Why so happy, Mr. Pres­i­dent?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist Dana Mil­bank is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

Why is this man smil­ing? Pres­i­dent Obama’s cho­sen suc­ces­sor suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing loss last week to a man who made a pri­mary cam­paign is­sue of Obama’s “dis­as­trous” man­age­ment of the coun­try. The Demo­cratic Party is in a sham­bles, out­num­bered in state legislatures, gover­nors’ man­sions, the House and the Sen­ate. Con­ser­va­tive con­trol of the Supreme Court seems likely for an­other gen­er­a­tion. Obama’s legacy is in tat­ters as his trade pol­icy, his for­eign pol­icy and his beloved Oba­macare are set to be dis­man­tled.

And yet when Obama en­tered the White House brief­ing room for a post-elec­tion news con­fer­ence Mon­day af­ter­noon, ev­ery­thing was, if not awe­some, pretty darned good. “We are in­dis­putably in a stronger po­si­tion to­day than we were when I came in eight years ago,” he be­gan. “Jobs have been grow­ing for 73 straight months, in­comes are ris­ing, poverty is fall­ing, the unin­sured rate is at the low­est level on record, car­bon emis­sions have come down with­out im­ping­ing on our growth .... ” The happy talk kept com­ing: “Un­em­ploy­ment rate is as low as it has been in eight, nine years, in­comes and wages have both gone up over the last year faster than they have in a decade or two . ... The fi­nan­cial sys­tems are sta­ble. The stock mar­ket is hov­er­ing around its all-time high, and 401(k)s have been re­stored. The hous­ing mar­ket has re­cov­ered . ... We’re see­ing sig­nif­i­cant progress in Iraq ... Our al­liances are in strong shape . ... And gas is two bucks a gal­lon.”

It’s all true enough. But Obama’s post-elec­tion re­marks seemed ut­terly at odds with the na­tional mood. Half the coun­try is ex­ul­tant be­cause Don­ald Trump has promised to undo ev­ery­thing Obama has done over the past eight years. The other half of the coun­try is alarmed that a new age of big­otry and in­ward­ness has seized the coun­try. And here’s the out­go­ing pres­i­dent, recit­ing what a fine job he has done.

This has been Obama’s pat­tern. At times when pas­sion is called for, he’s cere­bral and philo­soph­i­cal and tak­ing the long view — so long that it frus­trates those liv­ing in the present. A week after an elec­tion left his sup­port­ers reeling, Obama’s fo­cus seemed to be squarely on his own legacy.

He didn’t men­tion Hil­lary Clin­ton’s name once in his news con­fer­ence, and he went out of his way to praise Trump. On a day when the coun­try was di­gest­ing the news that Trump has named as his top White House strate­gist Stephen Ban­non, a man who has boasted of his ties to the racist “altright,” Obama was gen­er­ous to the “car­ni­val barker” who led the cam­paign ques­tion­ing his Amer­i­can birth.

Obama noted the pres­i­dent-elect’s “gifts that ob­vi­ously al­lowed him to ex­e­cute one of the big­gest po­lit­i­cal up­sets in his­tory.” He praised Trump as “gre­gar­i­ous” and “prag­matic,” a man who fa­vors “a vig­or­ous de­bate” and was “im­pres­sive” dur­ing the cam­paign. “That con­nec­tion that he was able to make with his sup­port­ers,” Obama said, was “pow­er­ful stuff.”

Obama’s above-the-fray re­sponse to the elec­tion re­sult may be that of a man who be­lieves his ap­proach will be vin­di­cated by his­tory. It may well be, but that is of lit­tle com­fort now. As Obama re­tires to a life of speak­ing fees and good works, he sounded less con­cerned about what will hap­pen next than with what he had achieved.

He took a bow for his “smartest, hard­est-work­ing” staff, his “good de­ci­sions” and the ab­sence of “sig­nif­i­cant scan­dal” dur­ing his ten­ure. And he spec­u­lated that Trump would ul­ti­mately find it wise to leave in­tact the key achieve­ments of his ad­min­is­tra­tion: Oba­macare, the Iran nu­clear deal, the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, trade and im­mi­gra­tion.

The deep dis­en­chant­ment among white, blue-col­lar vot­ers that pro­pelled Trump won only a pass­ing men­tion. “Ob­vi­ously there are peo­ple out there who are feel­ing deeply dis­af­fected,” the pres­i­dent said with his cool de­tach­ment.

In an elec­tion this close — Clin­ton, let’s not for­get, won the pop­u­lar vote — any fac­tor could have made the dif­fer­ence: be­ing a can­di­date of the es­tab­lish­ment in a time of change, re­sis­tance to a woman as pres­i­dent and back­lash against the first black pres­i­dent, and FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey’s last-minute in­ter­ven­tion in the elec­tion.

But mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are jus­ti­fi­ably anx­ious about their eco­nomic well-be­ing. And if Clin­ton and Obama had lim­ited the build-on-suc­cess theme dur­ing the cam­paign in fa­vor of a more pop­ulist vi­sion and poli­cies, they re­ally would have had some­thing to smile about this week.

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