A Washington Purim Spiel: Barack Obama’s 2016 Election Surprise

Purim spiels take many forms. It is rumored that the following Purim Spiel was recently presented in Washington D.C., that hyperactive political cauldron. It was written from the perspective of Presidents Day, 2017.

In the early spring of 2016, it was clear that the U.S. presidential race was a mess. Donald Trump was surging towards the Republican nomination, despite (or because of?) his at times vulgar, narcissistic, incendiary and abusive public demeanor, including some encouragement of violence. This alarmed many people and resulted in a deep split in the Republican party. At the same time, Hillary Clinton was struggling against the surprisingly good showing of Bernie Sanders, that son of “Polish immigrants” as he regrettably described himself, downplaying his Jewish identity. She was plagued by a high and rising “unfavorable” rating in public opinion polls, a trend bolstered, no doubt, by the ongoing serious investigations being conducted by the FBI. While it was thought that Hillary Clinton would likely win the nomination, it was unclear whether she would win the election.

Meanwhile, the world was in turmoil: Syria, Iraq and Libya were fractured, racked by war and chaos; the Russians were active militarily; China was making trouble in the South China Sea; there were repeated provocative Iranian missile tests; and there was more North Korean saber-rattling. In Syria, hundreds of thousands were dead and millions were refugees. In Europe, the EU was tottering, refugees were pouring in, and there were massacres in public places, perpetrated or inspired by Islamic State. Beyond Europe, there were atrocities in Pakistan, Turkey, Africa and elsewhere. Gevalt! But, as Barack Obama assured us in October 2011, “The tide of war is receding.” Right.

In analyzing the deteriorating international scene, Pulitzer Prize-winning commentators Charles Krauthammer and Bret Stephens had persuasively argued the crazy idea that President Barack Obama’s policies, words, and actions (and, in some cases, his inaction) had made things a lot worse during the seven plus years he had been President. In their view, by projecting U.S. weakness and indecisiveness, Obama had encouraged the aggressive behavior of Russia, Iran and China. Obama’s decision, despite recommendations to the contrary, to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of the barbaric Islamic State.

However, in a lengthy interview published in March 2016, with Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the President’s biggest media boosters (and Goldberg has lots of competition,) Obama set the record straight. With characteristic cool self-esteem, Obama dismissed his critics and what he derisively called the “Washington Playbook” of the “foreign policy establishment.” What do they know? He defended his record, and was deeply satisfied with his decision not to attack Syria despite the “red line” he had set. He actually said, “I’m very proud of this moment.” It’s not clear how many such proud moments we can take. In the same interview, Obama was also critical of almost every foreign leaders he chose to mention. Take that!

Back to the campaign. To be sure, Obama very much wanted Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. But, given the unpredictability of Trump’s strength and Clinton’s vulnerabilities, he worried that she wouldn’t win. Polls in the late spring showed Trump with surprising strength in some of the states the Democrats had to win. What to do?

As summer approached, Obama met with some of his most trusted advisors including Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, and Rahm Emanuel. At that meeting, Mayor Emanuel said, “You know, you could almost say that the U.S. political system is in crisis, and you know what I always say,” at which point everyone in the room intoned in unison, “YOU NEVER WANT A SERIOUS CRISIS TO GO TO WASTE.” The discussion continued for a while, but without a clear resolution. However, the next day, while hard at work at another round of golf, Obama came up with the political equivalent of a hole-in-one: He would be Hillary Clinton’s running mate!

What? Barack Obama for Vice President? Why would he want that after being at the pinnacle of power as President? Hadn’t he ever had a heart-to-heart chat with Joe Biden? Two reasons were cited. First, Obama had announced that his family wanted to remain in Washington, DC so that his younger daughter, Sasha, could complete high school with her current class. Second, in his two successful elections for the presidency Obama had proven highly adept at organizing and motivating supporters, and using social media and computer tracking to get out the vote. All that experience and know-how could boost Hillary Clinton’s prospects for electoral success. Regardless of these reasons, it was probably the ongoing FBI investigations that led Clinton to agree to Obama’s request to be her running mate.

But there was a legal issue: Could Obama run for election as Vice President following two full terms as President? Given Obama’s legal training, he was aware that the 22nd and the 12th Amendments to the Constitution both touched on this matter. Unfortunately, the answer was not clear-cut. Probably it would have to be decided by the Supreme Court. But with the court having only eight members currently, who knows whether it could decide anything.

Despite all these uncertainties, but because the stake were so high and the egos so large, Obama was nominated as Clinton’s running mate. Then, the election campaign against the Trump-Palin team unfolded, raising great interest and much tension worldwide.

Well, dear readers, it worked. The Clinton-Obama ticket won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, although the Republicans maintained control of Congress. (Ouch.) On election night, as the results become clear, Obama said, in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, who he virtually never quotes, “De-lighted!”

But, then, the “unexpected” happened. (No snickers, please.) On December 31, 2016, the FBI Director and the Attorney General, acting on their own and from strictly professional considerations, recommended felony indictments of Hillary Clinton. Happy New Year, Hillary!

This decision led to a great uproar. What to do, with the inauguration only three weeks away? Cool heads prevailed and the inauguration went ahead as planned and Clinton and Obama were sworn in on January 20, 2017. But, shortly thereafter, due to unbelievably intense political pressure, including the beginning of impeachment proceedings in Congress, Hillary Clinton resigned as President. Barack Obama moved back into the White House and, if truth be told, indeed relished the opportunity to do so. He said, “Now I am really de-lighted!!

Heartfelt congratulatory messages poured in from many world leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu, of course.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.