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From Disgusting to Odd

A question about Barack Obama is starting to take shape in the American mind: where does this stop? The “this” is the collective hodgepodge of delinquent policy, administrative incompetence, a bottomless capacity for self-delusion, hubris, and the vetoing of American opinion. The “this” is comprised of attempts to harness populist disaffection in order to create a diversion, the presidential campaign that never ends, the 24/7 up-and-down-the-dial interview blitz, the hyper-partisan “post-partisanship,” and, foremost, the compulsion to lay all blame at the feet of the previous president.

Back in October, Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s incessant denunciation of George W. Bush “disgusting.” Three months later, and still going strong, the habit is bordering on eccentric. Not merely in its preponderance, but in kind. Consider that Obama explained away Republican Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory as resulting from Americans’ anger over the “past eight years.” A Republican won because of the voters’ rage toward Bush?

Also bordering on the eccentric is the president’s endless infatuation with his own story. On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Obama noted how the Soviet Union’s collapse paved the way for his path to the White House. He thought the Olympics would be in the bag if he flew to Copenhagen and recited a tale from the Book of Barack. When he went to Massachusetts to stump for Martha Coakley, he told the audience, “So it’s good to be back in Boston. . . I came back here a few years ago and gave a little speech that turned out pretty well.” This was a reference to the electrifying DNC Convention speech that made him a star. “Something about Boston folks have just always been good to me,” he said, as if the people of Massachusetts were obligated to uphold this benevolent tradition. This time he was heckled and the state took a fatal chunk out of his agenda.

And it is courting eccentricity to remain unable to take a definitive position: to amplify and wind down the same war in the same speech, to simultaneously rescue and punish big banks, to overrule the voters who put him in office and to “never stop fighting” for them.

Early in his presidency, Obama spoke of his belief in persistence. But his dogged effort to force his left-wing square-peg agenda into the moderate round hole of American politics feels more like an unhealthy obsession. He tried to “jam it down Americans’ throats.” Fine. But to keep jamming even after the public has regurgitated in such dramatic fashion?

For all this, Obama makes a tremendous show of his cool nerves. “I don’t rattle,” he said. In a way, that’s true. Blaming Republican failings for the Massachusetts Republican victory, for example, is not a sign of being rattled. It’s a sign of disconnected logic, a much more exotic subconscious defense. It requires a lot of psychological reapportioning not to get rattled while flailing on the world stage. Instead of losing your cool, you indulge in excessive denial or projection or sublimation. Something, after all, has got to give. It’s becoming clear that something is giving. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Sherman Frederick put it, “this kind of weird delusion is consistent with the unbounded hubris of Team Obama.”

During the campaign, we heard endlessly about Barack Obama’s “presidential temperament.” But a few observers thought of it more as a strange placidity. What, in fact, is presidential about terminal aloofness? He’s the chief executive of a country that’s fighting two wars, struggling to get out from under an unprecedented financial breakdown, staring a near-nuclear Iran in the face, and on the constant receiving end of terrorist threats. Yet the most fired up we’ve ever seen Obama was when he decided a Cambridge Massachusetts police officer was “stupid” for inconveniencing his friend with a request to show ID. His second most animated moment came when some nobodies crashed his dinner party. What’s worrisome in this pattern is the president’s attachment to the personal. If we acknowledge that Obama weighs everything first by the degree to which it redounds on him personally, his failings are not so mysterious. If Obama has not conveyed to Americans that he hears their concerns, it may be because he doesn’t hear them. He merely hears pointers for his perpetual image upkeep.

Which makes you wonder where it ends. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by external force. But for Obama, it’s all internal, personal.

What speaker of truth has the president’s ear? Is there a White House break man to slow this runaway train? Or are there only yes-men, mutes, and passive-aggressive leakers? How welcome some of the old Bush-style administration in-fighting would be right about now.

Of course, the President invites the harshest judgments. By continuing to campaign instead of lead he asks to be assessed as someone who has not yet proven himself. He forces comparisons with those he campaigned against. And so it is no surprise that the public is once again split between the general election tickets. If Obama is in campaign mode, why shouldn’t the electorate follow suit? The difference between today and 2008 is that today Obama can’t have his clean slate back.


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