Jonathan Last’s must-read piece on Obama eschews exotic or fanciful explanations for the president’s mindset and precipitous fall to earth. It’s not anti-colonialism that motivates him, or imitation of his absent father that propelled him to the White House. He’s not a secret Muslim. He is, rather, an egomaniac, Last posits. He’s got a ton of evidence for this, mostly in the form of cringe-inducing statements from Obama’s own lips.
This raises a few critical issues. First, the vanity explanation accounts for his super-sensitivity to criticism. Nothing provokes Obama like doubts about his sincerity (the trigger for his belated outburst against Rev. Jeremiah Wright) or his wisdom. He has so many “enemies,” as he referred to Republicans — Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh, the news cycle, etc. — because he was so unaccustomed to criticism and so removed from rational evaluation of his abilities and positions. No wonder he is so angry at, and disdainful of, the American people. They are, unlike the sycophants who helped manufacture The Ego, no longer enamored of him. Nor is this president given to self-deprecating humor, for not even self-criticism in jest is tolerable.
Second, the colossal failure of his international endeavors, specifically his Muslim Outreach, is traceable to the faulty notion that one can construct a nation’s foreign policy based on the persona of its president. It sounds daft — why would the Israelis and Palestinian simply reach a deal because Obama has arrived on the scene? Why would the mullahs be enticed to curb their nuclear and hegemonic ambitions because he allegedly “understands” the Muslim World? The Ego has made hash out of foreign policy because he believes, as the saying goes, that the world revolves around him. He can’t imagine that rivals, foes, and allies are immune to his charms.
Most important, the vanity surplus would be less of a hindrance if he were an innovative policy wonk or a savvy analyst of the American electorate. This was the Bill Clinton model — an outsized ego and an utter lack of self-discipline, but an inventive mind able to zig-zag his way through choppy political waters. His intuitive understanding of his fellow citizens allowed him to maintain a bond with the American people. If Obama were as intellectually nimble as Clinton or as simpatico with the American people as Ronald Reagan or as steeped in common sense as Harry Truman, he wouldn’t be in such dire straits. It’s not merely the vanity that’s the problem. His undoing has been vanity that is divorced from his abilities and unaccompanied by executive skills or a well-developed knowledge of economics and international relations.
If Obama is ungracious (toward his predecessor), oblivious (to the desires of the voters), and frustrated (by the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ refusal to make a deal under his auspices), it is because he is unable to grasp that it’s not all about him. But the good news is that, as he reportedly did in the Senate, he may conclude that being president is really “so boring.” (He certainly doesn’t seem to be having fun, does he?) In that case, he might not really care all that much about trying to ingratiate himself with the voters. It very well might not be “worth it” in his mind to temper his views in order to get a second term. Freed from the burdens of the presidency he then might do what he loves best — write books and give speeches about himself. Or maybe he can give speeches about writing books about himself.