Presidential Narcissism
Obama and Clinton — brothers beneath the skin.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama


Victor Davis Hanson

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 . . .”

As for the civilian responsibility for approving such hazardous missions for our intelligence and military communities, Obama has never confessed, then or now, that most of the anti-terrorism protocols that led to critical intelligence about the probable whereabouts of bin Laden had been strongly opposed by Obama himself. Indeed, almost every Bush-Cheney policy that President Obama eventually embraced — renditions, tribunals, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act — was opposed by Obama as a state legislator, a U.S. senator, and a presidential candidate. Apparently, there is no loudly announced “reset” when it comes to the war on terror.

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?).