‘That’s all right, all of you know who I am,” President Obama joked last week when the presidential seal fell off his podium during a speech in Pittsburgh.
Even though the incident made headlines for no discernible journalistic reason, it was noteworthy as a succinct example of Obama’s arrogance problem. Rather than make a self-deprecating joke, he opted to make a self-inflating one, as if to say that the title mattered less than the man.
The good news is that it’s apparently not racist to call Obama arrogant anymore. Not long ago, Keith Olbermann and other gargoyles on the parapets of establishment liberalism insisted that if you were to call attention to the fact that Obama ostentatiously holds himself in very high regard, you were really calling him “uppity,” if you know what I mean.
Now, what was once taboo has become undeniable. Even the New Yorker’s David Remnick, author of a loving biography of Obama, tells Der Spiegel, “Obama has a considerable ego.”
And here’s Time’s Mark Halperin: “With the exception of core Obama administration loyalists, most politically engaged elites have reached the same conclusion: The White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters.”
Halperin’s diagnosis was inevitable, given Obama’s conviction that he represented a movement that was larger than politics or even the presidency. After all, this was the man who, as a candidate, descended on Berlin as the leader of a worldwide cause that transcended national borders. And when asked in a debate what his greatest weakness was, he plumbed his soul and answered that he was disorganized. “My desk and my office doesn’t look good,” he said. When a man runs as a national redeemer and says his biggest failing is a messy desk, that should be a warning sign that he likes himself a bit too much.
Of course, all presidents have healthy egos. You cannot become president, or even think you’re qualified to run, if you don’t think highly of yourself. Obama’s arrogance problem isn’t a matter of psychology but of strategy.
When Arkansas Democratic congressman Marion Berry complained that health-care reform felt like a replay of the Hillarycare debacle, Obama explained that the big difference between then and now was “me.” In other words, the White House’s plan for making everything work out was an unyielding confidence in the power of Obama’s own cult of personality. That’s why that cult’s high priest, David Axelrod, pursued a strategy of greeting every problem as if it were an excuse for Obama to give another big speech.
Now that the strategy has proved catastrophic, the self-pity is pouring out. Joe Biden, in a rare interregnum of lucidity, assailed his own base as whiners. Rahm Emanuel, as he was fleeing for the healthier and more civic-minded political environment of Chicago’s backrooms, said, “I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”
Really? The times have been rough, we can all agree, but if memory serves, the Civil War was no cakewalk either. And that Pearl Harbor thing — not to mention 9/11 — might compete with the miserable economy Obama inherited and then ignored as he pursued his own “transformational” vanity projects.
There’s an irony to occupying the Oval Office. When presidents think they’re bigger than the job they hold, they shrink in office. When they think they’re smaller than the honor that has temporarily been bestowed upon them, they grow into it. Obama has done nothing but shrink.
Last week, the president of the United States attacked Karl Rove by name — twice! — in a speech. He recently begged a crowd of black supporters not to “make me look bad” by staying home from the polls. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he scolded young voters that if they don’t vote, it will be proof they “weren’t serious in the first place.”
It never dawns on him that were it not for the unseriousness of those voters, he might still be a one-term junior senator from Illinois.
“You know, I actually believe my own bull—,” Obama told the author of Renegade: The Making of a President, Richard Wolffe.
Exactly. And that’s why he’s gotten into this mess.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.