Commentary Magazine


“I Am Not an Ideologue”

Barack Obama’s claim to the GOP lawmakers today — “I am not an ideologue” — calls to mind Richard Nixon’s famous claim, “I am not a crook.” Unfortunately both Messrs. Obama and Nixon were what they claimed they were not. Now being a crook is much worse than being an ideologue; but being an ideologue, especially a liberal one, can have its own high costs, as our 44th president is discovering.

I rather doubt Obama considers himself an ideologue; he has probably convinced himself that he is what he wants to project: an empiricist, a pragmatist, and person who makes decisions based on evidence and reason instead of ideology. The fact that he has pursued an agenda blessed, in almost every instance, by Nancy Pelosi is the oddest of coincidences.

I happen to be glad that Obama met with House Republicans; and if this signals a new way of doing business, more power to him. We’ll see. He certainly deserves the chance to amend his ways. But because Obama is, himself, deeply ideological, I suspect he will be more resistant than most. Yet political reality and political defeats can quickly concentrate the minds of politicians.

I have heard sound bits of Obama in two post-State of the Union settings. There is an almost plaintive quality to the president’s words, at least at several points. He simply doesn’t seem able to process what is happening to him or to deal with the mounting problems he and his party face. For a man beginning his second year in office, he can’t understand why he is the most polarizing president we have seen. Or why his disapproval ratings are at a record high this soon into his presidency. Or why he has lost more support in his first year than any other president in our lifetime. Or why the public is rejecting his agenda almost across the board. Or why the public is rejecting his party in almost every possible case. Or why Democratic lawmakers, themselves, are beginning to break with him. (Hint: it has to do with the fact that the president is, at this stage at least, widely seen as a failure.)

One day, the president is defiant and petulant; the next day, he pleads to be understood and accepted. Barack Obama, a man of limitless self-regard, appears to be struggling with what to say and how to find his way out of the dark and deep woods he finds himself in. Such things can be almost poignant to watch.