We thought we knew what there was to know about the 2016 election. Then it turned out that we didn’t. Now it seems increasingly clear that only the tip of the iceberg has yet appeared.
We knew that Donald Trump was a minority president, who garnered nearly three million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. We knew, somewhat less precisely, that voter suppression engineered by Republican secretaries of state in key swing states resulted in the exclusion of far larger numbers of voters than provided Trump’s margins of victory in them, and provided the Electoral College majority he scraped together. Also, we knew the bungling over Clinton’s e-mails, and James Comey’s October bombshell in the matter dealt a significant blow to the Clinton campaign — in the candidate’s own view, a fatal one.
But another factor in the election has now emerged that swam under the radar during the campaign itself: Russia’s interference in it through trolling on America’s major social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook and Google. We are still only beginning to learn about the scope of this operation, a deliberate effort to promote Trump’s election through false and inflammatory appeals to targeted segments of the electorate, but it is estimated that it may have accounted for as much as a fifth of the political traffic on these platforms last year. It can’t be said that the Russians flipped our election. But the very fact that the question must be addressed suggests how serious it is.
Which is what brings us to Barack Obama.
The one significant element in the 2016 election that has received almost no discussion is the role Obama played in it. It was common knowledge — or at least the common presumption — that Obama supported the Clinton campaign from the beginning as part of the Grand Bargain he had struck with Bill and Hillary during his own election run in 2008, namely that he would support the Clinton Restoration when his own term was over in return for their support during it. He did indeed welcome Hillary’s nomination, and his disdain for her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, was scarcely concealed during the primary campaign. He campaigned for Hillary in the general election, and at the end made rather pathetic appeals to the African-American audiences he’d ignored for eight years to support her to defend his own legacy.
What he didn’t do was share what he knew about Russian meddling. And it had to be plenty.
Shortly after the 2016 election, the entire American intelligence community — 17 separate federal agencies — declared unanimously that Russia had acted, on the highest level, to subvert it. We know, now, that Obama had spoken directly to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, about Russian trolling on his platform while the election was still in progress. Yet, he said not a word in public about what he himself knew about the Kremlin’s meddling, even though the FBI was already investigating connections between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. Nor did James Comey or anyone else in Obama’s inner intelligence circle.
Didn’t the American public at least deserve to be warned that false websites planted by Russian interests were proliferating all over the Internet in an attempt to swing the election to one of the presidential choices before it? If Obama did not want to do this directly, were there not many other ways to communicate it?
Maybe Obama had a reason for his silence. Maybe he thought that raising the subject would have been seen itself as a partisan effort to influence the election. Maybe he thought it would backfire. What we know is that his silence enabled the Russian program to go forward unimpeded, and to substantially if not decisively corrupt the election process. Where’s the explanation for that?
I don’t have the answer to that question any more than you do, but it does raise another one for me, also as yet unexplored. We know that Joe Biden, Obama’s uber-loyal vice president, was publicly considering a run for the presidency through much of 2015, and that Obama discouraged him in a manner sufficiently compelling to scuttle his ambitions. It is true that Biden was also dealing with a personal tragedy at the time, the death of his son Beau, which he ultimately gave as his reason for deciding against the run. But his subsequent comments have made it clear that he both thought he had earned his shot and that he badly wanted it. Why did Obama act to thwart him, and what might his candidacy have actually meant to the 2016 race?
The obvious answer to the first of these questions, that Obama felt wedded to his Grand Bargain, doesn’t really hold water. The President didn’t formally endorse any candidate until the end of the primaries, and he could certainly have maintained the same at least neutrality with Biden in the race. Perhaps he was concerned that, in a divided contest, Biden and Clinton might have split the moderate vote in the Democratic Party, and given the nomination to Sanders. Biden didn’t think so, of course, and I am tolerably confident he still believes he could have beaten Trump in the general election. Hillary Clinton was a spectacularly inept candidate whom most of the country reviled to begin with. Biden had his own liabilities, to be sure. But he was not viewed unfavorably by the public, and he would have been less vulnerable to Trump’s attacks. A President Biden would most likely have been an uninspiring figure, as most vice presidential successors are. But Barack Obama helped deny us the possibility to find out.
So, then, why did Obama act as he did? I am going to play the Devil’s advocate here, and suggest that the election of Donald Trump was not the worst result for him personally, however much it may be for the rest of us. Yes, Trump has spent the first nine months of his presidency in a single-minded effort to reverse Obama’s presidential record, beginning with Obamacare and extending into the weeds of his many executive orders, great and small. This has had the paradoxical effect of making it appear that Obama had a legacy to undo. But the Affordable Care Act, itself adapted from Republican blueprints, was his only significant legislative accomplishment, and most of his orders concerned tweaking regulations or modestly expanding the scope of existing programs.
What was actually important on his watch was what wasn’t achieved, or for the most part even attempted. We did not extricate ourselves from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but saw them extended into Syria and Libya. We did not reverse or even stabilize the rising levels of income inequality that threaten our democracy from within, but saw them rise to the highest levels in more than a century. We did not take the lead in dealing with climate change, but watched passively as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels passed the chemically critical threshold of 400 parts per million. We failed to address our deep infrastructure deficit, immigration reform, the opioid epidemic or the scandal of student indebtedness. We did not, as is painfully clear, embark on a new era in race relations, but face instead an ugly and protracted backlash from a newly energized white supremacist movement.
Obama was elected in 2008 as the candidate of hope and change. He frustrated our hopes and delivered no progressive change. Beginning with the Tea Party insurgency and climaxing with the nomination of Donald Trump, his failures of action and inaction drove an angry and disillusioned electorate into the arms of an unprincipled demagogue. Barack Obama is perhaps more the symptom than the cause of our present ills, which have been building for a long time. But the past eight years were his, and his legacy, with all due credit to Hillary Clinton herself, is Donald Trump.
If Clinton had been elected president, or Biden, we would probably have had another four years of listlessness to add to the near-zero of the past eight. The Obama years would have been seen as a mandate squandered on an aloof, disengaged figure who lacked principle or passion. With Trump, however, not only is Obama’s tenure now bathed in a glow of nostalgia, but so is even that of George W. Bush, whose war crimes and constitutional usurpations remain unaccounted for. Next to a disaster as appalling as that of Donald Trump, anything else is going to look like a golden age.
I won’t say that Barack Obama planned it this way. But why he failed to warn the country of an attempt to subvert a national election — why, indeed, he passively tolerated it while it was in progress, a major dereliction of duty — is something he needs to explain to a Congressional committee. I guess he owes an apology to Joe Biden, too. Obama has let himself very gently off the hook for the dreadful and frightening mess he has left us. We shouldn’t do the same.