The New York Times did a lengthy piece about Barack Obama this week. I thought, at first, it was just going to be a hype piece about how the former president is getting amped up to campaign for Joe Biden. But it’s about a lot more than that, and it was a lot shadier than I was expecting. The Times goes through Obama’s history with Donald Trump, his opinions on his successor, Obama’s qualms about what to say and when about how awful Trump is, and how Obama doesn’t want to overshadow Biden in any way. You can read the full Times piece here. There were several excerpts I wanted to highlight:
Obama knows he lives in Trump’s head: “There is no model for my kind of post-presidency,” he told the aide. “I’m clearly renting space inside the guy’s head.” The stakes of that re-engagement were always going to be high. Mr. Obama is nothing if not protective of his legacy, especially in the face of Mr. Trump’s many attacks. Yet interviews with more than 50 people in the former president’s orbit portray a conflicted combatant, trying to balance deep anger at his successor with an instinct to refrain from a brawl that he fears may dent his popularity and challenge his place in history.
Obama’s summer plans: Mr. Obama’s head appears to be somewhere in the middle. He is not planning to scrap his summer Vineyard vacation and is still anguishing over the publication date of his long-awaited memoir. But last week he stepped up his nominally indirect criticism of Mr. Trump’s administration — decrying a “shambolic, disorganized, meanspirited approach to governance” during an online Biden fund-raiser.
He hates Trump’s racism: On Thursday, during an invitation-only Zoom fund-raiser, Mr. Obama expressed outrage at the president’s use of “kung flu” and “China virus” to describe the coronavirus. “I don’t want a country in which the president of the United States is actively trying to promote anti-Asian sentiment and thinks it’s funny. I don’t want that. That still shocks and pisses me off,” Mr. Obama said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by a participant in the event.
His advice to Biden: Mr. Obama speaks with the former vice president and top campaign aides frequently, offering suggestions on staffing and messaging. Last month, he bluntly counseled Mr. Biden to keep his speeches brief, interviews crisp and slash the length of his tweets, the better to make the campaign a referendum on Mr. Trump and the economy, according to Democratic officials.
His long-struggling memoir versus Michelle’s Becoming: The process has been a gilded grind. One former White House official who checked in with Mr. Obama in mid-2018 was told the project “was like doing homework.” Another associate, who ran into the former president at an event last year, remarked at how fit he looked. Mr. Obama replied, “Let’s just say my golf game is going a lot better than my book.” It was not especially easy for the former president to look on as his wife’s book, “Becoming,” was published in 2018 and quickly became an international blockbuster. “She had a ghostwriter,” Mr. Obama told a friend who asked about his wife’s speedy work. “I am writing every word myself, and that’s why it’s taking longer.”
The rage-Peloton-er: The former president devours online news, scouring The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlantic sites on his iPad constantly, and keeps to his White House night-owl hours, sending texts and story links to friends between midnight and 2 a.m. Even during the pandemic he does not sleep late, at least on weekdays, and is often on his Peloton bike by 8 a.m., sending off a new round of texts, often about the latest Trump outrage.
Obama shies away from calling Trump racist: Eric Holder has few qualms about calling Mr. Trump a racist in the former president’s presence. Mr. Obama has never contradicted him, but he avoids the term, even in private, preferring a more indirect accusation of “racial demagoguery,” according to several people close to both men.
I think that last part, about Obama being reticent to call Trump a racist is indicative of the larger concerns around Obama right now. He’s so used to being attacked over everything, especially whenever he said anything about race and racism, that he pulls his punches. Michelle does that too. And I get it – we should not expect Mom and Dad to rescue us all the time. We got ourselves into this f–king mess, it’s not Barack Obama’s responsibility to get us out of it. But yeah, he’s being too cautious. I hope he starts rage-tweeting a bit too, come on! That would be fun. And my mind was blown by the fact that he’s told people that Michelle had a ghostwriter!!
Photos courtesy of Backgrid and Avalon Red.