Sailer’s analysis of Obama held my attention as few political books have. Perhaps because it’s not really a book about Obama the politician. Sailer digs much deeper than that in this work about our current president. He’s not interested so much in Obama’s policies as he is in what makes the man tick.
This is an unusual book on a number of levels. For one, it’s a literary work, not a slick bio or attack. For another, you can tell Sailer likes Obama as a person, though there may not be many points where their philosophies cross paths. Sailer’s point is to dissect Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. This dissection is a sincere attempt to understand the man who would become president even as Sailer was finishing up his own book in 2008. The fact that he wrote this before the election makes the book more, not less, interesting.
I have called Obama “Hamlet”. I believe even Sailer uses this name at one point, though I can’t find it now. After a year of watching him in office, a comparison between Obama and Shakespeare’s narcissistic, grieving, ruthless character still seems apt. They both have an enormous tin ear for others’ lives or problems.
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For Hamlet, his mother’s death was about him. For Obama, whose mother is hardly mentioned in his autobiography, Barack Obama Sr.’s death is all about this special son, the one he so callously abandoned when the boy was two.
He could have as easily called his autobiography Me.
Today, Ross Douthat has a column in The New York Times called “The Obama Way”. We’ve come this far in a year: despite all the close scrutiny and the millions of words written about the man, people have figured out that Obama is difficult to figure out. He’s as hard to pin down as ever:
Every presidency is the subject of competing caricatures. But almost a year into his first term, there’s something particularly elusive about Barack Obama’s political identity. He’s a bipartisan bridge-builder – unless he’s a polarizing ideologue. He’s a crypto-Marxist radical – except when he’s a pawn of corporate interests. He’s a post-American utopian – or else he’s a willing tool of the national security state.
The press has churned out a new theory every week, comparing Obama to John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, to George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter – to every 20th-century chief executive, it often seems, save poor, dull Gerald Ford. But none of the analogies have stuck. We’re well into the Obama era, but neither his allies nor his enemies can quite get a fix on exactly what our 44th president really represents.
Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.
“Beltway wheeler-dealer”? I don’t agree. They are innocents compared to the infighting that goes on in Chicago wheeling and dealing. For better or worse, Obama’s governing style is closer to Chicago’s Mayor Daley. In fact, Obama’s original goal was to run for mayor of Chicago someday. He was obviously prepared to endure that brutal campaign. It is to Mayor Daley’s politically conniving credit that he helped deflect Obama away from himself and toward the White House. The day Obama became America’s president must have been one of deep relief to Hizzoner.
Thus, Douthat is correct that Obama is a wheeler-dealer, but think Chicago piranha when you say that. As Obama famously said to someone on the legislative side, “don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother”. When you parse that remark, you realize that it’s quite threatening while it’s also gratuitous. There was absolutely no need to say it aloud since Obama’s behavior has demonstrated the close watch he keeps on everything. But saying it is Obama’s way of aiming the gun, pulling the trigger and laughing because he knows the chamber is empty.
This is a puzzling combination, for many, because we expect our politicians’ principles to align more neatly with their approach to governing. Our deal-making Machiavels are supposed to be self-conscious “centrists” (think Ben Nelson or Arlen Specter). Our ideological liberals and conservatives are supposed to be more concerned with being right than with being ruthlessly effective.
It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency. He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington – as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual. But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.
Obama’s run for office was a logical extension of how he has always lived: obsessed with race and determined to be the coolest guy you’ll ever know. Why are his broken promises a puzzle to anyone who has watched him for a while? Did anyone besides college kids really believe he was suddenly going to relinquish his cynical manipulations for some “transparency”, or that he would govern any differently than he legislated during his pose as a Senator?
Nor does he accept the limits imposed on him. He has to deal with those limits, but that doesn’t mean he won’t remind his opponents that his win gives him, at least in his own eyes, carte blanche to do as he damn well pleases.
We forget that Obama’s rise to power was an incendiary fluke, much the same way that Sarah Palin’s was. No one is more surprised at their meteoric rise than these two are to find themselves in orbit.
Obama knows he’s a shell and that bitter knowledge serves to fuel some of his cynicism in addition to making him such an unpredictable leader.
[I don’t know what makes Sarah run since I’ve not paid much attention to her beyond the election. It’s not because she’s not interesing; she certainly is. It’s just that the spotlight is elsewhere at the moment.]
In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”
He uses existing institutions to reach his own ends. The seemingly sudden decision to try our worst Gitmo inmates in a federal court in New York City has been in the works since the beginning. Or at least since the beginning of the resistance he met in trying to close Gitmo. This trial in New York is his revenge on those who opposed him. If the American intelligence community is decimated by that judicial proceeding, tough. He never had any respect for them anyway. Just another score settled.
As for the problems, horrible expense, and terror threats it brings to New York City…someone ought to ask our president if he cares. But no one dares to pose the question, not if they like their day job. Ah, there are so many questions the press dare not ask. Sometimes that silence is so loud you can’t be bothered listening to what he says on the surface.
Douthat claims that both sides of the political spectrum have “trouble processing Obama’s institutionalism”:
Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist. The left has been frustrated, again and again, by the gulf between Obama’s professed principles and the compromises that he’s willing to accept, and some liberals have become convinced that he isn’t one of them at all.
The radicalism isn’t at all exaggerated. You have only to listen to the old audio tapes made before he ever thought to run for president. You can hear him fault the Supreme Court for not going far enough down the road of redistributive justice when it came to racial equality. I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember hearing the disgust in his voice at the fact that those brave souls who sat at the lunch counters, and all the others who broke the back of Southern segregation weren’t given any more than their freedom. What they deserved, according to him, was financial reparation. Sorry Mr. Douthat, our president is about as radical as they come. Just because he threw his raving minister under the bus in order to drive over his body on the way to Pennsylvania Avenue does not mean Obama ever relinquished his own “AmeriKKKa” thinking. Obama sees life through that angry racial prism, as his reactive public remarks about Professor Gates’ temporary insanity show well. The two men are birds of a feather: race-driven and exquisitely aware of their prerogatives.
Douthat goes on to say that Obama’s approach “gets things done”. But what is being done by the legislative branch is not due to Obama at all. The only part he plays is incidental to what the Congress is doing anyway: he’s a liberal Democrat willing to sign their big government ideas into law. Any other liberal Dem from the last few election cycles – Gore, Kerry, et al – would have served just as well for their purposes. In fact, the Congress might have conferred more with Gore or Kerry.
We have the most liberal Congress ever and they are determined to hang these nightmare albatrosses around our necks because this is their only chance to do so. Perhaps they think their constituents are too ignorant to notice? Perhaps they believe that the polls showing the electorate becoming more and more conservative in response to their designs to break us once and for all is just a fleeting aberration? Perhaps they can’t grasp the extent to which they are disliked and distrusted?
Or maybe, just maybe, Obama’s narcissism is infectious? They saw what he got away with during the campaign; maybe they think they can repeat his performance. If their illusions go that far, the 2010 elections are going to be an unpleasant surprise.
Given his treatment of Senators and Congressmen, I doubt many beyond the Black Caucus even like him. And I don’t mean just the Republicans, whom he has jeered and ignored by turn. The Democrat leaders in Congress know that he’s made their job harder because of his high-handed behavior. They pass his appointees, like Geithner and Holder, but they don’t like them.
Douthat ends his column with a hard truth:
…using cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government: that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.
A big problem for Obama is his lack of an inner self. This hollow core is evident in many ways. There are his gifts to the British and his return of Churchill’s bust (and his delusion that he gives better gifts than he gets. Amazing that any politician would ever say such a thing in public). Or his seemingly random bowing and scraping to some world leaders. How about his strangely self-referential speech in Copenhagen in his failed attempt to woo the Olympic Committee to choose Chicago? And don’t forget his administration’s opaque dealings with the press and public, making deals and signing orders on the weekends when they’re more likely to go unremarked.
I don’t follow Obama closely. It’s too unnerving to attempt that. Sometimes his actions are so…out there that you can only wonder what he’s doing, or if he even knows. What are we to make of the latest dictum, one that the government refuses to discuss, but that individual airlines have published on their websites?
…several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.
It’s also not clear that this latest reaction (one can’t really deem it a logical response) won’t criminalize the behavior of people like Jasper Schuringa, the man who leaped from his seat to try to subdue the failed homicidal terrorist. Do the bureaucrats (or Obama, who has to approve these new rulings before they leave home) really believe that this schoolmarm rule will lower the risk of terrorism? Or is this just another ploy, a definite inside-the-Beltway cynicism designed to make it look like they know what they’re doing?
Another thought: maybe they’re trying to kill off a few airlines? Maybe some of them dissed Obama and now he’s getting revenge?
If there is one thing Steve Sailer showed very clearly (without dwelling much on this characterological trait), it’s that Obama is a vengeful person. He never, ever forgets a slight or a wrong directed at him or those close to him. That’s why Churchill’s bust went flying back to Britain. A satisfying, fitting revenge for what the British did in Kenya.
An aside here: Sailer claims that Obama’s overarching goal is to win a second term. It is supposedly in back of all he does. That’s hard to believe, considering the things he’s done so far. Let’s see if that goal changes after the elections in 2010. At the very least, let’s watch for changes in Obama’s behavior after those elections.