What with exhaustion, overexposure, and the temptation to comment on just about anything in the news, presidential candidates and presidents alike naturally often slip up. Given their hectic speaking schedules, they frequently mispronounce words (“nucular,” “corpse-man”), engage in the trivial (inflating tires and tuning up cars in lieu of drilling for more oil), and simply get things wrong (57 states). “Bushism” was coined about 2001 to refer to all the various ways that George W. Bush mangled the English language. There are, of course, just as many “Obamaisms,” though they are rarely commensurately lampooned by the media.
FDR unfairly and often demonized his political opponents. Truman could be coarsely blunt; Nixon far more so and in paranoid fashion. Jimmy Carter’s beatific façade seemed to hide all sorts of inner mean streaks. But what seems somewhat different from past presidential sermons, malapropisms, and flat-out wrong statements is the tendency of Barack Obama to lecture, talk down to, caricature, or even insult various people and groups — even as no other president in recent memory has reminded the nation so often of the need for civility, unity, and tolerance.
After only one year plus of campaigning and three years of governance, there is already a sizable corpus of Obama’s targets. The common theme is less ideology, politics, race, class, or gender than a sense that many groups and people simply don’t measure up to Obama’s high standards. Some are deemed lazy, stupid, greedy, fearful, or clinging; others are too affluent, of questionable ethics, and ill-informed and ill-intentioned — and thus are culpable for our current problems.
Where did the president pick up this habit of hypercriticism and easy caricature? Who knows? Michelle Obama showed similar tendencies during the campaign, when she labeled the U.S. a country that is “just downright mean,” until recently not worthy of pride, and variously talked about unnamed persons who perennially “raise the bar” on those struggling to get ahead.
Yet lecturing, demonizing, and caricaturing are not just symptoms of narcissism or being socially dense, but are also a revelation that Obama feels that he can say almost anything he wants, with the expectation — always borne out in the past — of few consequences. Still, his handlers worry about this habit, which explains both the serial use of teleprompted scripts even for the briefest of commentary and the almost lightning response from the White House, either that the latest target had it coming, or that the president’s critics themselves were suspect in noticing such insults, or that the remarks were meant only in jest. Note as well that while almost everyone else is culpable, the president himself rarely is — at least not as much as ATM machines, George W. Bush, tsunamis, the European Union, the nine-month-old Republican-controlled House, the Arab Spring, and skyrocketing oil prices. Others err; but the president has made all “the right choices.”
Here is a tiny sampling of those who have been on the receiving end of the president’s disdain:
African Americans: “Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’.”
Americans: Are “not a model for the world” and have a “tragic history.” Also, “we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” and, more recently, we have gotten “a little soft” and lost our “competitive edge.”
Bankers: “Fat cats”
Border enforcement: Its overzealous adherents want “alligators and moats” on the border and would arrest children on their way to get ice cream.
The Cambridge, Mass., police: “Acted stupidly” and, like law-enforcement officers in general, racially profile
Corporate-jet owners: “Are you willing to compromise your kids’ safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?”
Democratic base: Must “shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up . . . if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”