In the presidency’s long march toward full-spectrum dominance over American life, the POTUS has become, among other things, host in chief of our national talk show. Barack Obama fulfilled that role better than most. Our 44th president never seemed more completely in his element than when trading zingers at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. We find it reassuring somehow to be reminded that the guy with the kill list has a sense of humor.
At the 2015 version of the annual press and pols confab, Obama got one of his bigger laugh lines when he joked: “Dick Cheney says he thinks I’m the worst president of his lifetime. Which is interesting because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime.” But the jibe had a funny-because-it’s-true element that Obama didn’t intend. As George W. Bush’s “co-president,” Cheney repeatedly described the team’s mission as “leaving the presidency stronger than we found it.” In that respect, Cheney and Obama have more in common than either would care to acknowledge.
As a young man, biographer David Maraniss reports, Obama developed “an intense sense of mission…sometimes bordering [on] messianic.” By the time the Oval Office was in his sights, he’d decided “his mission was to leave a legacy as a president of consequence.”

Mission accomplished: As Obama’s tenure comes to a close, it’s clear his has been a presidency of enormous consequence. But his most lasting legacy will be one few—perhaps least of all Obama himself—expected. He will leave to his successor a presidency even more powerful and dangerous than the one he inherited from Bush. The new powers he’s forged now pass on to celebreality billionaire Donald J. Trump, a man Obama considers “unfit to serve as president”—someone who can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account, let alone the nuclear launch codes. Perhaps only those incorrigible “cynics” Obama regularly chides from the bully pulpit could have predicted this would come to pass.
‘I’ll Turn the Page on the Imperial Presidency’
In his long-shot bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, then–Sen. Obama ran as as a forceful critic of executive unilateralism—one, unlike the other leading contenders, untainted by past support for the Iraq war. A speech he’d given at an anti-war rally in Chicago in 2002 as an obscure state senator running for the U.S. Senate would become a key element of his sales pitch on the path to the presidency.
That speech, railing against a “dumb,” “rash” war, had barely registered at the time; in 2007, the Obama campaign couldn’t even find usable video of his remarks. “I’d kill for that,” chief strategist David Axelrod lamented. “No one realized at the time it would be a historic thing.” Still, the Obama team unearthed enough audio to hawk a cellphone ringtone “with ‘what I do oppose is a dumb war’ over a hip-hop beat.”