With Hollywood Awards Season kicking into gear and Inauguration festivities reaching fever pitches in D.C, it’s time to hand out The O’Bamas, our awards ceremony honoring politicians who acted with extreme courage or idiocy in the eight years since President Obama took office.
The O’Bamas are a celebration of what is great about democracy and a showcase of its oddities; an honor roll of recent history’s heroes and a final castigation of its villains.
So, without further ado, The O’Bama goes to…
The Rickroll Accidental Pop Culture Icon Award
Given to politicians who have unwittingly crossed over into pop status.
R: Donald Trump
Hollywood hates Donald Trump, but its customers don’t. There is no world where the President-elect, a politician rejected by his own party and a candidate with no donor base, could ever win the White House without huge cultural support (and I’m not talking about the set of entertainers who won’t perform at his inauguration). As a point of fact, media analysts have said that news coverage of Trump’s campaign was worth billions of dollars; or, put another way, the newsrooms learned that Americans had a bottomless appetite for more Trump on the tube.
And if you don’t believe that, just look around in a shopping mall. It won’t take long to spot a white hat with red letters that we now recognize as quickly as the famous Obama portrait reading “Hope.” You already know the words: they say “Make America Great Again.”
D: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or “RBG” as the kids call her, is the 83-year-old Supreme Court Justice who former Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) proclaimed in 2009 would be dead within nine months. One year later, Bunning was out of a job while to this day, Justice Ginsburg remains on the Supreme Court.
Lately, RBG’s opinions have fed the appetite of progressives who share her zeal for issues like reproductive rights and racial and gender equality, and when Ginsburg committed the big SCOTUS no-no of publicly criticizing President-elect Trump, the roars of approval from her young, hip, and culturally elite fan club drowned-out her own apology.
The Hanoi Jane Pop Culture Icons We Wish Had Stayed Out Politics Award
Given to pop culture figures whose intrusions into politics were most unwelcome.
R: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood has delivered countless blockbusters at the box office but in 2012, he delivered one of the greatest flops in political history – the infamous “Chair Speech” at the Republican National Convention.
Watch it again. Rarely in history have any 11 minutes been so baffling as those Mr. Eastwood spent “Interviewing” President Obama in an empty chair. While Eastwood applauded conservatives for not “hot dogging it” like liberals do, the only clear political statement he made in this unforgettable ad-lib was to applaud President Obama, whom he was speaking against, for ending the unpopular Iraq War.
For Republicans, the most depressing part of Eastwood’s whiff was its deeper implication: that political conservatism had become so culturally irrelevant that the only man, woman, or child that the Romney-Ryan campaign could trot out in support was an 82-year-old cowboy who couldn’t even be corralled into writing his remarks on a cocktail napkin before taking the stage.
D: Bruce Sprinsteen
“I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening,” isn’t what The Boss told his crowd the night after Trump’s win in 2016; it’s what he told them the night after Reagan’s win in 1980. Ever since the Gipper’s seminal presidency, Springsteen has been a ferocious advocate for the Democratic Party, whether by lending his voice in support or his talents for fundraising. But 36 years later, that act has worn thin.
Bruce Springsteen will always be one of his generation’s greatest artists, but his claim to be the small man’s voice has eroded over the past three decades as the same blue collar men and women he claims to stand for have defected to the GOP. That Springsteen can claim to be their advocate in one breath and go on to condemn the policies of the people they vote for in the next smacks of the arrogant liberal paternalism that got the Democratic Party into so much trouble this last election.
The Anne Boleyn Dangerous Liaisons Award
Given to the most costly extra-curricular rendezvous.
R: David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell
America might not have gotten a Dwight D. Eisenhower out of its ugly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it did get General David Petraeus, the truest thing to a hero and a rock star to come out of the military brass since Colin Powell. But those lofty impressions of Petraeus changed when news broke that he’d been sharing classified information with sidepiece Paula Broadwell.
Prior to his affair with Broadwell, Petraeus was assumed to be a future Republican presidential contender; since his affair with Broadwell, he’s been lucky to avoid a prison sentence.
D: Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch
No, Bill didn’t sleep with the Attorney General. But the 45 minutes he spent on her airplane in Phoenix were enough to persuade some voters that the Justice Department’s decision not to charge Hillary for crimes related to her private email server might have been motivated by relationships, not justice, and remind many others of the slimy, above-the-law Clintonisms they’d seen in the past. Whether Bill and Loretta were actually discussing Clinton’s probe or swapping recipes for white bean chili isn’t known, but this dangerous liaison cost Secretary Clinton volumes of credibility.
The Chicago Cubs Most Improved Politico Award
Awarded to political figures who have exceeded our expectations and reminded us that there is still beauty left in politics.
R: Rand Paul
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) began his political career by clobbering Trey Grayson, a moderate Republican handpicked by Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the Kentucky Senate Primary. Paul beat the GOP Godfather’s favorite son by acting as the standard-bearer for Tea Party crazy and arrived in Washington with trunks full of unreasonable budget demands and a contrarian attitude that was as unhelpful in the Senate as your crazy uncle’s yearly rant is at Thanksgiving.
But lately, Senator Paul’s record has been much more impressive. In 2013, he gave a hefty address at Howard University in hopes of extending an olive branch to traditionally Democratic black voters, and in 2015 he broke with his own party to take down the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. In the time since, he’s run an honorable (though unsuccessful) presidential campaign and has articulated a novel vision of American foreign policy that will never be popular but at least deserves some praise for its originality.
D: Michelle Obama
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that we ever questioned First Lady Michelle Obama’s substance, but in the 2008 campaign her remarks that, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country,” gave voice to concerns that then-Senator Obama’s First Lady in waiting was too militant to do anything other than bring her husband down.
In the years since, her critics have been proven wrong. While the First Lady has handled her duties with proficiency, she has also grown into one of liberalism’s most persuasive advocates, a journey capped by her speech for the ages at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. We know now that in addition to being one of the most recognizable faces in America, the First Lady has a stage presence equal to her husband’s and an intellect any opponent would fear, which begs the question: what’s next?
The Benjamin Disraeli Breakers of Ceilings Other Than Glass Award
Award given to politicians who break through barriers other than first woman in the Oval Office.
R: Chris Christie
Chris Christie has a big mouth but let’s be honest, his got an even bigger waist. Congratulations to the New Jersey Governor for being the first seriously obese man to be a national political figure in the cable news era.
D: Barack Obama
Come on America, whether you love him or hate him, we elected a black man president, and that’s a great thing for a nation still reckoning with the legacy of slavery. Kudos to President Obama, his family, and our country for this big win.
The WWE Smackdown Biggest Dis’ Award
Goes to the most remarkable insult hurled in political discourse.
R: Ted Cruz at the GOP Convention
It’s been said and will be said for many years that the 2016 Presidential Election was bonkers. And though it’s hard to choose which moment was the high-water mark of its insanity, history needs to remember the WWE-style showdown between Senator Ted Cruz and President-elect Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, where the Texas Senator looked into the camera and snubbed the presumptive nominee by telling his followers – ON NATIONAL TV – to, “Vote your conscience.”
D: “That guy couldn’t deliver a pizza.”
Most of us witness history on TV but when you work for the President, you have to have each day’s chunk of it packed away before you can go home for dinner. Maybe that’s why after years of frustration with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner’s inability to control his warring factions of Republicans, Obama aides were known to appraise the Speaker’s ability to deliver GOP votes with their quip that, “That guy couldn’t even deliver a pizza.”
The Icarus Award for Poetic Justice
Awarded to highly competent politicians whose careers were destroyed by their extraordinary ambition.
R: Eric Cantor
Then-House Minority Leader Eric Cantor was among the first prominent Republicans to criticize President Obama and was instrumental in shaping 2010’s Tea Party backlash into a House Republican Majority. Once in power, Canto’s feuds with Speaker of the House John Boehner were legendary, as was the widely held belief that Cantor’s aim was to depose Boehner with his wing nut army and take the job for himself.
Ultimately, however, the Virginia Republican was mauled by the beast he created when Tea Party challenger Dave Brat knocked him off in the 2014 Republican Primary. And perhaps equally poetic, his boss and uneasy ally, John Boehner, retired that same year.
D: Debbie Wasserman-Schultz
DWS, as she’s known in the Beltway, notched her first bit of controversy in 2008 when news leaked that she’d pledged her support to Barack Obama. This would have been fine for a rank-and-file Congresswoman, but in Wasserman-Schultz’s (D-FL) case, she happened to be co-chairing Hillary Clinton’s campaign against him. Ever the survivor, DWS sidestepped this embarrassment and took the reigns of the Democratic National Committee in 2011, where she raised a boatload of money and stepped on a lot of toes, like the unions who thought they were getting short shrift and the party book keepers who she insisted should pay for her clothing.
Still, nothing ever stuck to this boundlessly hungry politician – until 2016. Finally, when internal DNC emails leaked to the press, miffed Democrats had smoking gun evidence of what they’d always suspected: that DWS was running the party for her old boss’s benefit, at the expense of her challenger, Bernie Sanders. She was booed off stage at the Democratic National Convention and was forced to resign from the DNC, leaving the party’s future leadership in question.
Edward R. Murrow Political Bravery Award
Given to citizens who display exemplary courage by challenging mores and transcending the ugliness inherent in politics.
R: Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel has a reputation for being a contrarian. In addition to being an early investor in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Paypal, the Silicon Valley mogul founded a scholarship for kids to drop out of college, is the creator of the Founders Fund, a VC pool that derisively mocks Valley peers with its motto “We wanted flying cars but instead got 140 characters,” and is a major contributor to the Committee to Protect Journalists, despite having bankrolled the libel suit against Gawker Media that sent the headquarters of digital snark into bankruptcy.
However, no move of Thiel’s was braver than his speech in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Yes, it’s fun to judge people for being frothing Trumpies, but Peter Thiel is an openly gay man in the Silicon Valley tech scene. There is probably no combination of personal and professional associations more openly hostile to conservatives, much less Trump supporters, and his willingness to speak his mind despite the consequences to his personal and professional life deserves applause.
D: Huma Abedin
Huma Abedin, known to Hillary Clinton as a second daughter, nearly died from friendly-fire during two of the past eight years’ most memorable scandals. The first was the humiliating end to her marriage with former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), which unraveled publicly when crotch shots her husband sent to hook-ups surfaced in the media; and the second took place when Abedin was tied to boss Hillary Clinton’s email scandals during her 2016 campaign. All of this happened while Republicans publicly accused Abedin’s family of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a paramilitary organization that a handful of nations consider terrorists.
Through it all, Abedin held her head high and declined to lower herself to the level of her detractors, whether they were in her private or professional life. Bravo and job well done.
The George Wallace Worst Candidate Ever Award
Given to the worst candidate run by either party during the Obama Administration.
R: Todd Aiken
In 2012, Republicans had a slam dunk chance to pick up Senator Claire McCaskill’s seat in Missouri. McCaskill was so sure that she’d lose against a sensible candidate that she took the extraordinary step of bankrolling Todd Aiken’s primary campaign through an affiliated PAC, knowing that she’d need to run against the worst Republican in Missouri to have any chance of winning.
For years, House Republican Leadership had hidden Aiken in backwaters like the Science and Budget Committees and were not surprised when the Missouri Congressman humiliated himself with his answer to the question: “If a woman is pregnant from a rape, is abortion okay?” Let’s read his response one more time, just to soak in how terrible it was:
“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
D: Martha Coakley
It used to be easy to find a loser in Coakley’s home state of Massachusetts. All you had to do was walk to Fenway Park and hear the locals carp about the Red Sox, the Curse of the Bambino, Bill Buckner, and the catalogue of bad luck that denied Boston’s lovable losers a World Series title for 86 years. But with that curse broken, there’s really only one place left to find a guaranteed lost cause– and that’s wherever Martha Coakley’s name is on the Democratic ticket.
Speaking of the Red Sox, when running for Senate in 2010, Coakley famously mocked the idea of “shaking hands at Fenway” and accused Red Sox legend Curt Schilling of being a Yankee. Oops. All of this culminated in her famous loss to Scott Brown, the first Republican to hold the esteemed “Kennedy Seat” in the U.S. Senate in 57 years, and whose unlikely victory was a major roadblock to Democrats in Washington who had counted on a filibuster-proof Senate to move the Affordable Care Act. Coakley’s failure (and Brown’s triumph) resulted in the rushed passage of an incomplete draft of Obamacare that is the law of the land today and has added significantly to the complications surrounding its implementation. All of this, because Coakley couldn’t be bothered to shake a few hands outside of Fenway.
As if that humiliation wasn’t enough, in 2014 Coakley lost another winnable election for governor to Charlie Baker, who is now one of America’s most popular Republicans and a star in waiting. Both of Coakley’s defeats were preventable and both of them will have consequences for liberals in the years to come.
The Stalingrad Award for Political Warfare
An award given to the biggest legislative fight during the President’s term.
Winner: Health Care Reform
There is a special feeling that comes to D.C. when a president sends his army over the top for battle. It is rare, and it is spectacular when the entire capital shuts down for one knockdown, drag-out fight, as it did from 2009-2010 when President Obama launched a Democratic offensive to pass his signature health care reforms.
For Democrats, it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring to life a major priority – universal(ish) health care – and for Republicans, the Affordable Care Act gave shape to their instinctual feeling that the new President had aims to radically expand the role of government in our everyday lives.
Like any great war, the health care fight produced a new generation of leaders. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) and Rep. Bart Sestak (D-MI) all became household names, while today’s Republican House and Senate leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell emerged as architects of their party’s defense.
But while Republicans lost the Battle of Obamacare, the President’s army has never been fit to march since. Democrats, exposed to attacks from the right and the center of the political spectrum, have been mowed-down by a new Republican Majority forged over the last four elections and advancing under cover from a public motivated by anti-incumbency, anti-elitism, right-of-center populism, and dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act itself.
However, that doesn’t mean that Obamacare is doomed. Though we can be sure that a second battle to “repeal and replace” is coming, we can’t be sure that the Republicans have the discipline to see it through or the spine to accept the consequences of whatever gut-wrenching concoction they cook to replace the sausage the Democrats chunked together in 2010. If the Second Health Care War is anything like the First, we can expect another year of heroes, villains, and freak plot twists from the Capitol.
The Peyton Manning Most Missed Award
Awarded to politicos who departed, either in retirement or death, between 2009-2017.
R: Tom Coburn
Republicans are keen to complain about their unfair treatment in the media, but if there is one criticism that’s true, it’s that the last eight years of conservative political thought have been at best disorganized, and at worst incoherent. But there was never any question where Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) stood. The iconic Sooner was an outspoken critic of Republicans and Democrats and launched his career in the Senate by fighting – and winning – against GOP colleague Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark.
Over the years, Coburn, an OB-GYN by trade, emerged as a compelling spokesman for many of the unpopular issues that Republicans carry. His hardline stance against abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, and the Iraq War, as well as his advocacy for Congressional term limits, gun rights, and reduced federal spending may not be popular with all voters, but conservatives will be lucky if they ever have another spokesman as compelling on tough issues as Dr. Tom Coburn.
D: Barney Frank
It’s tragic that most Americans remember Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) as “that gay Congressman,” because Frank was the rare full package in the House, a place where the top talent usually bolts to the Senate at first chance.
In his 34 years of service, the Massachusetts Congressman gained a reputation for being one of the smartest, funniest, and most bipartisan Members of Congress. Frank’s frequent and hilarious evisceration of his Republican rivals is worth its own TV show, but his wit was the perfect disguise for his bi-partisan guile, an act he’d play by issuing rib-crackingly funny takedowns in public before working in private with Republicans to address their concerns in whatever bill his committee produced – or at least as many of them as he needed to get to 50 percent plus one.
The Talleyrand Nine Lives Award
Given to politicians who inexplicably survive despite extraordinary circumstances, incompetency, or freak moments in political life.
R: Lisa Murkowski
A lot of weird things were happening in Republican politics when Senator Lisa Murkoski (R-AK) ran for re-election in 2010. In Alaska, her race coincided with the Tea Party tidal wave and home state Gov. Sarah Palin’s folk hero status. But when Murkowski found herself defeated by a Palin-backed Tea Party challenger in the GOP Primary, she didn’t take it on the chin – she stayed on the ballot and mounted a Senate campaign by write-in – and won.
D: Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi deserves a lot of credit. She helped engineer a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2006 and shepherded the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Act to passage while serving as the first female Speaker of the House. However, since this string of landmark victories, her party has done nothing but suffer in Congress’s lower chamber, where Democratic clout has waxed and waned from “insignificant” to “totally irrelevant” as a result of the last four elections.
In 2010, Republicans campaigned for a House Majority under a banner that read, “Fire Pelosi.” In 2016, a different banner hung outside the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. It read, “Hire Pelosi,” as it urged Democrats to put down the insurrection lead by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and re-up their support for Pelosi’s control of the House Democratic Caucus. That’s how much the Right fears her now.
The Falling Upward Award
Given to mediocre politicians who find themselves in powerful positions.
R: Mike Pence
There isn’t much to be said about Mike Pence that hasn’t already been said. He tried and failed to run for Congress early in his career, made a niche for himself in Indiana talk radio, and finally won a House seat in 2000, where he earned a reputation for being a conservative company man with good intentions but hardly an original thought in his brain. When that act got old, Pence slipped into popular Republican Governor Mitch Daniels’ wake and moved into the Indiana Governor’s Mansion, from which he was plucked by Donald Trump for a presidential ticket that most assumed was doomed from the start.
The Vice President-elect’s rise mirrors so many VEEPs before him: a man that was cast to balance his boss’s imperfections (a billionaire, a charlatan, an easterner), and whose qualifications (or lack thereof) needn’t be discussed. But in Pence’s case, circumstance is even more important when you consider that he only got the job because most qualified Republicans refused to be associated with Trump.
D: Bernie Sanders
If you squint at the Bernie for President campaign, it’s hard not to see Trump in uglier clothes. Sanders ran an underdog race that depended on grass roots action, demagogic rambling, and voters’ willingness to accept hugely doctored (or invented) information as fact. That a 73-year-old socialist who doesn’t even identity as a Democrat is now arguably the most influential figure in liberal politics gets to the core of what is so weird about American politics today.
The Napoleon Bonaparte Pyrrhic Victory Award
Goes to political victories that turned into unfathomable nightmares.
R: Senate Republicans/Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren was not introduced to Washington, D.C., as a candidate for Senate but as the nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the bureaucratic boogeyman of the Dodd-Frank Act. Senate Republicans fought her nomination and won, sending Ms. Warren backed to Harvard where they hoped she’d stay.
But as they say, “One door shuts and another opens.” Two years later, Warren defeated incumbent Scott Brown and returned to Washington as a U.S. Senator, a gig that’s given her a national voice and vaulted her into the pantheon of presidential contenders for 2020 and beyond. Given what we know now, Republicans certainly would spend three Trump Towers full of political capital to stash Warren away inside the obscure bureaucracy they barred her from back then.
D: Rahm Emmanuel
President Obama’s first and most famous Chief of Staff presided over the White House from 2008-2010, during his administration’s most productive years. The former Illinois Congressman followed his gig in the West Wing with a successful mayoral campaign in Chicago, where he won re-election in 2015 and continues to hold office today.
However, being Mayor of Chicago has been no dream job for Emanuel. Police scandals, record-setting violent crime, collapsing public finances, and racial divisions have racked the Windy City since Emanuel’s return. Put more ironically, Emmanuel is living in the Blue State hell that Republicans have long warned about: one where budget shortfalls driven by public employee pensions can no longer be patched with new taxes and must, therefore, be subject to cuts; and where exploding violent crime puts his Democratic administration in the uncomfortable position of choosing between those who see police activity in minority neighbors as inherently racist, and those who actually live in those neighborhoods and have witnessed more homicides this past year than New York and Los Angeles combined.
The Kanye West/Taylor Swift, “IMMA LET YOU FINISH, BUT” Award
Given to the biggest PR f**ckup.
R: You Lie!
Let’s never forget how embarrassing it was when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) interrupted President Obama’s address to Congress with, “You lie!” and gave ammo to liberals who still believe that Republicans would never treat a white president with that kind of contempt.
D: Anthony Weiner’s iPhone
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) sexting habits might have melted away into obscurity had the FBI not discovered classified emails left by ex-wife and Clinton aide on Weiner’s laptop during their investigation of his courtship of a minor. On the basis of this discovery, FBI Director James Comey told the American public that he was re-opening his investigation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just eleven days before the election. Whoops.
The George Marshall True Hero Award
Given to the faithful servant of the Republic who honorably and competently executed the duties of his office in such a way that we may all be proud.
R/D: Bob Gates
Future Secretaries of Defense will stand in Bob Gates’s shadow. Appointed by George W. Bush in 2007, Gates oversaw the crucial Iraq Surge – one of the most challenging stages of the unpopular war there – and continued into Barack Obama’s cabinet where he stood watch as Osama bin Laden was brought to justice in 2011.
Gates was known in both administrations for being thoughtful, apolitical, and exceedingly competent in discharging his duties, whether they were the dullest bureaucratic minutiae or major geopolitical stratagems. Rarely have our Armed Forces ever had such an able advocate as Robert Gates. Job well done.
The “Will Govern for Food” Award
Goes to politicians who will literally do anything to hold public office.
R/D: Charlie Crist
Coming off his term as Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist lost to Marco Rubio in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, then re-entered the race as an Independent. After losing that, Gov. Crist joined the Democratic Party, ran for Congress, and won in 2016.
Sometimes it’s worth applauding people who are willing to change. But in Rep. Crist’s case, it’s hard to believe that “change” was about anything other than himself.
The Winston Churchill Scotch and Soda Award
Goes to the politician we’d most like to shut down the bar with.
R: John Boehner
The former Speaker of the House was the son of a bar owner in Ohio, reeked of cigarettes from dusk ‘til dawn, and always had a glass of Merlot in hand after dark.
In the Speaker’s own words: “I look at myself, I look at the President, and I just started chuckling to myself. Because all you need to know about the differences between the President and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking Merlot, and I look across the table and here is the President of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping on Nicorette.”
D: Martin O’Malley
The former Maryland Governor and one-time Presidential hopeful is so famous for drinking that David Simon, creator of Baltimore-based HBO series The Wire, has said that the young, boozy, razor sharp, and philandering cast member Tommy Carcetti (pictured above) is based on O’Malley, who was the Mayor of Baltimore during The Wire’s production.
Fact or fiction? In politics and in Hollywood, it’s hard to tell.
The Francis Underwood Hollywood for Ugly People Award
Goes to the best campaign ad.
R: Joni Ernst – “Squeal”
We thought we’d seen it all, and then we met a Republican running on a “castrating hogs” platform. Joni Ernst’s 2014 spot was an instant classic and is still worth another view.
D: John Barrow – “Nobody”
Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) successfully defended his Congressional seat in 2012, one of the last held by a Democrat in the Deep South, with this hilariously effective spot that somehow connected his love for guns with his hate for racism. As an editorial note, we’re assuming that the climactic line, “Ain’t nobody gonna take ’em away,” is some jargon Barrow learned while studying at Harvard Law School, which he graduated from at the age of 23.
The Cleveland Browns Biggest Disappointment Award
Given to leaders who let us down.
R: John Boehner
John Boehner was not a successful Speaker of the House. In his time, House Republicans fought like tribesmen and not centurions. They were undisciplined, disloyal, and ultimately preferred to fight and die over petty issues that might boost their individual stats but cost them major victories as a team. Under Boehner’s watch, Republicans blew a massive opportunity at a fiscal “Grand Bargain” in 2011, and instigated an embarrassing government shutdown in 2013.
Most of these missteps were the fault of rank-and-file Republicans who refused to listen to Boehner’s good advice, but the Speaker’s inability to educate or motivate his conference year-after-year eventually falls on his shoulders. Yes, he had a tough job at a tough a time, but that’s the nature of leadership. And though almost everyone who ever served with John Boehner will wax poetic about his character and his intellect, it’s important to judge our leaders by results and not intentions – and by that measure, John Boehner failed.
D: Barack Obama
President Obama entered the White House with a halo over his head. He was the President of “Hope” and “Change” and a man who made a compelling case for unity that reminded us of presidential heavyweights like Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. His optimistic message didn’t just earn him the White House, it earned his party control over the House and Senate and effectively gave the new president all the instruments he needed to manifest a new vision for America.
President Obama put this capital to work by securing passage of unpopular but necessary stimulus and bailout packages for the cratering economy, then switched his point of attack to the landmark achievement of his presidency: the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in March 2010. But from that moment on, the Obama Administration stalled in the mud. Democrats failed to sell this new entitlement to voters and were punished for it in the ensuing elections, where voters installed Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
Faced with a divided government, the President seemed to turn inward in his second term. He lost interest in explaining his agenda and instead indulged in holier-than-though lecturing while his attack dogs resorted to labeling his opponents “greedy,” “obstructionists,” and “racists.” It was the end of the era of “Hope” and the beginning of a new pettiness in American politics, one where “identity” was a tool to play Americans off against each other, and where the worst instincts of liberals and conservatives were gratified as the nation slid into deep division. On top of it all, after eight years as Commander in Chief, joblessness still remains at a 38-year high.
Many of the President’s supporters blame ignorance and racism for public resistance to Obama’s vision. But after losing majorities in both houses of Congress, 12 governorships (and holding only 15 out of 50), 958 state legislative seats, and the White House itself, there has to be a point at which Democrats admit that the customers aren’t the problem. There has to be a point at which they acknowledge that as good as Obama-ism sounds in Ivy League lounges, New York law firms, and San Francisco tech startups, it just didn’t work for the America that lives between Las Vegas and Philadelphia.
Tip O’Neill Most Valuable Player Award
Given to the politician who made the greatest contribution to their party’s success from 2009-2017.
R: Mitch McConnell
There are men like John F. Kennedy and Vince Lombardi, and there are men like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Belichick. One type motivates and inspires, while the other plots and maneuvers towards success. McConnell, never known for stirring oratory or strong principles, embodies the latter type – he’s a masterful tactician and was the architect of Senate Republican’s near flawless defense against the Obama Administration, as well as their 2014 ascent to a ruling Majority.
Yes, McConnell lost left-of-center America when he said, “The single most important thing we [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” but Senator McConnell wasn’t courting votes from Santa Monica and Lower Manhattan, where they are burning effigies of him this very second. He was courting a movement for Republican victory – and succeeded. But that doesn’t mean that conservatives are the only ones who should be thankful for his work; indeed, everyone should because more so than any other legislator these past eight years, Mitch McConnell got it done.
In 2011, when the so-called “Grand Bargain” between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner faltered, the Kentucky Republican brokered a peace to allow for a raise in the national debt, an extension of the Bush Tax credits, and a mechanism to reduce federal spending. McConnell never relinquished that role. Time after time, the Republican Leader stood between the White House and Boehner’s dysfunctional Tea Party tribe, whose messes he’d clean up with one hand while he bargained for red meat with the other. For this the Republican Leader earned little thanks. His willingness to “compromise” with Democrats fostered resentment among conservatives while his “obstructionist” tactics in the Senate branded him as persona non grata on the coasts. But the GOP Godfather’s resume is unparalleled where it matters most: delivering results.
D: Joe Biden
Whether Joe Biden and Barack Obama fell in love at first sight is beyond this column’s purview, but it’s undeniable that the trust, affection, and camaraderie between our 44th President and his VEEP is miles deeper than most of the shotgun weddings we’ve seen in the White House.
More often that not, vice presidents are accessories to the big boss. They’re men who balance the president’s flaws and stand in as whipping posts, but after eight years at 1600 Penn, it’s obvious that Joe Biden is more than just an employee to President Obama – he’s a partner. It’s a distinction that the Vice President has earned.
With 36 years of service in the Senate, Biden used his deep reserves of relationships and institutional know-how to manage the President’s agenda in that perilous vacuum of honor they call Congress and was personally responsible for negotiating the White House’s end of high stakes deals surrounding the fiscal crises of 2011 and 2013.
But the Presidency is about so much more than the legislative process. It’s about image and a human connection that moves culture with a force greater than law. And while President Obama entered the White House with a rock star’s persona and a saint’s halo, his long-winded and professorial style eventually distanced him from the American public. Not so with Joe Biden, whose blue collar, folksy delivery remains beloved, and whose lovable “Uncle Joe” persona has connected with skeptical voters in good times and bad.
The Vice President gave us one of the most beautiful moment in politics these last eights years when he discussed the loss of his son, Beau, and its effect on his decision not to run for President. Let’s all watch one more time and hope that the next era of politics will contain moments with this much humanity.