Commentary Magazine


Topic: 44th president

Joe Klein’s Almost Pathological Love Affairs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein is angry. Again. This time his animus is aimed at the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and yours truly. Again. And so, one more time — just for the fun of it — let’s take a look at what is fueling Joe’s fury and see if we can make some sense of it.

Here’s what Klein writes:

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.” Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Oh, I dunno. But if I had to pick some examples, I might begin with the fact that (according to the book Game Change) during the campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” Obama didn’t appear to object. Or I might mention Obama’s comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter a few hours before his 2004 convention speech. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama said. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Or I might point people to Obama’s comments made during the campaign, when he said:

I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Let’s see: Jesus, LeBron, and King Canute. That’s quite a threesome.  I won’t even mention Obama’s campaign slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On second thought, maybe I will.

Perhaps Klein’s unhappiness with Ajami and me is rooted in the fact that, from time to time, Joe succumbs to an almost pathological love affair when it comes to presidents. Well, Democratic presidents, anyway. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton, at least for a time. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, in recounting a Clinton speech during the 1992 campaign, wrote this:

Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes – moved by the emotional moment, expectation, and apprehension. Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me. We talked openly and often now, either on the phone or when we hooked up with us on the road. As the paying guests sat down to dinner, we retreated to the basement. The campaign was going so well that we slipped into what Joe called a ‘dark-off,’ whispering fears of  future misfortune like a couple of black-robed crones spitting in the wind to ward off the evil eye. We’re peaking too early. It can’t stay this good. Too tempting a target. What goes up must come down.

“I come from Russian Jews,” Joe said. “Whenever things are good, we start to hear hoofbeats — the Cossacks.”

Fast-forward to the Age of Obama when Klein, in a recent interview with our 44th president, had this blistering exchange:

Klein: Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.

Obama: We have a good team.

Klein: But there have been some problems in execution.

Obama: Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what’s on our plate — and you know the list. I don’t need to tick them off.

I guess this qualifies as speaking truth to power.

For the record, what Joe reports isn’t quite accurate. I wrote about Obama’s “almost pathological self-regard” in my piece [emphasis added]. (The context was a story in which Representative Marion Berry recounted his meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, Berry said, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’”)

But on reflection, and in light of Klein’s comments, I do think I phrased things in an inappropriate manner. I probably should have dropped the adverb “almost.”

Time magazine’s Joe Klein is angry. Again. This time his animus is aimed at the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and yours truly. Again. And so, one more time — just for the fun of it — let’s take a look at what is fueling Joe’s fury and see if we can make some sense of it.

Here’s what Klein writes:

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.” Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Oh, I dunno. But if I had to pick some examples, I might begin with the fact that (according to the book Game Change) during the campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” Obama didn’t appear to object. Or I might mention Obama’s comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter a few hours before his 2004 convention speech. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama said. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Or I might point people to Obama’s comments made during the campaign, when he said:

I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Let’s see: Jesus, LeBron, and King Canute. That’s quite a threesome.  I won’t even mention Obama’s campaign slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On second thought, maybe I will.

Perhaps Klein’s unhappiness with Ajami and me is rooted in the fact that, from time to time, Joe succumbs to an almost pathological love affair when it comes to presidents. Well, Democratic presidents, anyway. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton, at least for a time. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, in recounting a Clinton speech during the 1992 campaign, wrote this:

Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes – moved by the emotional moment, expectation, and apprehension. Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me. We talked openly and often now, either on the phone or when we hooked up with us on the road. As the paying guests sat down to dinner, we retreated to the basement. The campaign was going so well that we slipped into what Joe called a ‘dark-off,’ whispering fears of  future misfortune like a couple of black-robed crones spitting in the wind to ward off the evil eye. We’re peaking too early. It can’t stay this good. Too tempting a target. What goes up must come down.

“I come from Russian Jews,” Joe said. “Whenever things are good, we start to hear hoofbeats — the Cossacks.”

Fast-forward to the Age of Obama when Klein, in a recent interview with our 44th president, had this blistering exchange:

Klein: Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.

Obama: We have a good team.

Klein: But there have been some problems in execution.

Obama: Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what’s on our plate — and you know the list. I don’t need to tick them off.

I guess this qualifies as speaking truth to power.

For the record, what Joe reports isn’t quite accurate. I wrote about Obama’s “almost pathological self-regard” in my piece [emphasis added]. (The context was a story in which Representative Marion Berry recounted his meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, Berry said, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’”)

But on reflection, and in light of Klein’s comments, I do think I phrased things in an inappropriate manner. I probably should have dropped the adverb “almost.”

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“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.

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.

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The Democrats Cast Aspersions

The signs of a Democratic collapse have been obvious for many months now. Liberals and Obama supporters, though, ignored or denied the amassing evidence. The GOP was a rump party, it was said. Those attending Tea Parties and town hall meetings were angry and irrational; Obama would look good in contrast to them. The president’s falling poll numbers meant nothing. Obama and Democrats were actually doing well, given how bad the economy was. The loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race was because Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate. The loss in the New Jersey gubernatorial race was because Jon Corzine was a weakened incumbent. Et cetera.

Then came Massachusetts.

Democrats have now gone from smug denial to absolute panic. And the explanations for what went wrong are cascading around us. Obama is suffering from an “inspiration gap.” He’s too cool and detached. He’s not angry enough. He’s not populist enough. He’s not aggressive enough. He didn’t spend enough. He wasn’t liberal enough. He didn’t jam through health-care legislation soon enough. He got into the weeds too much. Evan Thomas of Newsweek has gone from describing Obama as a “sort of God” to “being fundamentally dishonest.”

No, others say, the fault lies with the “nihilist” Right. Or Sarah Palin’s “death panel” tweet. Or the success of the obstructionist GOP in “stigmatizing” the wonders of the stimulus package. Still others, like the president, insist that because Obama was focused on so many different problems, doing good for so many people, he just plain overlooked the need to communicate with the public. Being a forgetful sort, the American public needs to be reminded how marvelous the 44th president has been.

Still others among the Democrats are turning with unalloyed fury against the American people. They were broad-minded and enlightened when they elected Barack Obama, you see — but they have suddenly become dolts. This view is embodied in the words of Joe Klein of Time, who refers to Americans as “flagrantly ill-informed” — and those watching Fox News, of course, are “misinformed.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, Joe adds this:

It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don’t make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.

Klein is the same fellow who, in the aftermath of Obama’s victory, said of America: “It may no longer be as dominant, economically or diplomatically, as it once was. But it is younger, more optimistic, less cynical. It is a country that retains its ability to startle the world — and in a good way, with our freedom.” And who wrote, after Obama was sworn in as president, that his ascension to power “could force everyone to argue more carefully, to think twice before casting aspersions.”

So we’ve gone from being young, optimistic, and uncynical, with the ability to startle the world in a good way, to being a nation of dodos.

I guess aspersion-casting is back in vogue.

The signs of a Democratic collapse have been obvious for many months now. Liberals and Obama supporters, though, ignored or denied the amassing evidence. The GOP was a rump party, it was said. Those attending Tea Parties and town hall meetings were angry and irrational; Obama would look good in contrast to them. The president’s falling poll numbers meant nothing. Obama and Democrats were actually doing well, given how bad the economy was. The loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race was because Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate. The loss in the New Jersey gubernatorial race was because Jon Corzine was a weakened incumbent. Et cetera.

Then came Massachusetts.

Democrats have now gone from smug denial to absolute panic. And the explanations for what went wrong are cascading around us. Obama is suffering from an “inspiration gap.” He’s too cool and detached. He’s not angry enough. He’s not populist enough. He’s not aggressive enough. He didn’t spend enough. He wasn’t liberal enough. He didn’t jam through health-care legislation soon enough. He got into the weeds too much. Evan Thomas of Newsweek has gone from describing Obama as a “sort of God” to “being fundamentally dishonest.”

No, others say, the fault lies with the “nihilist” Right. Or Sarah Palin’s “death panel” tweet. Or the success of the obstructionist GOP in “stigmatizing” the wonders of the stimulus package. Still others, like the president, insist that because Obama was focused on so many different problems, doing good for so many people, he just plain overlooked the need to communicate with the public. Being a forgetful sort, the American public needs to be reminded how marvelous the 44th president has been.

Still others among the Democrats are turning with unalloyed fury against the American people. They were broad-minded and enlightened when they elected Barack Obama, you see — but they have suddenly become dolts. This view is embodied in the words of Joe Klein of Time, who refers to Americans as “flagrantly ill-informed” — and those watching Fox News, of course, are “misinformed.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, Joe adds this:

It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don’t make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.

Klein is the same fellow who, in the aftermath of Obama’s victory, said of America: “It may no longer be as dominant, economically or diplomatically, as it once was. But it is younger, more optimistic, less cynical. It is a country that retains its ability to startle the world — and in a good way, with our freedom.” And who wrote, after Obama was sworn in as president, that his ascension to power “could force everyone to argue more carefully, to think twice before casting aspersions.”

So we’ve gone from being young, optimistic, and uncynical, with the ability to startle the world in a good way, to being a nation of dodos.

I guess aspersion-casting is back in vogue.

Read Less

Obama’s Broken Promises

As the political class focuses on President Obama’s efforts to jam through health-care legislation along party-line votes, it’s important that we not give him a pass for his string of broken promises. The one that jumps to mind today — as Obama is hosting a health-care meeting of only Democrats (plus Independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders), capping an approach that froze out Republicans from the get-go — is the promise Obama made during the campaign to work with those across the aisle. It was Obama, we were told (by Obama), who would repair the breach and “turn the page.” It is he who told us that “genuine bipartisanship assumes an honest process of give-and-take” and that the majority must be constrained “by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate” to “negotiate in good faith.” Obama would set aside politics as usual and listen carefully to others, “especially,” he said on the night of his election, “when we disagree.”

These promises — which were more than incidental; they were central to the Obama campaign and the Obama appeal — were fiction. It seems clear now that Mr. Obama never intended to act on what he said.

It is quite a distinction our 44th president has achieved as he ends his first year in office. He is both the most unpopular and the most polarizing and partisan president in our lifetime.

As the political class focuses on President Obama’s efforts to jam through health-care legislation along party-line votes, it’s important that we not give him a pass for his string of broken promises. The one that jumps to mind today — as Obama is hosting a health-care meeting of only Democrats (plus Independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders), capping an approach that froze out Republicans from the get-go — is the promise Obama made during the campaign to work with those across the aisle. It was Obama, we were told (by Obama), who would repair the breach and “turn the page.” It is he who told us that “genuine bipartisanship assumes an honest process of give-and-take” and that the majority must be constrained “by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate” to “negotiate in good faith.” Obama would set aside politics as usual and listen carefully to others, “especially,” he said on the night of his election, “when we disagree.”

These promises — which were more than incidental; they were central to the Obama campaign and the Obama appeal — were fiction. It seems clear now that Mr. Obama never intended to act on what he said.

It is quite a distinction our 44th president has achieved as he ends his first year in office. He is both the most unpopular and the most polarizing and partisan president in our lifetime.

Read Less




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