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June 7, 2017
To Obama: Launch Watchdogs in Washington
By Ralph Nader
After eight grueling years in the White House, ex-president Barack Obama looked
forward with his wife Michelle to a deserved, extended rest and vacation. Nearly five
months later, he’s enjoying the company of the rich and famous at their secluded
mega-retreats so much that a generally sympathetic media has begun to describe a
Since leaving office, the former self-styled community organizer has yachted with Tom
Hanks and Hollywood mogul David Geffen, gone kite-surfing with billionaire Richard
Branson at Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, enjoyed the hospitality of
designer Michael S. Smith in Southern California, turned up at the Mid-Pacific Country
Club in Hawaii, journeyed to Tetiaroa in French Polynesia where, it is reported, he
wants to write some of his memoir – part of a $65 million double book deal with
In late April, he enjoyed a $400,000 pay day for a speech before a Wall Street firm,
followed by an undisclosed fee for speaking in Milan, Italy. The former First Couple
stayed at a “restored eight hundred year old village” owned by John Phillips, a former
lawyer for the powerless turned multi-millionaire.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, DC, where the Obamas have purchased an $8
million home, Donald Trump is dismantling with cruel gusto as much of Obama’s
legacy as he can. Obama spent his last months in office, with his lawyers, striving to
Trump-proof his legacy.
However, apart from a few general statements objecting, without mentioning Trump, to
the White House’s ban on people entering the United States from six majority Muslim
countries, which is heading to the Supreme Court, and to Trump’s withdrawal from the
voluntary Paris Climate Accord, Obama continues to engage in what Time Magazine
calls his “staycation.”
In private conversations, Obama must be fuming, both personally and for the country’
s future, as he sees it. But publicly, he is hewing to the tradition that former presidents
do not criticize their successors, just as new presidents do not go after their
predecessors. There is an unwritten understanding that such behavior is beneath the
dignity of the Presidency and can lead to barrages of accusations. But, with mad
Donald Trump in the White House, the old rules of engagement are clearly no longer
Self-serving traditions should be going out the window with the boorish, tweet-fueled
mania of Donald Trump putting the wrecking ball to just about every federal program
and obligation serving the health, safety and economic necessities of people in need.
At the same time, Trump regularly attacks Obama for “the mess” he left him and
serves up other fallacious jabs against his predecessor.
President Obama’s silence is all the more noticeable in the absence of new leadership
from the Democratic Party. Despite the tradition of former presidents passing the
baton to the next generation of leaders of their party, today’s Democratic Party is
largely leaderless, leaving Obama still at center stage for much of the public. He
understands the gap. For while launching the Obama Foundation for his presidential
library in Chicago, he announced as a major goal the “training and elevating of a new
generation of political leaders in America.”
Obama no doubt believes that taking on Trump would distract from Trump’s daily
penchant for self-destruction and the deepening quagmire surrounding his conflicted,
frantic, bellicose, narcissistic White House. Still, there is a need to offer positive
reinforcement for all those people marching, rallying and filling the usually empty
seats at Congressional town meetings around the country.
That is a mission Obama avoided during his presidency as he flew out of town for
nearly five hundred fat-cat fundraisers during his eight years in office.
Barack Obama has always been very clever at telling us that he shares our sense of
fair play. In his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), then Senator Obama
admitted: “I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the
wealthy donors I met. I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the
world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality and frequent hardship
of…the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”
Well, it is never too late for Obama to translate these candid words into deeds. With
his wealth and a few other donors he can assemble and organize watchdog groups in
Washington, DC to counter the corporate wish lists being presented to a very
accommodating White House. Each group, with a modest $1 million annual budget,
can field ten determined public advocates to resist what Trump advisor Steve Bannon
has referred to as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This, of course,
means in real terms the dismantling of the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal
Trade Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the
Environmental Protection Agency, sensible protections for auto safety, railroads and
aviation and so many other agencies and programs that protect Americans every day.
Other groups can resist the expanding corporate welfare and corporate tax
giveaways, the bloated waste at the unauditable Pentagon, the surrenders to Wall
Street and the curtailment of our civil liberties and civil rights.
That’s one immediate and impactful way of fomenting a “new generation of leaders.”
With his resources and platform, Obama can put additional, organized civil actions on
the back of Trump’s regime of corporatism, militarism and racism. He can do that with
ease, if he can resist the temptations of his plutocratic friends that he cautioned
himself, and us, about in public eleven years ago.