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The Real “Age Issue”

I’ve finally figured out what’s been bothering me about the popular interpretation of one of Barack Obama’s recent slips. A few weeks ago, Obama was doing some handshake campaigning in a diner in Indiana when the establishment’s proprietor offered him a cup of coffee. When word got out that Obama declined and asked for some orange juice, the media took this as another sign of the candidate’s elitism or lack of common touch.

But that read doesn’t sit quite right. After all, Hillary looked preposterous when she tried to prove her working class credentials through choice of beverage. Yet there was something off about Obama’s response. Watching him sulk around this week, slightly traumatized by the betrayal of a father figure, I realized what the diner incident was: it was childish. The switch from juice to coffee is a rite of adulthood. It’s not that Obama seemed to hold himself above the coffee drinkers. It’s that he seemed to lag behind them. He’s still on fruit juice while the adults are sipping bitter and bracing coffee.

In the course of the past few months, Obama has gone from broadcasting a worrying arrogance to radiating a near-helplessness. The Wright affair has played out like a textbook teenage drama. Obama fell in with the wrong crowd, refused to stop seeing them, got into real trouble, and had to come to painful grips with the fact that his friends were just users. In this and several other respects, Obama seems, simply, young. The overconfidence, the need to be adored by everyone, the naiveté, and now the befuddlement.

Some months back, Obama said, “One of the things that I’ve known about myself for a long time is that, in difficult or stressful moments, I don’t get rattled And I don’t get rattled during campaigns. I don’t get rattled when things are up . . . and I don’t get too low when things are down.”

This was pure adolescent bravado. At that point, things had not yet been “down” for him, so he couldn’t accurately predict how he’d respond to crisis. Now, the evidence is in: Obama gets rattled.

In policy choices, he’s ordering straight off the kid’s menu. During the last debate, when Charlie Gibson asked Obama a very adult question about why he planned to raise the capital gains tax (as doing so would almost surely lower revenue), the candidate responded: “Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.”

Fairness.

Anyone who’s ever spent any time around children is all too familiar with the argument from fairness: This isn’t fair; that’s not fair; nothing is fair. In the adult world, it’s not that fairness isn’t an admirable goal, but rather that when fairness is imposed by the government you end up with something much nastier than unfairness: a parental state. (Something, incidentally, which a grown child would presumably want.)

His national security policy isn’t about national security. It’s about getting America voted most popular. We’ll meet with enemies in the hope that they will like us. As if the U.S. is the alienated kid who desperately tries to befriend the class bully in order to elevate his status.

Never mind John McCain’s actual age. While he is a senior, there’s certainly nothing quiescent about his approach to crisis or politics in general. It’s Barack Obama’s arrested development which is troubling.