- - Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sarah Bernhardt, the French superstar at the end of a career as “the most famous actress the world has ever known,” famously set out on a farewell tour that was so successful she repeated it, several times. President Obama, perhaps to emulate the great Sarah, has set out on a long goodbye, and dropped in at the United Nations the other day on one of the final stops on an eight-year tour to apologize for real and mostly imagined slights, failures and mistakes of the country that twice elected him president. He, like Sarah Bernhardt, found a warm and friendly audience, but he had a warning to the world’s leaders that their world, like his, is threatened by what he calls a “crude populism.” This awful threat is from politicians much less enlightened than he.

Miss Bernhardt, with the grandiloquence familiar to an earlier age, told her fans that “your words are my food, your breath my wine.” President Obama no doubt shares similar sentiments, but it’s his own words and breath that make the wine. He entered the 2008 race for president as a messiah whose power and brilliance sprang from his ability to move people here and abroad with words and good intentions. He wasn’t much for details, but he offered hope for the change that would usher in a new era, halt the rise of the oceans and establish the new world order untainted by greed, avarice and nationalism that would stretch beyond the borders of the nation that elected him. All everyone had to do was close their eyes, trust him and share the dream. Millions did, and the rest was disappointment.

He quickly learned that the Constitution, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, made it difficult for even an anointed one to do what he knew was right for the people without having to negotiate with those less enlightened than he. He once mused that he had a certain envy of the way China’s Communist leaders could make things happen without having to deal with the grief he faces in dealing with Congress and the courts.

In politics, as in physics, for every action there’s a reaction, and the public soon soured on his schemes and nostrums, as a new generation of politicians armed with new ideas took their messages to the people. As unenlightened as they may be in the president’s eyes, in America the people say who gets to run things, and sometimes even say how they run things. When he ran for re-election four years later he got his comeuppance.

He warned his admiring friends at the United Nations to beware of the fickle people: Others will disagree with you and some will get access to the ears and minds of those fickle people. Americans call that the risk of competition in a democracy; Mr. Obama sees those who disagree with him as a threat. The message no doubt resonated in a hall full of leaders who often do everything they can to stifle democratic ambitions among their own people.

Mr. Obama is worried now about protecting his “legacy,” and sees it threatened by the surging Donald Trump, as well he should. He could not imagine, as he listened to the tumult and his coronation eight years ago, that nothing recedes like success, especially the glow of farewell tours.

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