It was supposed to be the culmination of his post-presidency, a five-year partying spree stretching from the Mediterranean to Hawaii that has put Barack Obama on the Mount Rushmore of super seniors.
Michael Jordan, Seth Curry, Beyoncé, Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, George Clooney, and Steven Spielberg headlined his 60th birthday guest list. Pearl Jam was going to play in the backyard of Obama’s $12 million Martha’s Vineyard home. Five hundred guests would be serviced by a staff of two hundred.
But suddenly, it all came crashing down. Obama caved to pressure in the name of Covid to cancel his blowout party weekend, which included a pre-party for 150 guests on Friday followed by the main event on Saturday for all 500 friends. His last-minute decision is an object lesson in how the power dynamics between Obama and Joe Biden have flipped.
Obama thought he was done with Biden after talking his vice president out of running in 2016. There seemed little chance that Hillary Clinton would lose to Donald Trump, or that Biden could reemerge after four years to get elected president a month shy of his 78th birthday. It was always clear that Obama had little use for Biden. He thought the Presidential Medal of Freedom he gifted Biden a week before they left office would be the old man’s swan song. So how would Obama handle Biden reaching his level of stature?
Until he cancelled the party, it seemed Obama would continue to seek escape in global celebrity. It’s his delusion of being post-political that comes from reaching the rarified air of single-name status and low-show content deals with Netflix, Spotify, and now the NBA. To Obama, Biden was still a lifer political hack who would never sleep on David Geffen’s yacht.
But Covid has turned things upside down. The office of the presidency is much more powerful in a state of emergency – even with the president himself in cognitive decline. Personal decisions have become political, and Biden was able to pressure Obama to cancel his party in order to keep Democrats united against returning to pre-Covid norms (public gatherings, collecting rent, voting in person, etc.) that would hinder their larger leftwing agenda.
Initially, Obama resisted the pressure. But Biden has the CDC working for him and Obama has a former PR guy turned podcaster. The CDC’s use of study of a recent outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts to justify panic about the Delta variant put extra heat on Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard plans.
When Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain announced he was no longer attending the party, it signaled official Democratic disapproval of the event. Obama had to cave to his fellow Democrats, something he never had to do before.
Until recently, the gulf between Obama and Biden was so wide that suggesting a rivalry would’ve been absurd. Obama destroyed Biden in the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucus and gave him a second act in politics with the vice-presidential nomination eight months later.
Even when Biden won the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and then the presidency, Obama seemed to handle it as a fluke. He mailed in his endorsement speech for the Democratic convention and promoted the first volume of his memoirs rather than help Biden transition to the White House.
Their relationship probably would have continued the same trajectory, with Obama projecting the tacit feeling of dominance over Biden the way Tom Brady can with Peyton Manning. Now, however, the rivalry feels more ambiguous, like Peyton vs. Eli Manning.
Biden has shut down Obama’s high life and holds the authority to give it back to him. There may be no return in sight. The administration is embracing Covid as a never-ending national emergency because of the powers Covid afforded it. Given the likelihood that Covid is endemic, it will have more than enough excuses to rationalize the continuation of extreme measures.
Obama threw up his hands when he couldn’t get his way in Washington. Thanks to the affordances of Covid and the attitude of today’s Left, Biden rarely has to resort to this. His goals are often the stroke of the pen away from being implemented.
The irony is that it’s Obama who would’ve enjoyed presiding in this authoritarian era, and Biden who would have relished the chance to try to cut deals with a Republican Congress.
Obama’s learning it’s hard to stay a global superstar when you can’t remind people of that fact. It requires spectacles such as Pearl Jam playing your birthday party, arena book tours, and $400,000 speeches.
Obama needs the spotlight to assure himself that he’s still a rung above Biden. But Biden may make such exposure impossible for his ex-boss. The stature gap between the two within Democratic circles will become increasingly obscured.
Ultimately, Obama will be left to ask himself how he let his meandering former sidekick sabotage the best years of his life.
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