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Two months out of office, Barack Obama is having a post-presidency like no other

By Krissah Thompson and Juliet Eilperin
Two months out of office, Barack Obama is having a post-presidency like no other
Barack Obama at a South Side Chicago community meeting. At left are Torrey Barrett and the Rev. Richard Tolliver. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Torrey Barrett

WASHINGTON - The first cocktail party at Barack Obama's new office last month was certainly more casual than any he had hosted in recent years. The wine bore a random assortment of labels, as if assembled potluck-style. The self-serve appetizers were set out in the narrow hallway. The host, tieless, eschewed formal remarks, as a few dozen of his old administration officials - Joe Biden and former chief of staff Denis McDonough, as well as more junior ones - mingled in a minimalist wood-paneled suite that could be mistaken for a boutique law firm.

"It was a bit of a shock to the system," said Peter Velz, who used to work in the White House communications office. "You're bumping up right against the vice president as he's getting cheese from the cheese plate."

As the dinner hour drew near, the former president exited with a familiar excuse, Velz recalled: "He was joking if he doesn't get back to Michelle, he's going to be in trouble."

So far, Obama is trying to approach his post-presidency in the same way as his cocktail-hosting duties - keeping things low-key, despite clamoring from Democrats for him to do more. "He is enjoying a lower profile where he can relax, reflect and enjoy his family and friends," said his former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

But the unprecedented nature of this particular post-presidency means his respite could be brief. Even while taking some downtime at a luxurious resort in the South Pacific last week, Obama put out a statement urging Republicans not to unilaterally dismantle his signature health care law.

Not only are the Obamas still young and unusually popular for a post-White House couple, their decision to stay in Washington while their younger daughter finishes high school has combined with the compulsion of the new Trump administration to keep pulling them back into the spotlight.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly invoked his predecessor to blame him for the "mess" he says he inherited: "jobs pouring out of the country," "major problems" in the Middle East and North Korea. A post-election show of camaraderie has ended; the two have not spoken since Trump took office.

Trump dropped any remaining veneer of politeness this month with a series of tweets accusing Obama - without offering evidence - of illegally surveilling Trump Tower during the campaign. Obama was privately irritated at the allegation, which the director of the FBI and lawmakers from both parties dismissed as unfounded.

He has attempted to stay above the fray, watching from the sidelines as Republicans have pressed to unravel a slew of his initiatives - and emphasizing the need for a new generation of political leaders to step up in his place.

And yet, while other recent ex-presidents have devoted their retirement years to apolitical, do-gooder causes, Obama is gearing up to throw himself into the wonky and highly partisan issue of redistricting, with the goal of reversing the electoral declines Democrats experienced under his watch.

Both the continued interest in Obama and his desire to remain engaged in civic life place him in an unusual position for a former president. George W. Bush left office with low approval rates, retreating to Dallas to write a memoir and take up painting. Bill Clinton decamped for New York on a somewhat higher note politically but downshifted to a mission of building his family's foundation and supporting his wife's political career.

Can the Obamas put their heads down and build their ambitious presidential center while living only blocks from the White House? Or is it inevitable that he will get pulled back into the political swamp?

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In February, Obama attended a Broadway performance of Arthur Miller's "The Price" along with his older daughter, Malia, and Jarrett. They slipped into the theater after the lights went down and left before they came up, most of the audience unaware of his presence - until a New York Times reporter sitting in front of him tweeted about it. By the time Obama left, a crowd had gathered outside.

Paparazzi wait outside of the D.C. SoulCycle exercise studio that Michelle Obama frequents, though she clearly does not appear interested in being photographed.

"They are still decompressing from an extremely intense period. It actually started not just eight years ago but really since his 2004 convention speech - and it never let up," said a former senior West Wing staffer. "It's like 12 years of extremely intense stress, political activity, scrutiny, responsibility as a national leader, and for the first lady as the surrogate in chief. ... That's been a big load for the both of them."

To escape the spotlight, the Obamas have taken multiple vacations since leaving the White House - to Palm Springs, the Caribbean and Hawaii. After meeting with tech executives about his presidential center recently, Obama headed to Oahu, where he golfed with friends and dined at Buzz's Lanikai steakhouse in Kailua.

Three days later he jetted off in a Gulfstream G550 to Tetiaroa, a South Pacific island once owned by Marlon Brando. He plans an extended stay there to start writing his White House memoir, according to a person familiar with his plans who asked for anonymity to discuss them.

His whereabouts have been obsessively scrutinized. The conservative Independent Journal Review hinted at some murky connection between Obama's Oahu visit and a Hawaii federal court ruling putting a temporary stay on Trump's latest travel ban; the conspiratorial story was later retracted. At a GOP dinner, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., declared that Obama stayed in Washington "to run the shadow government that is going to totally upset the new agenda." (Kelly later played down his claim.)

Trump, meanwhile, has kept his distance. Before he took office, the new president said he intended to seek Obama's counsel in the future, but he has not. Trump called once to thank Obama for the letter left in his desk, a pleasant tradition among presidents, but Obama was traveling at the time, according to an individual familiar with the exchange. When Obama returned the call, Trump conveyed his thanks through an aide but said there was no need to get Obama on the phone.

Few believe the Obamas plan to stay in Washington beyond their daughter Sasha's 2019 graduation from Sidwell Friends School. "People admire and respect the decision that Barack and Michelle Obama made as parents to minimize the disruption to their children," former vice president Al Gore told The Washington Post. "When I left my job in the White House, my kids were out of high school. If they had still been in grade school or high school, I might have well made the decision to stay in the city."

When Obama has been in town, he has not been much of a public presence. Both he and the former first lady have entertained friends in their Kalorama home, newly redecorated to suit their modern style; and both frequently go into in their new West End office space.

About 15 staffers work there, with the framed flag that the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden presented to the former president displayed in the entryway. One floor of the new office houses aides, including Jarrett, who are helping to build Obama's foundation, which is headquartered in Chicago.

For now, Obama is delegating political work to associates - notably former attorney general Eric Holder, whom he has tapped to lead the redistricting project that aims to help Democrats redraw legislative maps that many see as tilted toward the GOP. He also endorsed Tom Perez, his former secretary of labor, in a successful bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. His first major speech as a private citizen will come in May, where he will be awarded a Medal of Courage as part of a celebration of President John F. Kennedy's centennial.

Michelle Obama, who has a team of four staffers in the office, is spending more time than her husband in Washington, working on her own post-White House book while remaining focused on the home front.

"She's got one daughter to get off to college, another is a (sophomore) in high school. All of that comes first," said Tina Tchen, her White House chief of staff. "Now she will also be working on the book and still keeping up her engagement with the community as she always has."

Her first forays back into public have been visits to D.C. public schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods. These visits have drawn extra attention, perhaps because Melania Trump has held very few public events so far.

Michelle Obama marked International Women's Day this month by visiting the Cardozo Education Campus and praising its program for recent immigrants. Without mentioning Trump by name, it seemed to be a swipe at his immigration policies.

"She's deliberate. She likes to be strategic," said Jocelyn Frye, who attended Harvard Law with the former first lady and served as her first White House policy director. "She doesn't just do stuff by the seat of her pants."

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Unlike other former first couples, the Obamas do not necessarily have to take to a podium to make a statement. They know their every public movement is plumbed for meaning.

Caught in glimpses over the past few weeks, they appeared relatively rested and refreshed, even as they continue to decompress.

They joined their close friends Anita Blanchard and Marty Nesbitt at the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of Chicago artist Theaster Gates's unique work - installations constructed from pieces of demolished buildings from African American communities.

Gallery director Earl "Rusty" Powell Powell described it as a "casual Sunday afternoon visit" - but someone alerted the Associated Press, which stationed a photographer outside to capture them as they emerged. The former president's leather jacket and dark-washed blue jeans drew much approval from outlets that had showered the Obamas with attention for years: "Chic and serene," opined a Vogue writer.

Obama was similarly "relaxed and calm" when he dropped in on a Chicago meeting with community organizers planning his future presidential library, according to participant Torrey Barrett.

"When he saw me, it wasn't a traditional handshake," said Barrett, founder and CEO of the KLEO Community Family Life Center, which sits near the library site. "It was actually a dap, where we shook hands and patted on the back at the same time. ... He said he and Michelle's main priority now is to make sure the library happens."

When the group posed for a photo with Obama, the Rev. Richard Tolliver, who has known him since his days in the Illinois legislature, stood to his old friend's right.

"I had my arm around his back and he had his arm around mine," Tolliver recalled. "I reminded him that the last time I tried to hug him, the Secret Service snatched my arm away. We laughed. He didn't come off as stiff and formal, projecting the authority of his former office."

But even in retirement, Obama was in a hurry. After 15 minutes, he rushed off to another engagement.

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Video: The current and former presidents have had some ups and downs in their relationship. From riding together up Pennsylvania Avenue to Trump accusing Obama of wire-tapping him, here's a look at their rapport since Trump's election. (The Washington Post)

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http://wapo.st/2my1sNm

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'I could never live in Texas. This is Austin.'

By Rachel Muir
'I could never live in Texas. This is Austin.'
Kayakers take in the skyline from Lady Bird Lake, which is encircled by a hiking-and-biking trail that stretches more than 10 miles. MUST CREDIT: Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

AUSTIN, Texas - With a Texas-size shiny, red boot kicking up its heel on the roof, Allens Boots was hard to miss. Inside were more than 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots, silver belt buckles ranging from merely shiny to massive statement and stack after stack of Stetson hats.

Not to be outdone, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, a few doors down on South Congress Avenue, was crowned with an outsize statue of its own: a 12-foot-tall zebra in full Carmen Miranda costume. Inside, clothing racks were packed with costumes and vintage clothes: Cleopatra to Care Bears and almost everything in between.

On the same block was Uncommon Goods, a self-described "emporium of transcendent junk," where a taxidermied bobcat frozen mid-pounce vied with risque tarot cards for customers' attention. The Austin Motel, a couple of blocks down, looked like it had surfaced from a groovy time capsule with its longtime billboard proclaiming itself "So Close and So Far Out." Across the street, a busker gamely spun his drumsticks in front of a "Willie Nelson for President" mural.

There was not a Starbucks, Gap or CVS in sight.

We were in Austin's SoCo neighborhood - the offbeat heart of the capital city famously described by former governor Rick Perry as "the blueberry in the tomato soup" of Texas. My only previous experience in the state was a foolhardy spring break road trip from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to South Padre Island at its southern tip. While that did impress upon me the sheer size of Texas (a 12-hour drive from stern to stem), suffice it to say, my visit to Austin this winter was different.

First off, my 15-year-old daughter, Sophie, and I had a direct flight. Also, Austinites assured us we weren't exactly in the Lone Star state.

"I could never live in Texas," tour guide and musician Jason Weems, said. "This is Austin."

We spent four nights in Austin over my daughter's winter break in late December, inspired by little more than a sale fare and a sense that Austin was cool. Rather than staying in a hotel, we opted to rent a small house through SoCo Spaces, which manages nine properties in the South Congress Avenue area. Ours, "The Orange Door," was a modern two-bedroom ranch in the quiet Travis Heights neighborhood, an easy 10-minute walk to the main strip on South Congress.

To get anywhere beyond walking distance, we used Fasten, Austin's alternative to Uber and Lyft. Rides around town typically cost $5 to $10, and we only once had to wait more than five minutes for a ride.

After a late-evening arrival, we spent the morning of our first full day in the city on Austin Detours' two-hour "Real Austin" tour. The small group van tour, led by Weems, included stops at some of the capital city's highlights. Our tour started in SoCo and headed north over the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge.

We saw Austin's landmarks: its towering, sunset-red state Capitol building - its taller-than-the-U.S.-Capitol stature a bragging right for Texans everywhere, Weems said - and the expansive University of Texas campus, including its clock tower, famous as a campus center and infamous as the site of the first mass shooting of the modern era. Also, the LBJ Presidential Library is there.

Our progress was marked by street art, from the "Hi: how are you?" frog mural near the university famously worn on a T-shirt by Kurt Cobain to the pretty, looping cursive "I love you so much" on the side of Jo's Coffee in SoCo, originally written by a woman to her partner but widely seen as a love letter to the city itself.

We also stopped to see street art on an almost dizzying scale at the Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned construction site turned into a community graffiti park. Color, tags, cartoons and slogans blanketed every discernible space of the three-story, one-acre park. In my line of vision were Count von Count from Sesame Street, an alien, a viking hat and the phrase "Global warming is a hoax." It was a little like looking into a strobe light.

Weems also introduced us to our first Austin food trailer, Gourdough's, with its immensely satisfying - and just plain immense - doughnuts. (A waiter at another restaurant told us he only lets himself eat one a year.) Consumed: the "Flying Pig," a salad plate-size pastry covered in maple glaze and topped off with a mound of bacon.

We tried the popular Odd Duck for our first dinner. The restaurant, which got its start in a trailer, focuses on pairing locally sourced ingredients in unexpected ways, including the salty, delicious pretzel pig-face carnitas and a tasty redfish ceviche with sweet potato curry and grapefruit.

The next day we checked out three Austin retail legends located within a block of each other on the busy thoroughfare of Lamar. We browsed at Waterloo Records, an Austin legend at which customers can hear any of its massive collection of CDs and vinyl before purchase. I bought my first CD since 2009 (the awesome live music sampler "KGSR Broadcasts, Vol. 24").

Next we marveled at the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods, now topped with an ice rink, just a few iterations from the humble natural food store that opened its doors in Austin in 1980. Finally, we made our way to Book People, the city's largest independent bookstore, a place damn close to heaven on Earth for an avid reader.

After perusing its stacks, laden with handwritten staff pick cards, and chatting with employees seemingly at the ready with offbeat recommendations for any genre, I emerged with five books by authors unknown to me.

We concluded our day at Fixe, a relatively new restaurant that aims to "celebrate the soul of the South," which reminded me how excellent Southern cooking can be. The legendary biscuits are fluffy, buttery, served steaming with a heavenly pork spread. The restaurant also offers up a fantastically crispy fried chicken and multiple savory variations of that Southern staple, grits.

Since we were celebrating the soul of the South, we made it a point to schedule a Texas barbecue stop. My pulled pork sandwich at La Barbecue - a food trailer in Cesar Chavez Park favored by locals - was perfect, tangy barbecue balanced with a sharp chipotle coleslaw. It also offers frozen fare that you can bring back in your suitcase, like the five-pound brisket I made my daughter lug home.

With temperate weather much of the year, a lot of life in Austin is lived outdoors. We made a short-lived attempt to follow suit, embarking on an afternoon bike tour that was cut short by rain.

"Lady Bird Lake is absolutely beautiful," said John Mutchler, our guide from Rocket Electrics, which runs the company's daily bike tours along the lake trail. We had an expansive view of the Austin skyline across the water, one Mutchler says is constantly changing given Austin's exponential growth in the tech sector, and of the few crew teams that braved the rain to practice. The trail winds around to Barton Springs - an outdoor pool fed by natural springs and open year-round - and the city's much-photographed Stevie Ray Vaughan statue.

Like Weems, Mutchler is a working musician as well as a tour guide. "Music is what brought me," he told us. Austin has about 250 live music venues, he said, ranging from Austin City Limits to clubs on Red River Street, north of the Colorado River.

Sophie, of course, was too young to get into most of the city's clubs, but live music permeates the city - in coffee shops, on restaurant patios, street corners, in parks. We stopped to watch the "Washboard Tie Guy," clad in trademark cap and percussive tie (yes, he plays it), set up his stage on South Congress Avenue.

On our last night in Austin we ate at a place we still can't get out of our heads - Uchi, the storied sushi restaurant that a decade ago catapulted Austin into a new class of food city. Certainly it revolutionized the way I think of sushi, which admittedly was not particularly sophisticated before. We tried "biendo," a take on spring roll with shrimp tempura with slivers of grapes on top; a variation on what Japanese children have for breakfast with salmon and green tea (which seems to have ruined Cheerios for Sophie); and "hot rocks" with Wagyu beef. Each dish was a micro work of art.

Early the next morning, New Year's Eve, I wandered down to a still mostly empty SoCo for a last look and coffee at Jo's before we packed up and headed to the airport. A week later, we feasted on the brisket, a smoky, tender taste of real Texas barbecue on a cold, winter day.

- - -

Muir is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia.

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If you go

Where to eat

Uchi

801 S. Lamar

512-916-4808

uchiaustin.com

Austin's famed sushi restaurant pairs fish flown in daily from Tokyo with local ingredients in both traditional and unexpected offerings. The restaurant takes a limited number of reservations, but guests can sit outside and enjoy sake while waiting for a table. Dinner, including an adult beverage, costs around $74.

Fixe

500 W. Fifth St.

512-888-9133

austinfixe.com

Under New Orleans native executive chef James Robert, Fixe offers iconic Southern food - biscuits, grits, fried chicken and more - done right. Entrees for around $25.

Odd Duck

1201 S. Lamar

512-433-6521

oddduckaustin.com

Run by second-generation Austin chef Bryce Gilmore, Odd Duck's farm-to-table menu changes frequently to showcase local, seasonal ingredients. Dinner, including an adult beverage, for around $50.

La Barbecue

1906 E. Caesar Chavez

512-605-9696

labarbecue.com

One of Austin's most popular barbecue food trailers with a sometimes two-to-three-hour wait. To skip the line, visit with a food tour (Austin Eats goes there) or preorder. Sandwiches average $10.

Gourdough's

Several locations with Airstream at 1503 S. First St.

512-912-9070

gourdoughs.com

These delicious treats - along with the fried chicken, bacon, jalapeño jelly, grilled bananas and, in some iterations, gummy worms they are served with - are a meal and a half in and of themselves. Doughnut entrees and sandwiches average $10.

What to do

Austin Detours

512-962-8636

austindetours.com

Offers a range of tours, including ones focused on city highlights, music and the Hill Country, starting at $35 per person.

Rocket Electrics

512-442-2453

rocketelectrics.com

Electric bike tours around Lady Bird Lake, as well as food and music tours, start at $58 per person.

Austin Eats

512-963-4545

austineatsfoodtours.com

Excursions, which include a best of food trucks tour and a SoCo and East Austin walking tour, start at $69 a person.

Information

austintexas.org

- R.M.

After 'Moneyball,' Tabitha Soren kept shooting, and the results are stunning

By Geoff Edgers
After 'Moneyball,' Tabitha Soren kept shooting, and the results are stunning
Tabitha Soren, author of

Back before a president could phone-drop on Kimmel or tweet his way directly into the headlines, there was really only one person who could help you reach the youthful masses. Her name was Tabitha Soren and she worked for MTV News. And during the 1990s, Soren's gets included both Clintons, Yasser Arafat and Anita Hill. Then something strange happened. Soren decided she didn't want to be on TV anymore. She wanted to take pictures.

In a way, it made perfect sense. Soren grew up a military kid, relying on her 35-millimeter camera to remember the people and places that made up a childhood. And Soren graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism and politics, not necessarily a prerequisite for an internship on "Headbangers Ball."

Her professional photography career started when she would accompany her husband, Michael Lewis, on assignments and shoot pictures for his stories. In 2003, that meant photographing the members of the Oakland Athletics draft class featured in his book "Moneyball." Then she kept shooting. "I just thought, here are these people starting something," she says now. "Wouldn't it be nice to see what it's like at the end?"

Some made it, including future stars Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen. But most never got close. "Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream," her first book, arrives in time for Opening Day and documents many of those players. This sampling of Soren's photos also includes two A's draftees who aren't in the book - Steve Stanley and Lloyd Turner. Each ballplayer supplied Soren with an essay, excerpted here.

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Mark Teahen

Major leagues: 9 seasons. Highest annual salary: $4.75 million

Professional baseball is a constant adjustment: to the weather conditions, the opposing pitcher or to your living situation. Jumping from minor league baseball in small towns on a tiny salary to playing on a national stage for big bucks was a shock to my system. Competing against the best players in the world was a large enough difference, but the instant notoriety and public spotlight was a huge change from the minor leagues. Every great play is on ESPN, but it's also impossible to hide when you are struggling or make an error that costs the team.

After being drafted, I completely reworked my college swing to be able to hit higher-caliber pitchers. Less than a year later, I was traded to the Kansas City Royals - which was the first of nine times I would be traded. I was on the Diamondbacks for two months, the Reds for one day and the Rangers for 10 days! I quickly realized tomorrow wasn't guaranteed, so I battled and tried to get comfortable quickly so that I could perform on the field. The game was the same - but I had new teammates, new personalities and a new organization to impress. The effort to find my niche became as challenging as being a productive player.

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Steve Stanley

Minor league average: .292 in 432 games

I came from a place of deep trust for all people. I never looked at relationships cautiously. That changed when I turned pro. Most of the players that I saw have great success were the ones that understood that they needed to protect themselves. Nick Swisher was a good example. I watched him in the cage in Sacramento, where a coach was giving him feedback. He was taking it in stride. He would try it for the session, and then when it was over he would go right back to doing things his way. He was brilliant at the politics of the game.

Mark McLemore came down to Sacramento on a AAA rehab stint and summed it up beautifully. My coaches in AAA truly believed that I needed to pull the ball more and stop trying to go to the opposite field so much. I was in the cage hitting and a coach said, "Those cheap hits to left field won't work in the show." I stepped out of the cage and McLemore looked at me and said: "Don't listen to a word they are saying. That place where you are hitting the ball has $20 million in it." He was referring to his career earnings for being a opposite-field hitter.

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Lloyd Turner

533 minor league games; 622 in independent league

As a player, I did experience a piece of the American Dream. I also suffered through the reality. Part of the grind wore on me mentally. I truly believed in my ability, and yet, there was another part of the game that was filled with fear of not making it. The Mental Game of baseball is hard, especially in your young 20s. I allowed so many things that I couldn't control affect me in a negative way. I started searching for who I was as a player. If I wasn't in the lineup, I became very angry. If I played and didn't get more than one hit, I worried that I may not play the next day. But you can't control the lineup, someone else's promotion, or how a coach views you. These worries kept me from sleeping at night. And that's a surefire way not to play your best the next game. I should have just stayed ready for the next opportunity and kept doing my normal routine. There was nothing to search for and a lot to endure. Enduring something means you continue to believe in yourself and do what it is that you do best and not CHANGE!

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Drew Dickinson

Total earned over 5 ½ minor league seasons: $40,000

Since I was 7 years old, all I wanted to be was a professional baseball player. Even as I got older in school and the question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" was asked, I always replied immediately that I wanted to be a professional baseball player, not caring that people thought I was crazy. Baseball was my life, passion and dream. I had a great high school career, which I turned into a great college career at the University of Illinois, where I was a two-time all-American. In 2002, my dream came true when I was drafted by the A's in the 28th round.

I wasn't the hardest-throwing pitcher out there, but I could locate and change speeds better than most. When I was released by Oakland in 2006 I of course was devastated, but I had no regrets. Oakland gave me every opportunity to make it to the big leagues. But unfortunately it didn't happen. I rose quickly through the system to Double-A but seemingly hit the proverbial wall. I quite honestly just didn't throw hard enough to generate the success I needed to keep moving - and once that happens you usually end up getting released, and that's what happened to me. I went as far as my abilities would allow, and some would argue further than anyone else would have gone with those same abilities.

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Jeremy Brown

Major league games: 5

Walking away from baseball was one of the toughest decisions that I have ever had to make. I had come to a point where my personal life was more important than continuing baseball. I was going through a divorce and my kids lived in Florida. I wanted to be closer to them and not traveling all the time while they were so young. I love the game and had the time of my life when I was playing. If circumstances had been different, someone would have had to rip the jersey off of my back to stop me from playing.

I enjoyed the minor league lifestyle. I enjoyed what we were getting paid to do - even if it was a bit like "Groundhog Day." You play. You come home. You work out and then play again. I moved back near my home town of Hueytown, Ala., and worked as a coal miner with my dad on the night shift. But now I've completed my college degree and I'm about to get my teacher's certificate. I'm a regular guy from Alabama now, but I was a regular guy from Alabama when I was playing, too. I continue to work with lots of aspiring baseball players through our Dixie Youth program. One day soon, I hope to open an indoor baseball facility for the kids and coach full time. I have a knack for it.

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Ben Fritz

Minor league pitching record: 34-41

Even before I was drafted in the first round by the A's, there were many opportunities to play the "what if" game. It all started in college. I played hurt, by choice, on several occasions. What if I hadn't done that? My sophomore year I would catch eight innings and pitch the ninth on a few occasions. My junior year I would pitch Friday, play first Saturday, catch Sunday and the midweek game. What if I hadn't done that? Many of my outings I threw 120-plus pitches. Looking back it sounds crazy, but maybe that's because that's what everyone tells me. Professionally there are many "what ifs" as well. I made several mechanical tweaks throughout my career, the bulk of them after my elbow blew out. I lost roughly 4 mph. Was it because of the surgery/rehab or the mechanical changes? I pitched through some arm issues that I didn't want to say anything about. I personally think everything happens for a reason and try not to play the "what if" game. I wouldn't change a thing I did. I loved every minute of it. I absolutely wish I got the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, but "what if" this was supposed to be my path?

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The lies that bind

By michael gerson
The lies that bind

WASHINGTON -- It must be confusing to President Trump that the political system, the media and a majority of voters have suddenly called him on a deception, on a lie. It has seldom, if ever, happened before.

It did not seem to matter when he claimed to have evidence that President Obama was born abroad; or when he insisted that crowds of American Muslims celebrated 9/11 in the streets; or when he said that the murder rate was the highest in half a century; or when he claimed the largest electoral-vote victory since Ronald Reagan; or when he asserted that massive voter fraud cost him a popular-vote win; or when he claimed the largest inaugural crowd in history.

What about this particular accusation -- that Obama ordered the bugging of Trump Tower -- was finally too difficult for the body politic to swallow? How was this different from the maggoty meals that preceded it?

Some of the difference surely comes in having historically high and intense disapproval ratings. A president who is low in the polls is vulnerable to narratives of scandal and failure. Perhaps the authorities that refuted the president brought greater gravity to the task. The FBI director and Congress still carry more weight than PolitiFact.

But whatever the reason, the reaction to Trump’s latest deception is a sign of civic health -- though really more of a weak, irregular pulse.

Trump is an intuitive demagogue. He knows that by taking and holding the high ground of epistemology (how we know what we know), he can control the political landscape. So he dominates partisan media, attempts to discredit other sources of information (the media, the FBI, the CIA, the Congressional Budget Office), and builds a type of loyalty impervious to factual correction.

Trump did not create the conditions for his own rise. During the Obama era, conservative media, particularly talk radio, adopted what Vox’s David Roberts calls a “tribal epistemology.” All facts were filtered for the benefit of the tribe. In this approach, information is only useful as ammunition. And conflicting views are entirely the result of bad faith. This was a political wave well suited to an empty vessel. Trump was willing to say anything the medium demanded.

At the same time, a different tribe -- academic liberalism -- was moving in a similar direction. In this approach, the very possibility of truth is undermined by philosophies of relativism and reductionism. Conservatism is seen by them as a fight for privilege and oppression. Conflicting views are dismissed as a matter of bad faith. And dissenting voices in the academy can be silenced for the benefit of a rootless righteousness.

Put a representative of each of these tribes in a room -- one in red war paint, the other in blue -- and the result would be a shouting match, or worse. (I am actually describing the last Thanksgiving table discussion for many Americans.) On issues such as climate change or gun control, the reds and blues do not see different ways up the mountain. They see two different mountains -- two different fact sets, two different political, social and scientific realities.

In an important way, the views of the right-wing populist tribe and the left-wing academic tribe are not symmetrical. Only one has seized control of a political party. And this makes the critique of Trumpism more urgent.

The main problem with tribal definitions of truth is that conflict can only be expressed in combat (verbal and otherwise). If rational arguments, conducted in good faith, holding out the possibility of compromise, are impossible, there is only one way to decide between conflicting views: power. If the enemy is beyond persuasion, all that remains is compulsion. This may be why so many of Trump’s attempts at persuasion have an air of threat and menace. “Oh Mark,” Trump recently told Rep. Mark Meadows during a meeting of House Republicans, “I’m coming after you.”

A commitment to truth is not the only democratic value. It should be accompanied by an appropriate humility and respect for the dignity and rights of others. Both James Madison and Maximilien Robespierre pursued certain truths about human equality; only one employed the argument of the guillotine.

But there are times and places when the truth needs bold defenders. Vaclav Havel stepped forward and refused “to live within a lie.” Said Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “In our country, the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the state.”

That is a condition no democracy can accept, and good reason to reject the lies that bind.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

Catherine Rampell column ADVISORY

By catherine rampell
Catherine Rampell column ADVISORY

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

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(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

The GOP’s top priority is in trouble

By catherine rampell
The GOP’s top priority is in trouble

Despite Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the party’s top priority -- sharp, deep, down-to-the-bone tax cuts -- is in trouble.

And the chaos over the Obamacare repeal is largely to blame.

Tax cuts (specifically, tax cuts for corporations and the rich) may be the only thing that Republican moderates and more radical Freedom Caucus members uniformly agree on. Axing taxes has somehow acquired near-reverential status in the party of Lincoln, with politicians repeatedly trying to out-Reagan even Saint Ronald.

But despite their partywide appeal, cuts of the magnitude being sought by Trump and congressional Republicans still ain’t easy. To get them to the president’s desk without being blocked by a Democratic filibuster, the plan needs to meet certain arcane criteria.

Actually, one specific criterion: It cannot increase long-term deficits.

Even with stronger economic growth, this is impossible. The kinds of corporate and personal income-tax rate reductions that Trump and congressional Republicans want are just too expensive.

In the decade after next -- which is, perhaps counterintuitively, the period that actually matters if you want to prevent a filibuster -- the House plan would cost $6.6 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Meanwhile, the price tag for Trump’s most recent plan is a whopping $20.9 trillion.

Either way, that’s a pretty deep hole to fill. More like a canyon, really.

Republicans have a few options for reducing or offsetting the costs of their cuts.

They could reduce deductions, credits and other “loopholes” in the tax code, of which there are many. For example, the state and local tax deduction (sorry, blue states!) and the adoption tax credit (also sorry, big-hearted families!) are on the chopping block.

Unfortunately, however, Republicans have been loath to close some of the loopholes that would bring in the most revenue, such as the exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and the mortgage interest deduction.

So the real money must come from elsewhere.

One source would be the “border-adjustment tax,” which is actually already in the House plan.

This is a change to how imports and exports are treated for corporate tax purposes; firms wouldn’t get taxed on proceeds from sales abroad, but they also wouldn’t be allowed to deduct the cost of imports. The National Retail Federation is campaigning aggressively against the provision, and lots of Republicans are balking.

Which means that big pot of money may vanish.

The other large offset comes through Trumpcare.

As I explained recently, the Republican “health care” bill was never actually about health care; it was always about tax cuts that would pave the way for more tax cuts. The bill may not make health care more affordable, or offer more “freedom,” but it sure as heck does include hundreds of billions of tax cuts for medical-device manufacturers, drugmakers, insurers and rich people. Families making more than $200,000 would account for 71 percent of the net tax decrease under the law.

Now, why would cutting taxes today, through Trumpcare, also make it easier to cut taxes again later in a bigger bill?

By shifting some of the costs of those revenue losers into Trumpcare, when they can be paid for through reduced insurance subsidies and reductions in Medicaid spending, they’ll no longer be weighing down the much larger tax-overhaul legislation.

As a result, the size of the hole that Republicans have to fill later would get a little shallower. It’s devilishly clever, when you think about it.

With Trumpcare in peril, though, this ingenious tax-cutting strategy is, too.

Republicans have promised too many mutually exclusive changes to health-care policy. The kinds of changes necessary to appease the most conservative members of the House will not fly with enough Republican senators. Already six Republican senators have said they were a firm “no” on an earlier version of the bill, and the party can afford only two.

And if Obamacare repeal fails, the entire scheme for tax cuts may, too.

If that happens, Republicans have a few options. They could scale back the ambitions of their tax-cutting scheme. They could sunset the cuts, so that they increase deficits in the near term but then abruptly end before they do so in the long term. (This is, as you may recall, what happened with the George W. Bush tax cuts, and what led to the “fiscal cliff” fiasco in January 2013.)

Or -- here’s a crazy thought -- they could consider working with Democrats to produce something more bipartisan, so they don’t need to box themselves into this too-clever-for-its-own-good, anti-filibuster-centric approach in the first place.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

For the Trump administration, an operatic start

By david ignatius
For the Trump administration, an operatic start

AMSTERDAM -- Many people do crazy things in middle age. I decided to write the libretto for an opera about Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s called “The New Prince,” premiering here this weekend at the Dutch National Opera.

When I began work on this project in 2014 with composer Mohammed Fairouz, the possibility that Donald Trump would be president of the United States -- or that the Machiavellian aspects of his personality would be a subject of global concern -- was nearly unimaginable. But that was then.

Two days after Trump’s election, I wrote that he embodied some of the amoral qualities that the Florentine philosopher recommended in his masterpiece, “The Prince.” Certainly, Trump is ruthless. He lies, deceives and manipulates where necessary. And he is lucky, a quality Machiavelli thought was crucial in politics, but one that he rarely experienced in his own life.

But on further consideration (which, surely, a librettist is allowed), I don’t think that Trump, with his braggadocio and contempt for fact, really embodies the spirit of “virtue” that Machiavelli regarded as essential for political success. Machiavelli believed in the fact-based life. He insisted on telling the truth to his princes, no matter how painful or scandalous it might be. In this sense, Trump, the serial fabricator, may be the anti-Machiavelli.

Trump often seems to be embracing one of the ideas that Machiavelli feared most, which is that politics can transform culture and, indeed, human character. There’s a distant echo in his populism of Savonarola, the fanatical friar who sought to cleanse Florence of the contamination brought by the Medici banking family that had ruled the city-state before. This call to deconstruction and reformation has been summed up by Trump in the phrase: “Drain the swamp.”

The clearest advocate of Trump’s revolutionary ideology has been Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist. Bannon has expressed admiration for Thomas Cromwell, the shrewd Machiavellian adviser to King Henry VIII who is featured in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy. But Bannon sounds to my ear less like the supple, calculating Cromwell, and more like his idealistic, die-hard nemesis, Thomas More.

We hear Bannon’s voice in nearly every proclamation and executive order from the White House. But perhaps the clearest distillation was a 2014 address to a conference at the Vatican that was, in effect, a mobilization for cultural war. I quote Bannon:

“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict ... to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Bannon warned about what he called the “jihadist Islamic fascism” of the Islamic State, and also about the “immense secularization of the West.” He told the Vatican audience: “As you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us -- ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?”

How would Machiavelli respond to this call to arms? We can only guess. But everything I’ve learned over the last few years of research tells me that he would have been skeptical of such extremism. He didn’t believe in either the elites or the fanatics who would overthrow them. As Yale professor Erica Benner, a leading modern scholar of Machiavelli, writes:

“The Medici and Savonarola in Florence offered their rival brands of redemption. Throngs of citizens who should have known better rushed to embrace one or the other, hoping in vain for some great man or prophet to ‘pick them up.’ ‘The Prince’ reminds readers of all these exhilarating princely promises -- and their sorry results.”

Richard Daley, the infamous “boss” who ruled Chicago for decades, is supposed to have declared once that politics is about picking up the garbage. That may have been a bit prosaic, but basically, he was right. Politics isn’t about saving souls, or battling civilizations. It’s about maintaining the orderly state, and defending it vigorously when it’s attacked.

The sturdy citizens of the Netherlands might be offended if I described them as Machiavellian. But as I visit Amsterdam, the Dutch have just rejected the right-wing nationalist party of Geert Wilders. If 2016 was the year of populism’s rise, the year of Brexit and Trump, of deconstruction of the liberal political order, then 2017 has begun here in the Netherlands with the rejection of an extremist party and the continuation of the orderly, tolerant state. May this trend continue.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

American democracy: Not so decadent after all

By charles krauthammer
American democracy: Not so decadent after all

WASHINGTON -- Under the dark gray cloud, amid the general gloom, allow me to offer a ray of sunshine. The last two months have brought a pleasant surprise: Turns out the much feared, much predicted withering of our democratic institutions has been grossly exaggerated. The system lives.

Let me explain. Donald Trump’s triumph last year was based on a frontal attack on the Washington “establishment,” that all-powerful, all-seeing, supremely cynical, bipartisan “cartel” (as Ted Cruz would have it) that allegedly runs everything. Yet the establishment proved to be Potemkin empty. In 2016, it folded pitifully, surrendering with barely a fight to a lightweight outsider.

At which point, fear of the vaunted behemoth turned to contempt for its now-exposed lassitude and decadence. Compounding the confusion were Trump’s intimations of authoritarianism. He declared “I alone can fix it” and “I am your voice,” the classic tropes of the demagogue. He unabashedly expressed admiration for strongmen (most notably, Vladimir Putin).

Trump had just cut through the grandees like a hot knife through butter. Who would now prevent him from trampling, caudillo-like, over a Washington grown weak and decadent? A Washington, moreover, that had declined markedly in public esteem, as confidence in our traditional institutions -- from the political parties to Congress -- fell to new lows.

The strongman cometh, it was feared. Who and what would stop him?

Two months into the Trumpian era, we have our answer. Our checks and balances have turned out to be quite vibrant. Consider:

1. The courts.

Trump rolls out not one but two immigration bans, and is stopped dead in his tracks by the courts. However you feel about the merits of the policy itself (in my view, execrable and useless but legal) or the merits of the constitutional reasoning of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (embarrassingly weak, transparently political), the fact remains: The president proposed and the courts disposed.

Trump’s pushback? A plaintive tweet or two complaining about the judges -- that his own Supreme Court nominee denounced (if obliquely) as “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

2. The states.

Federalism lives. The first immigration challenge to Trump was brought by the attorneys general of two states (Washington and Minnesota) picking up on a trend begun during the Barack Obama years when state attorneys general banded together to kill his immigration overreach and the more egregious trespasses of his Environmental Protection Agency.

And beyond working through the courts, state governors -- Republicans, no less -- have been exerting pressure on members of Congress to oppose a Republican president’s signature health care reform. Institutional exigency still trumps party loyalty.

3. Congress.

The Republican-controlled Congress (House and Senate) is putting up epic resistance to a Republican administration’s health care reform. True, that’s because of ideological and tactical disagreements rather than any particular desire to hem in Trump. But it does demonstrate that Congress is no rubber stamp.

And its independence extends beyond the perennially divisive health care conundrums. Trump’s budget, for example, was instantly declared dead on arrival in Congress, as it almost invariably is regardless of which party is in power.

4. The media.

Trump is right. It is the opposition party. Indeed, furiously so, often indulging in appalling overkill. It’s sometimes embarrassing to read the front pages of the major newspapers, festooned as they are with anti-Trump editorializing masquerading as news.

Nonetheless, if you take the view from 30,000 feet, better this than a press acquiescing on bended knee, where it spent most of the Obama years in a slavish Pravda-like thrall. Every democracy needs an opposition press. We damn well have one now.

Taken together -- and suspending judgment on which side is right on any particular issue -- it is deeply encouraging that the sinews of institutional resistance to a potentially threatening executive remain quite resilient.

Madison’s genius was to understand that the best bulwark against tyranny was not virtue -- virtue helps, but should never be relied upon -- but ambition counteracting ambition, faction counteracting faction.

You see it even in the confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s supremely qualified and measured Supreme Court nominee. He’s a slam dunk, yet some factions have scraped together a campaign to block him. Their ads are plaintive and pathetic. Yet I find them warmly reassuring. What a country -- where even the vacuous have a voice.

The anti-Trump opposition flatters itself as “the resistance.” As if this is Vichy France. It’s not. It’s 21st-century America. And the good news is that the checks and balances are working just fine.

Charles Krauthammer’s email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

Are you paying unseen add-on fees for your appraisal?

By kenneth r. harney
Are you paying unseen add-on fees for your appraisal?

WASHINGTON -- Are you getting fleeced on appraisal charges when you buy a house or refinance? Could you be paying as much as double what the appraiser is receiving for actually doing the work, with the excess going to an undisclosed third party?

Many appraisers say yes. And they’re eager to let consumers know that when the appraisal charge is $500 or $800 or $1,000, they’re frequently being paid just a fraction of that. The rest is going to an “appraisal management” company under contract by the lender to oversee the appraisal process. Management companies hire the appraiser, negotiate fees, review the appraisal and send it to the lender. Management companies often select appraisers willing to work for relatively low fees. In exchange, they make assignments available to appraisers that they might not otherwise receive.

Controversy arises when management companies add 35 percent to 50 percent surcharges -- or more -- onto the final bill to the consumer. Federal rules do not require disclosure of the surcharges, nor do regulations in the majority of states. Appraisers say management companies often seek to hide the amount of their add-ons by prohibiting them from attaching their invoices to the appraisal report the consumer receives.

Worst of all, they say, is when the consumer blames the appraiser for the high fee being charged, unaware that much of it is going into a third party’s pockets.

Ryan Lundquist, an appraiser active in the Sacramento, California, market, told me about a recent experience: The house he was asked to appraise had complicated features and was difficult to value, requiring a higher than typical fee -- $800. Subsequently he learned that the management company tacked on an extra $345 -- a 43 percent surcharge -- hitting the consumer with a $1,145 bill. After the homeowner complained, he learned that the management company said the $1,145 was solely Lundquist’s quote, not theirs, which was a lie.

“I was shocked,” Lundquist said in an interview, “it wasn’t honest, it wasn’t ethical,” plus the borrower was being “gouged.” Forty-three percent extra “just seems too much for a middleman service.”

Lundquist described his experience in a blog post, which drew dozens of responses by appraisers around the country, mainly critical about management companies’ add-ons to consumers’ bills.

“I got chewed out by the owner of the house,” wrote one. “Yes, I charged $700. But he (the owner) paid $1,700” -- a $1,000 add-on. “Now that is an excessive fee.” Another complained that a management company had “hit (the home owner’s) credit card three times” for the appraisal fee before the work was performed and then tacked on a 45 percent surcharge. The owner “yelled at me” for the rip-off, he said. The appraiser ultimately declined the assignment rather than work for the management company.

Richard Hagar, an appraiser in the Seattle area, told me in an email that “I’m still receiving fee ‘offers’ (from management companies) below $400, while the borrower is being charged $800.”

Carl Schneider, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, appraiser, said excessive markups are commonplace, but consumers usually “know nothing about it” because the appraiser is prohibited from revealing the actual fee.

“I resent forcibly being complicit in this fraud,” Schneider said in an interview. “Why can’t they be transparent?

David Doering, a Jefferson City, Missouri, appraiser and president of the National Association of Independent Fee Appraisers, told me “we often don’t know what’s being charged to the consumer. We only hear about it when people are angry.”

I asked the executive director of the appraisal management companies’ national trade group, the Real Estate Valuation Advocacy Association, for comment about fee add-ons and efforts to conceal charges, but he declined to discuss pricing, noting that “I am not a party to any AMC (appraisal management company) contracts.”

Jeff Eisenshtadt, president and CEO of Title Source, whose TSI Appraisal division is a major management company, told me “there’s a tremendous amount of value” his industry brings to the table, but “we believe the consumer really should be focused on the bottom line charge for the appraisal,” not the split between the appraiser and the management company. Consumers don’t care about the individual costs of “the pickles and onions and lettuce” that go into a hamburger, he said, nor should they when it comes to appraisals.

Maybe he’s right. But if you care about where your money is going when you pay for an appraisal, ask the lender or the appraiser. Who’s getting what? And why?

Ken Harney’s email address is kenharney@earthlink.net.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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