Commentary Magazine


The Unbearable Lightness of Barack Obama: Desperation, Cunning, or Disengagement?

It’s been less than six months since Bret Stephens used a version of this headline, but four events in the last week have caused it to scream in my mind. Before I get into those four events, let me say that I understand the only way to stay remotely sane in Washington, D.C., is to ignore 85 percent of whatever is trending at any given moment. That said, there are times anyone less isolated than a Carthusian monk is unavoidably exposed to “news” that 25 years ago would be considered fit only for National Enquirer.

The four events that have disturbed my tranquility while delighting DC Twitterati and radio talk show hosts are President Obama’s appearance on a web show called “Between Two Ferns” with comic actor Zach Galifianakis, his shopping trip to a Gap store in Manhattan, a visit to the White House by singer Lance Bass to discuss Obamacare, and lastly, an interview with someone named Ryan Seacrest about his “mom jeans.”

Few of the media reports on all this seem particularly concerned that these escapades have taken place in the week leading up to the Crimea referendum and what may become the most serious great power confrontation since the end of the Cold War. But once the initial reaction to the absurdity of reporting on the President’s shopping tastes or his choice to go on an obscure web show has passed, the episodes leave a decidedly more bitter taste in the mouth.

The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker had a good “do I or don’t I” piece on whether to criticize the President for his vacuous appearance with Galifianakis, musing “Health care is important, of course, but, I repeat, he’s the leader of the free world, parts of which are under siege.” Or, should she just “lighten up” as she chides herself later. Rush Limbaugh said essentially the same thing on radio, while Jonah Goldberg shared similar sentiments at National Review. As Goldberg says, it’s not about whether it was dignified, it was about whether it was “small,” if not pathetic.

But then tie that together with the Gap spree, Lance Bass, and mom jeans and a clear pattern emerges. It’s easy to be churlish and to reflexively criticize Obama for everything he does, but while his national security officials are impotently complaining about Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and while his Secretary of Health and Human Services can’t (or refuses to) answer the most basic of Congressional questions about the on-going healthcare debacle (to list just two issues of rather large concern), the President feels its appropriate to show the world he is shopping for sweaters for his girls or to welcome a boy band singer with no expertise whatsoever to the White House to talk about healthcare?

Perhaps he is cunning like a fox. He continues to look hip and cool, and pundits like me spend some part of our day talking about his actions as opposed to his policies. Or, perhaps he is desperate, as many conservatives want to believe, that he fears the collapse of ObamaCare and depredations of Putin and is doing anything to keep up his popularity. Maybe he is just disengaged, unaware of what is important and what is not, feeling in his media and staff cocoon that whatever choice he makes is the right one.

Or perhaps Barack Obama is simply the manifestation of a continuing and alarming decline in our political culture: the unseriousness of American politics in a world turning more and more dangerous. When Bill Clinton played saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show while running for the highest office in the land, at least the Cold War had just ended and we unrealistically felt a new age was dawning. Today, we certainly should have wised up, but it’s no secret we remain a celebrity-driven culture, so having Lance Bass visit the Oval Office and Seth Rogin trade barbs with Congressmen before testifying on Alzheimer’s is now the very mainstream of our politics. If so, why not watch Barack Obama pick out pastel sweaters or defend his jeans?

Indeed, to beat a twice-dead horse, it was his political celebrity status that got Barack Obama elected in the first place, a politician of the very thinnest of resumes, whose new-age blather caused vapors in a press that was itself as filled with celebrity worshipers as the viewers they seek. There’s no reason to re-litigate two elections, but the track record of this White House can only give credence to the judgments of so many who feared a popularity-driven candidate with no experience and who was so clearly hiding an ideological streak at odds with the majority of his fellow citizens. Yet none of that mattered next to the dancing and the star-studded endorsements and the coolness factor.

It’s the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, entertainment by our leaders that is eagerly swallowed by unserious and uneducated segments of the American public. Unlike other blessedly eternal optimists, however, as an historian, I am far more pessimistic that, once having started down this road, American political culture can easily recover its balance, competence, or clarity of purpose.

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