Second, Obama understands that he is a symbolic as much as a real president. Name a controversy — Fast and Furious, the Secret Service scandal, the GSA mess, the serial leaking of key national-security secrets — and he assumes that critics will eventually be tarred with the brush of racial bias for daring to bring that scandal up and thereby help derail the nation’s first African-American president. Similarly, the fact that Obama is part African, has adopted the patois of the inner-city black community, and has allied himself with the identity-driven grievance industry is felt to offer exemption from charges of hypocrisy. So one can both damn fat-cats and endlessly play golf with them. The 1 percenters are culpable, but not so culpable that one would stay away from Martha’s Vineyard or Vail. In Obama’s mind, his minority status and left-wing politics trump any appearance of disingenuousness; he can slur the wealthy in the abstract while courting them and living like them in the concrete. And in our topsy-turvy world, to cite such hypocrisy is racist, whereas using race to seek exemption is not. We see how identity politics collides with truth all the time in America. In the Tawana Brawley case, the Duke lacrosse scandal, and the details surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting, the point was not necessarily distinguishing fact from fiction, but being careful not to lose sight of the larger quest for racial justice.
Third, Barack Obama was as senator and remains as president a casual ad hoc thinker, an activist rather than a learned and informed leader. He assumes that how he speaks matters rather than what he says, as if months later when critics look at his contradictory transcripts they will remember only how he enthused the crowd by dropping his g’s or inserting a melodic “hope and change” or “make no mistake about it” fillip. At any given moment Obama can declare that he will cut the deficit by half by the end of his first term, that the private sector is doing fine, or that his administration has been a proponent of more gas and oil drilling. Emotion and enthusiasm are for him; detail, consistency, and accuracy are for others.
The media play an unfortunate role as well. Obama has never developed the normal politician’s fear of journalists, who customarily try to dry-gulch a politician by quoting back statements at odds with his record. Instead, Obama assumes that in a press conference or an interview, no one will remind him that he once criticized the use of executive privilege, opposed gay marriage, ruled out de facto amnesty by fiat, or denounced the revolving door. Obama rightly sensed that the more he damned Guantanamo as a candidate, the more his base would rally to his cause — and even more would they keep mum when as president he chose to keep the detention center open. Journalists simply empowered his habit of speaking off the top of his head by a conspiracy of silence. Deep down, Obama supposes that if he says something entirely opposite from what he once said, or something so preposterous that it cannot possibly be true, or calls the Falkland Islands the Maldives, no journalist would dare to press him on the disconnect — given the possible harm to the liberal agenda of our first African-American president.
But after nearly four years, the game is about up. If the president lectures the Europeans with another “make no mistake about it,” they will assume there are lots of mistakes about it. If he says “in point of fact” to Vladimir Putin, then Putin can be sure there are no facts at all. If Obama addresses the American people with “let me be perfectly clear,” then they assume he most certainly will be anything but transparent and concise. And if Obama compares a current event to one in his own past, then we can be sure that the earlier event never took place.
Obama’s critics may not be judicious or even quite accurate in calling him a liar, since he does not consciously and by deliberation craft mistruth. Rather, he simply is a story-teller, a novelist, a fabulist who says nice, interesting things for his own benefit, and on occasion thunders out promises in mellifluous cadences, without any worry whether they are true or false, or whether they confirm or reject what he said a bit earlier. What Barack Obama wants to be true, he says to be true; and we lesser folk can sweat the details when it is usually not.