Barack Obama’s recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine paints a portrait of a president under siege and lashing out.
For example, the Tea Party is, according to Obama, the tool of “very powerful, special-interest lobbies” — except for those in the Tea Party whose motivations are “a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president.”
Fox News, the president informs us, “is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”
Then there are the Republicans, who don’t oppose Obama on philosophical grounds but decided they were “better off being able to assign the blame to us than work with us to try to solve problems.” Now there are exceptions — those two or three GOPers who Obama has been able to “pick off” and, by virtue of supporting Obama, “wanted to do the right thing” — meaning that the rest of the GOP wants to do the wrong thing.
Even progressives were on the receiving end of the presidential tongue-lashing. “The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base,” Obama said, “that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. … if people now want to take their ball and go home that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”
Set aside the discordance of these words coming from a man who said, on the night of his election, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.” There is a hazardous dynamic developing.
To understand why, let’s start with this: President Obama is a man of unusual vanity and self-regard. He considers himself to be a world-historical figure who deserves treatment bordering on reverence. That is why over the years he has surrounded himself with individuals who have a romanticized view of Obama. “The blind faith in, and passion for, Obama was like nothing [Anita] Dunn had ever seen before,” we read in Game Change. Not surprisingly, Obama is unusually thin-skinned and prickly when it comes to criticism of any kind, from any quarter. It seems not only to bother him but also consume him. Hence his obsession with Fox News.
When a powerful man like this is successful, it can make him impossible to live with. When a powerful man like this is failing, he can become dangerous.
Such a person can easily become embittered and embattled. Used to adoration, he cannot process rejection. People who were once thought of as allies are viewed with suspicion and lacking in loyalty. There is a growing sense of isolation and ingratitude; no one really understands all the good that has been achieved against impossible odds (“Guys, wake up,” Obama tells Rolling Stone. “We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.”) In order to excuse his mounting failures and rebukes, he must find malevolent forces to blame. And malevolent forces need to be identified and isolated, depersonalized and defeated. Political battles are increasingly framed in apocalyptic terms, as the Children of Light vs. the Children of Darkness.
Now there is a long way to travel to get to this point — but others, including other presidents, have traveled this path before. We have no way of knowing where Obama is on this particular journey. But the warning signs are there. The president is showing mental and political habits that are disquieting. People who have standing in his life need to intercede with him — soon, now, before the president’s worst tendencies end up getting him, and us, into a genuine crisis.
On May 25, 1971, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a Democrat but also a top aide to Richard Nixon at the time — wrote a letter to Vice President Agnew. “Moynihan privately deplored the inflammatory speeches denouncing anti-Nixon protesters by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew,” we read in the new book edited by Steven R. Weisman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. In his letter to Agnew, Moynihan wrote this:
You cannot win the argument you are engaged in. Frankly, the longer you pursue it, I expect the more you will lose. … If you were to ask my advice it would be this. Cease attacking. … A great deal of charity and forgiveness is going to be required on all our parts to come through this experience whole. You really can help in this, and I know you would want to do so.
Barack Obama needs to find his Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and unlike Agnew, he needs to listen to him. Otherwise, this is going to have a very unhappy ending for the president, and for all of us.