President Obama has taken his European tour to Germany, where he touted the ‘indisputable’ benefits of an EU-US free-trade pact. Speaking at the Hannover Messe Trade Fair, Obama noted the importance of an agreement as a bulwark against the likes of Russia ‘at this time of uncertainty, including here in Europe, when others would use trade and energy as a weapon.’
Trade as a weapon? You don’t say. Obama’s remarks in Germany came shortly after his visit to Britain, where he bludgeoned Brexit campaigners with the implied threat that Britain would ‘go to the back of the queue’ for a US trade pact if it left the EU. Obama followed that press conference with further musings to the BBC’s Huw Edwards: ‘It could be five years from now, 10 years from now before we’re actually able to get something done.’
These omens might be worth the carbon emitted to issue them if Obama were to serve another two terms in office. He won’t, so they’re not. Britons are left wondering how to interpret his blather, and their own reactions to it. Does Boris have a point in highlighting the ‘part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire’? Or is he simply a racist old sock to mention it? Should Britons, as Theo Hobson suggests, be grateful to Obama for speaking as ‘an icon of the ideology of the West’?
The answers, respectively, are No; No; and No. Mayor Johnson, Mr. Hobson, et al give President Obama too much credit in ascribing deeply held or carefully formed beliefs to his pronouncements. Theo Hobson writes about Obama’s ‘unashamed’ championing of ‘liberal idealism’. Americans are more likely to use a popular internet acronym to describe our President’s ‘unashamed’ behaviour: DGAF, or Doesn’t Give A F[udge].
DGAF has been the President’s default mode since America’s November 2014 elections. He announced as much at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2015, explaining that he didn’t have a policy list for the remainder of his presidency, but rather ‘something that rhymes with bucket list.’
In practice, that’s meant the absence of any serious attempt to persuade his opposition – on anything. Over the last year Obama has dismissed Americans who ‘pop off’ about their fears of Syrian refugees; mocked the ‘conspiracy’ theories of gun-rights activists; and repeatedly trolled the vexed Republican presidential nominating contest. This comportment delights his fans, but does nothing to convince people who don’t already agree with him; it’s not designed to. To borrow the President’s own slang: Obama is merely ‘popping off’.
So it is in Europe. A president who took seriously the implications of the British referendum might have pointed out that the UK accounts for roughly 20 percent of US exports to the EU. He might further have lamented the headaches of future US administrations trying to negotiate French and Greek cheese designations without the tempering influence of successive Atlanticist British governments. Instead, he opted to belittle British sovereignty and taunt its defenders. Because, well, DGAF.
In Germany too, Obama dismissed the critics of an EU-US trade deal with a warning against an outcome that no one is proposing. ‘I know trade can invoke great emotions,’ he told the Hannover fair, but ‘the answer is not to pull up the drawbridge and stop trade.’
Obama is unashamed, all right. But politicians do not speak shamelessly on issues about which they care – rather, they approach matters with caution, deliberation, and an editor to watch out for wildly alienating language.
Americans have grown accustomed to the President’s DGAF lame-duck style, but it’s a pity that Europeans must as well. It is with no small embarrassment that this US correspondent urges British pundits to stop torturing themselves over Obama’s remarks. He neither hates Britain nor loves the EU; he simply doesn’t give a f[udge].
Anne Jolis is a writer based in New York.