For the 12th time in 36 years, the winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness has failed to win the Belmont Stakes. But another opportunity also disappeared in the homestretch for California Chrome this year. That was the possibility that for the first time ever, a triple crown-winning horse and its jockey, owners, and trainer might have made a White House Rose Garden appearance.
After the disastrous photo op the president held with the parents of deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, for whom he had traded (without the required notification to Congress) five of the nastiest Guantanamo prisoners to the Taliban (or at least temporarily to Qatar for a bit of safekeeping), the president might have welcomed the chance for some light-hearted celebration at the next Rose Garden event. The country’s sports-fan-in-chief — a job he fills more easily and more capably than commander-in-chief — might have enjoyed the opportunity to shatter the thoroughbred glass ceiling at the White House.
Having the Rangers, Kings, Heat or Spurs for a White House visit (or, in some cases, repeat visit) would be pretty routine at this point. Think, on the other hand, of the diversity celebration that would have been on display with California Chrome’s owners, a trainer named Sherman, a jockey named Espinoza, an African American president, and a dark-horse winning thoroughbred (Lipizzaners would not be so welcome).
No president has inserted himself more into popular-culture venues than Barack Obama. The president now makes a regular interview appearance on Super Bowl Sunday to the nation’s largest annual television audience, offers up his NCAA brackets to CBS broadcasters who treat them as the equivalent of messages from Delphi, shows up regularly for sporting events in the Washington area, and by his own admission watches a lot of games on TV (as well as ESPN’s Sports Center nightly). The president has joked, perhaps wistfully, of his desire to start a career at ESPN after his White house playing days are over.
No administration has been as social-media savvy. And never has an administration cared so much about participating in this new communications environment, with cabinet members and aides regularly tweeting their instant reactions and heartfelt “feelings” about this and that (e.g., “Putin invading Crimea is really not good at all” or “Donald Sterling must go, solidarity with the Clippers”). The president himself has regularly appeared on lowbrow television programs like The View and offered himself or Michelle up for interviews with women’s magazines or People. Press conferences have been rare and, until recently, easy-going affairs with journalists eager not to offend.
Operating amid a cocoon of aides who refuse to challenge him, or offer critical feedback (Valerie Jarrett would have their heads if they did, since this would reflect disloyalty), the president moves from failure to fiasco routinely. We are, after all, speaking of a man who told an exultant audience in Berlin before he even became the nominee of his party in 2008, and then again on victory night in Grant Park in Chicago in November 2008, that the moment of his victory and ascendance to office would be marked as one where the planet started healing, the oceans stopped rising, and all the other problems in the world would just begin to melt away.
It took a while, given the protective cover provided by a compliant media, and the non-stop public relations and journalist-control efforts by the White House, for recognition of the president’s consistent record of failure to set in with the American people. Now, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are regarded in surveys as more competent executives than Obama. The president’s approval ratings in every policy area are underwater. American prestige abroad and the respect for our international role, power, and decision-making have slipped to levels not seen since the Carter administration. Plenty of leaders of other countries were unhappy with George Bush, but they did not mock his weakness or think America’s ability to project power had been consciously downgraded.
The president was never interested in working with the opposition in Congress, since he always regarded those who were not on his side politically as not worth the effort to persuade (after all, he believed he had the mandate and the power to roll over them). The 2010 elections and the loss of the House proved disastrous for the White House agenda as a result. When you use straw men to mock the other major political party, while never talking to them, accepting their input, or showing any interest in compromise, it should come as no surprise when the legislative path becomes stagnant for nearly four years. As a result, the president has resorted to executive actions without the consent of Congress or, at times, in seeming contempt or disregard for the law. The Bergdahl decision fits the pattern, which can also be seen in ignoring statutory deadlines and requirements of Obamacare, bypassing Congress in the environmental area to give greater leeway to the EPA to create new law, abusing his recess appointment power, and making unilateral enforcement decisions on immigration policy .
The loss of the Senate in November, which is at least a 50% likelihood at this point, would make the final two years of an Obama presidency a difficult thing to watch. The president flounders when he has less than complete control over the political process, and his disputes with Congress if he continues to use his rule-making and executive authority to run roughshod will create the potential for a constitutional crisis.
In foreign affairs, the president has more authority to put his stamp on things. All presidents have a degree of narcissism about their achievements and legacy, though none probably greater than Obama, who was ready to authorize carving work for a new face on Mt. Rushmore after giving himself a top grade for his first two years in office (one of the four or five greatest such periods in presidential history, if he did not say so himself). Of course, his party ran Congress without any meaningful opposition in these years, and he and they were able to steamroll both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank into law, whatever their merits.
In foreign policy, it is a good bet that the president will be less restrained in his desire to separate the United States from its long-time close relationship with Israel, which will likely include more frequent and nastier denunciations of the Jewish state, like a good European nation would do out of habit. Legacy building will drive the White House to agree to any nuclear deal with Iran it can get, and hope that the Iranians repay the favor of additional sanctions relief by not showing their contempt for America — delaying the final step of their accession to the nuclear club until Obama leaves office. That will mean Obama’s successor will have to answer the “who lost China” question about Iran getting the bomb.
On the home front, the president will likely make greater use of his Justice Department to regularly bring suit to push a racial agenda, making use of disparate impact tests to challenge alleged discrimination in one economic sector after another and one location after another.
It might be better for all if there were more team celebrations to take up the president’s time. Why not honor college lacrosse champions or rowing teams? Maybe next time will be the charm for a Triple Crown winner. Maybe the White Sox will become a contender, and their fan-in-chief can devote more time to following the pennant race. We should hope for more such distractions. Trivial pursuits are better than failed policy and doing damage to America.
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