Commentary Magazine


Barack Obama Can’t Handle the Truth

In the well-known line from the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!” It appears as if President Obama is finding himself in a similar predicament.

I base this conclusion on the president’s comments at a fundraising event on Saturday in West Newton, Massachusetts, where he said this:

Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country’s scared.

According to press reports, the president told the several dozen donors that he was offering them his “view from the Oval Office.” He faulted the economic downturn for Americans’ inability to “think clearly” and said the burden is on the Democrats “to break through the fear and the frustration people are feeling.”

The views expressed by Obama are not new to him; he made similar comments at a fundraising event in San Francisco during the 2008 campaign, when he said, in discussing blue-collar Pennsylvanians who had seen their standard of living decline, “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Mr. Obama seems to have a particular weakness for saying supremely condescending things about the American people when speaking in front of rich liberals.

Part of the explanation for this may be a tendency for the president to pander to his base. And part of it may be a variation of what psychiatrists call Impulse Control Disorder, the tendency to seek short-term gain that ultimately proves harmful. (This explanation is appealing because the strategy of painting opposition to Obama’s agenda — which now includes a clear majority of the American people — as benighted is quite insane. But Obama may believe this and find himself unable to keep those views private.)

My hunch, though, is that what’s mostly at play here is vanity on a scale we are simply not familiar with — and a need to do what academics refer to as creating a narrative.

Mr. Obama clearly views himself as a world-historical figure. His election, he informed us, was going to heal the planet and slow the rise of the oceans. “This is our moment, this is our time,” Obama said time and again during the 2008 campaign. His goal was nothing less than “a nation healed, a world repaired, an America that believes again.” He was going to put people back to work and restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace. As president, Mr. Obama would end wars and convince America’s enemies to beat their swords into plowshares.

None of this has been achieved. The president’s ambitions mostly lie in ruins, his agenda has become radioactive, his party is on the cusp of an election-year thrashing perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. For a man of Obama’s self-regard, these failures must be rooted in something other than his own mistakes in judgment. And so, according to the president, they are.

It turns out that the problems lie not with Mr. Obama or even the stars; they lie with the American polity. The country should be seen as a small child — dazed and confused, scared to the point of having lost its senses. The situation in America is so bad, the level of irrationality so great, the ignorance so widespread, that even the preternatural precision and wisdom of the president’s arguments cannot carry the day. That seems to be the cast of mind of the man now inhabiting the Oval Office.

The president is also, consciously or not, creating a narrative to explain the defeat he and his party are about to be administered. The reasons are multiple — from the latent bigotry and racism of the Tea Party movement, to the lies of the GOP, to foreign-money corruption our politics, to the inability of the voting public to think clearly.

All this is nonsense, of course – and, for Obama, it is self-destructive. All of us, including political leaders, experience hardships and setbacks in life. In order to succeed, we need to respond to them in a way that is both honest and intelligent. And for that to happen, we need to see things as they are. We need to be grounded enough, and humble enough, to comprehend errors of our making. That is the sine qua non for adjusting to new facts and circumstances and to interpreting experiences in a way that will be beneficial.

President Obama seems almost incapable of such a thing. Rather, he is busily constructing an alternate reality. He is choosing to live in a world that begins with “Once upon a time.”

The president of the United States, it appears, can’t handle the truth. He and his party will suffer mightily because of is. So, alas, will our country.

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