seem slimy. And yes, it is a stunt:

And Taibbi’s ending:

. . . Obama has been ostentatious in his near-total disinterest in the country he left behind, showing almost no public leadership in five of the most difficult years of its history, holstering his legendary communications skills during years of spiraling acrimony and division.

Worse, Obama has now displaced the Clintons as the ultimate example of the modern political profiteer. We now automatically assume Senators and presidents will spend their retirements pursuing every conceivable moneymaking opportunity while living lives of hoggish exclusivity. No more Jimmy Carters living in $167,000 homes, driving 1983 Mercury Capris and volunteering to build houses in between negotiating African peace treaties. The White House is now first and foremost a seat of financial power, its occupant by design an apprentice member of the 1%, who’s expected to accept full entrance into the wealth archipelago upon exit.

Trump won in 2016 because America preferred someone who was already a pig to someone merely on the way to being one. The country didn’t reach that level of cynicism on its own. Disillusionment has a cost, and Barack Obama transforming from symbol of hope and possibility to whatever he is now — to a shallow, conceited, Fat Elvis version of a neoliberal washout — has been a hell of a blow, whether America’s ready to admit it or not.

Now these are Taibbi’s views, not mine, but I have to say that the monetization of Obama’s post-Presidency has irked me a great deal. Every time I walk past his house in Kenwood, which is on my regular walking route, I think about how we all expected him to move back to Chicago, but now he lounges in a mansion on Martha’s Vineyard and schmoozes with movie stars.

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You may also want to read this takedown of Birthdaygate by Maureen Dowd in the NYT, a piece I highlighted yesterday. Click on the screenshot:

h/t: cesar

31 thoughts on “Taibbi rips Obama a new one

  1. He is correct about Obama, no question about it. What he did with Afghanistan was disgusting. And he is all about money. This is my experience, you can rarely trust a lawyer and almost never a politician. He is a reason we got Trump. I am wondering now, what Biden thinks of all of this?

  2. Obama taught me – the hard way – that when a new politician arises talking wonderful sensible policies, we need to take the talk with a huge block of salt and look at his record instead. Even actions as a mere state senator are far more revealing than a pack of speeches. The Fat Elvis of neoliberalism was there for anyone to see, but the media couldn’t be bothered to report it (after al, to them, it’s perfectly normal and proper), and I foolishly couldn’t be bothered to find it.

  3. I never thought of Obama as a hero. Certainly not just for being the first black president. He better deserves being called a hero for surviving birtherism, a presidency in which the other party, politicians and voters, absolutely hated the man, and living through the obvious revenge of Trump being voted into office.

    (Side story. My wife and I leased half a duplex for a year during the Obama administration. Our gay male neighbor from the other half of the duplex asked us to his place for a cocktail party. We were absolutely amazed that he and all his guests were so against Obama, even calling him the devil. None of it was rational. We had to leave. Although I suspected the country was still very racist, I wasn’t sure. This party confirmed it for me. The hatred was brazen and horrifying. Although it’s only one instance, I find it hard to imagine there aren’t lots of people in the country that feel this way.)

    After a presidency in which many people fought against his very existence, and his wife’s, he witnessed the horror that is Trump. Everyone knows that a lot of Trump’s support came from Americans who sought some sort of revenge for being forced to endure a black president for 8 years.

    After all that, I can’t blame Obama for wanting to make a little money and party. A lot of the resentment is racism and sour grapes. As far as slimy deals he may have made, it was probably for the greater good, such as passing Obamacare.

    1. >> Everyone knows that a lot of Trump’s support came from Americans who sought some sort of revenge for being forced to endure a black president for 8 years.

      Does anyone not remember the extreme vicious attacks, the endless memes— Obama-as-monkey, Obama -hangings, and so much more? They started when he was running, increased and never ever stopped. I was actually surprised that there wasn’t an attempt on his life.

  4. Obama comes across very much like former British prime minister Tony Blair. Elected by people believing the rhetoric of hope and change only to be confronted by a different reality, not least the self-enrichment after leaving office. It’s timely to remember Blair’s promise to the people of Afghanistan:

    British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised Afghans that the world will not abandon their country again, saying the international community had learned the high price that is paid for neglect.

    Yeah, right…
    http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/central/01/07/blair.afghanistan/index.html

  5. Clearly both Obama and Bill Clinton are flawed and fall short of our ideals. But this is the fault of our electoral system which will never yield the best person for any public position, and is more likely to elect the worst possible choices. Given that, those two were the best options at the time, and on the whole their administrations did more good than harm.

    One could delve into the muck of any US president in the country’s history and leave equally disillusioned. To wish for, much less expect, heroic and pure leaders is fantasy.

    This is not an argument against democracy, which as someone said is the worst of all systems except for all the others.

  6. First, I can’t really judge the fairness of much of Taibbi’s piece.,

    E.g.: “before I knew the incredible details of his May, 2016 trip to Flint, Michigan.”. Well, wiki says: “January 16 [2016] – President Obama declares a state of emergency in Flint and authorizes $5 million in aid.”

    Second, I don’t begrudge Obama charging the going rate for speeches.

    Third, Obama has made a few, tentative anti-woke and anti-cancel-culture remarks. I’d forgive him all else if he spoke up more on the state of race relations in the US today — he’s in a prime position to do so.

  7. This strikes me as a bit of over-the-top liberal contrarianism — Obama was really just a marginally effective moderate — but Taibbi is a hilarious writer: calling Obama “the Fat Elvis of neoliberalism” is a quip for the ages….

  8. I thought Obama was a good President, not great, not perfect. I also do not begrudge him making money on his speeches and I couldn’t care less about his birthday party. True, the optics really suck, and now the Obamas may well replace the Clintons on the top of the Republican’s “Democrats to Blame for Everything List”. However, there are far more important issues to deal with than this vaunted birthday party. I just can’t bring myself to express outrage, or even faux outrage at this event. It seems to me that in the greater scheme of things, especially considering the number of both catastrophic and tragic current events, this just doesn’t matter.

    1. It seems to me that the birthday party has become the “tan suit” of Obama’s post president years.

  9. i think Obama was not a great president as equipped earlier but a president who worked differently whose leadership was felt far and wide across Africa. making money out of his eloquency, prowess and influence shouldn’t be an issue. everyone makes dime after all there’s Obama foundation in case of giving back to the community and years of organizing he painstakingly did in Chicago and raised the bar of living standards for blacks preaching equity before the law and sponsoring bills that help the poor sick access healthcare. Obama is just an above the average president and not an angel you expected him to be. Never put much expectations on a newcomer in a new territory. just like coming out to be born quickly never helped a premature infant in it’s determination to be out there in world it will still spend the remaining time in the incubator

  10. Ain’t nobody in the punditry business today writes quite like Taibbi in high dudgeon.

    His is a welcome voice, not least of all when it takes sacred cows to slaughter.

    1. HST influence for sure. But I’d say a little too sacrificial. Sometimes need to bunt to the sport’s desk. RD. When’s Taibbi gonna go Gonzo? Probably impossible nowadays. And who wants to be a poser?

  11. Laughing out loud!
    I’ve read this website for years now and Prof Coyne has cultivated and maintains a very civil forum here for its participants. I’ve come to perceive his voice as arbiter and border cop who remains above the fray in an effort to maintain objective accounts and dispassionate analysis. But once in a while, Jerry breaks into some vernacular and it always takes me by surprise and cracks me up. “Taibbi rips Obama a new one” is one such occasion. I’ll call it: Best title of 2021 (thus far)

    1. Our host is big on conjoining the elegant with the demotic, the genteel with the implicitly (and, on occasion, explicitly) profane — a quality I’ve long appreciated in any prose stylist.

  12. I think maybe if I were Obama and the country reacted to my presidency with the TeaParty, Trump and the Proud Boys I might also think “Screw ’em, I’m going to get rich”.

    1. I like this comment, and I’m happy that Obama and his family (as far as I can tell) are healthy and happy. Priceless. Party-on Obamas!

  13. I’ve seen Tony Blair mentioned above (and at least partly criticised), but speaking as a Brit, Tony Blair’s rhetoric delivered hope to millions. After 18 years of a mostly miserable, heartless and unbearably preachy Tory government, it was more than welcome. And given the dark, depressing and xenophobic crap coming from government since Blair, it would be welcome again. Ditto for the optimism and positivity shown by an emerging Obama.

    Blair, just like Obama, delivered legislation that many liberals were appalled with. Worst of all in my opinion, was the phasing out of living allowance grants to students accompanied by the introduction of tuition fees. Before then university education was effectively free – it was open to every youngster with the desire to further their education. University was not simply an investment in one’s future, it was often an intellectual adventure for kids who just wanted to learn and broaden their horizons. Blair’s government destroyed that; university education is now for those who can pay, and/or those happy to become indebted for ten’s of thousands of pounds when they are just starting out.

    I hate Blair et al for that, and for many other things. But I also love many things he did, I especially love the hope and positivity he was able to share with a tired country. I also don’t give a toss about how much money he made after office. My assessment is that Blair did far more good than bad, especially when compared to those that came either side of him! That’s what matters, surely?

    I also don’t care about Obama making millions. Did he ever introduce policies preventing people from maximising their earnings, buying a huge house, or mixing with famous personalities? Did he ban capricious behaviour or enjoyment of the celebrity high life? Hey, those nice people that Obama didn’t invite might have been total jerks to him since he left office, we just don’t know. Either way, it doesn’t mean he is the devil because he retracted their invite!

    None of these earning opportunities appear to be immoral, they don’t even appear unethical to me. Who reading this would deal with things differently? Would you turn down all that money (that the corp might otherwise spend on a gulf-stream jet time share) from a corporate behemoth if it was clearly causing no harm? Would you refuse to speak for $400,000 /hr? What about the many millions in tax dollars that your earnings generate? Why deny the IRS/Inland Revenue? What good is the self-sacrifice then? What’s the point?

    I just do not understand why it matters what top politicians earn after leaving politics. Let them at it, there are VERY few people that would do any different.

    I just don’t get this sort of criticism.

    1. I reasonably assume that Obama’s $400,000 fee somehow gets written off as a business expense, perhaps as a professional education item.

    2. University education was free before Blair because hardly anyone attended university. Blair’s decision to increase the number of university students came at a cost which students must bear but only if their income exceeds a certain amount and after 30 years is written off. This hysteria about indebtedness is just that.

  14. Taibi is usually right and is a great writer but he’s waaaay off base here for many reasons.
    btw – the post-prez get-rich scheme was really started by Reagan after his presidency. His $12M speaking tour of Japan was outrageous then, it has all gotten worse since.
    I don’t begrudge Obama the money, hideous as his party plans are…
    D.A.
    NYC
    ps And Maureen Dowd is a nasty piece of work in any context – a real Mean Girls bitch who is driven by her own machine-like narcissism.

    1. I think MoDo fancies herself heir to Dorothy Parker. In her public persona, she even cultivates a similar faux ditziness.

      She hit her peak in the late Bill & Hillary/early Dubya & Poppy years. Her act has grown increasingly stale since.

  15. One thing I try to remind myself of is when someone is av politician, they are limited by the system they operate in. It means doing shitty deals on one issue to grant a tiny concession on something that matters. Democracies thankfully don’t elect dictators, so the amount any one person can do depends on the willingness and ableness of everyone else working in that system.

    So to that extent, I really don’t think Obama could have done much better than he did, even if I didn’t agree with everything that happened under his presidency. The world’s a messed-up place and the burden of power is heavy. He inherited a financial crisis, two unwinnable wars, and a nation polarised on so many issues that would guarantee anything too radical would be seen as insurrection. I wonder how many of the most doingest-good of the biggest do-gooders would fare better.

  16. “Trump won in 2016 because America preferred someone who was already a pig to someone merely on the way to being one.”

    Ouch!!

  17. I’m surprised to see no mention in the comments about the Obama Presidential Center (not a library) right here in Chicago’s South Side Jackson Park. This edifice will destroy a significant portion of a historic, Olmsted-designed park. Given the multiple alternative vacant locations in the under-resourced South Side, selecting this one is a mark of arrogance.

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