Former president Bill Clinton just appeared in a reelection television commercial for President Barack Obama. At one point, Clinton weighs in on the potential consequences of Obama’s decision to go ahead with the planned assassination of Osama bin Laden. He smiles and then pontificates, “Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there . . . suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him [Obama].”
There is a lot that is disturbing about Clinton’s commentary — and about the fact that such an embarrassment was not deleted by the Obama campaign. Clinton offers unintended self-incrimination as to why in the 1990s he did not order the capture of bin Laden when it might well have been in his power to do so — was it fear of something “horrible” that might have happened to his fortunes rather than to our troops? And, of course, such crass politicization of national security and the war on terror is exactly what Barack Obama accused the two Clintons of in the 2008 Democratic primaries. We also remember that Obama on several occasions chastised George W. Bush for supposedly making reference to the war on terror for political advantage, though he never did so in as creepy a fashion as Clinton. And aside from the fact that Barack Obama promised never to “spike the football” by using the SEAL mission to score campaign points, only a narcissistic Bill Clinton could have envisioned the death or capture of Navy SEALs not in terms of those men’s own horrible fates, but only as political “downside” for an equally narcissistic Barack Obama.
In Clinton’s defense, he spoke not just from his own selfish instinct to see presidential survival as more important than the fates of those who actually took the physical risk. Rather, a year ago Obama himself had already hijacked the mission with a flurry of self-referential pronouns: “Tonight, I can report . . . And so, shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta . . . I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden . . . I met repeatedly with my national security team . . . I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action. . . . Today, at my direction . . . I’ve made clear . . . Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear . . . Tonight, I called President Zardari . . . and my team has also spoken . . .These efforts weigh on me every time I, as commander-in-chief . . . Finally, let me say to the families . . . I know that it has, at times, frayed . . .”
The logic of the narcissistic mind in matters of the war on terror works out something like this:
The president will take credit for all the successes on his watch, without ever acknowledging reliance on the policies put in place during the eight years before he took office, much less admitting that he once did his best to undermine all of those inheritances that he eventually found so useful. And in matters concerning his predecessor, Obama will damn Bush for the bad economy that he left to his successor and yet ignore Bush for the successful anti-terrorism protocols that he passed on.
Unfortunately, the latest triumphalism is a continuance of a long line of self-adulation that we have grown accustomed to in Barack Obama since he came to the public’s attention — the professor’s two memoirs without a single commensurate scholarly publication; the Latinate motto; the faux-Greek columns; the biblical quelling of the rising seas and cooling of the planet; the fallback retreat to the Victory Column when questions were raised about the appropriateness of the Brandenburg Gate as a venue for his speech; and so on. The common characteristics in Obama’s I/me/my career have been such rhetorical, visual, and symbolic efforts to mask an absence of accomplishment (e.g., why not even one Harvard Law Review article, or perhaps a single publication as a University of Chicago lecturer, or a successful program as a Chicago community organizer, or a signature piece of legislation as an Illinois legislator, or an acknowledged legislative record as a U.S. senator?).
In the world of a narcissistic Barack Obama, rhetoric need not translate into reality. The more emphatic and emotive the pledges to shut down Guantanamo, the more readily all such serial assurances could be ignored. The more idealistic support is expressed for public campaign financing and scorn for bundling, fundraisers, super PACs, Wall Street mega-donors, the revolving door, and lobbyists, all the easier it is to shun the former and embrace the latter.
The Obama way is to offer the boilerplate “I/me/mine/my team” speech, and then simply let events follow their own course — as if the fact that Obama weighed in rhetorically on a topic was ipso facto enough. “Make no mistake about it,” “I” have dealt with the jobs, deficit, debt, and sluggish-growth problems. Ergo, they no longer exist.
So “reset” is grandly proclaimed for Russia — with no acknowledgment that relations have so soured with Putin’s thugocracy that Moscow now threatens to take out proposed anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe. Libya is such a strong blueprint of Obama’s competent and moral “lead from behind” strategy in the Middle East that who cares that such a model will never be applied to an equally disintegrating Syria? That Obama gave the Iranians five deadlines to desist from nuclear acquisition should have been enough for them to desist: So it’s their problem, not ours. North Korea has been addressed, as if the rhetorical and the concrete definitions of that word were synonymous.
So what is the problem with a charismatic, narcissistic president? After all, most presidents by definition must be somewhat self-absorbed. Yet the rub is that the world has tuned Obama out. All his prime-time rhetoric from Afghanistan, the cool multicultural accentuation of Pakîstan and the Talîban, the photo-op reminders that it was Obama who ordered the mission that took out bin Laden — all this meant nothing to the Taliban, who will now patiently wait us out, unleash a North Vietnamese–like offensive very soon, and remind us that just because we don’t believe there are still things like victory and defeat in our messy wars, that does not mean there are not.
In other words, I worry that Vladimir Putin, the Iranian theocrats, the North Korean apparat, the Chinese central committee, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all the others who detest the United States have sized up Barack Obama. For 40 months they have acknowledged that his postracial image and his youthful charisma, as David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs rightly insisted, threw them for a loop — for a while. And that “for a while” is now ending, replaced with a new belief abroad that the more Obama talks about himself and his team, and the more emphatic he becomes with his “Make no mistake about it” and “Let me be perfectly clear” vacuities, the more he can at first safely be ignored, and then, quite soon, safely be taken advantage of.
The problem with a narcissistic president is not just that he sees the world as all about himself, but that the world soon sees that it is not about him at all.