Presidencies can go through various stages in terms of their effect on the opposition – from eliciting respect and some amount of fear, to provoking anger, to becoming the object of ridicule.
Barack Obama has reached the third stage.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post has written a column in which he cites passages from Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress last night and then chronicles the reaction among congressional Republicans, which included chuckles, guffaws and giggles. Hostility to Obama has given way to indifference to what he says; witness the fact the GOP did not even feel the need to provide a televised response to Obama’s speech. And of course, it didn’t help that the president’s address was relegated to pre-primetime, in order not to compete with an NFL game.
Just as significantly, Milbank reports there were empty seats on the Democratic side last night. “Democrats lumbered to their feet to give the president several standing ovations, but they struggled at times to demonstrate enthusiasm,” according to Milbank. “When Obama proposed payroll tax cuts for small businesses, three Democrats stood to applaud. Summer jobs for disadvantaged youth brought six Democrats to their feet, and a tax credit for hiring the long-term unemployed produced 11 standees. Obama spoke quickly, urgently, even angrily. Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) stared at the ceiling. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) scanned the gallery. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) was seen reading a newspaper. And Republicans, when they weren’t giggling, were mostly silent.”
Milbank added, “Presidential addresses to Congress are often dramatic moments. This one felt like a sideshow. Usually, the press gallery is standing-room-only; this time, only 26 of 90 seats were claimed by the deadline. Usually, some members arrive in the chamber hours early to score a center-aisle seat; 90 minutes before Thursday’s speech, only one Democrat was so situated.”
As Jimmy Carter can tell you, for a president to become an object of disdain and apathy is a very dangerous place to find himself.
It has been a stunning fall from grace for Obama, a man who, upon taking office, was routinely compared to Kennedy, to FDR, and even to Lincoln. One is tempted to say those comparisons were unfair to Obama, except that he did so much to invite them.
By now, the cult-like effect Obama had on his supporters is a distant, fading memory. The Greek columns built for his convention speech now look simply silly, as does Obama’s promise to heal the earth and reverse the ocean tide. His core appeal was aesthetic, and hence fleeting. It turns out Obama really was best equipped to be a community organizer and a state senator and perhaps not very much more than that. But Obama, a man of extraordinary self-regard, decided he was the world-historical person we had been waiting for. (What can one say about a person who surrounded himself with aides who referred to him as “Black Jesus” during the campaign?)
In a coincidence that calls to mind William Blake’s “fearful symmetry” phrase, it was also Dana Milbank who in July 2008, months before Obama was elected, reported that Obama attended an “adoration session” with Democratic lawmakers in the Cannon Caucus Room, where even committee chairmen arrived early, “as if for the State of the Union.”
Inside, according to a witness, Obama told the House members, “This is the moment…that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
Some of us warned at the time that any man who believes he is “the moment that the world is waiting for” and views himself as “the symbol of the possibility and best traditions of America” is an individual of staggering arrogance. To which I added this:
That is doubly so when, like Obama, you have achieved nothing so far in your life —in terms of scholarship or literature, legislation, acts of valor, self-sacrifice, or anything else – that qualifies you to view yourself in quasi-Messianic terms. One increasingly senses with Obama that he views himself not as a presidential candidate but as a world celebrity, with all the vanity and arrogance that accompanies such people. Obama, a literate man, might want to reacquaint himself with the Book of Proverbs, which warns that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” and the story of Icarus. Barack Obama is a very talented political figure, but he is not indestructible. And right now he is flying closer and closer to the sun. At some point – it’s hard to tell when – the wings of wax will begin to melt.
There is some poignancy in saying that for Barack Obama, a decent but imperious man, the wings of wax have finally melted away.