A sign of an undisciplined mind is serial lapses into self-contradiction, or blurting out a thought only to refute it entirely on a later occasion. For a president to do that is to erode public confidence and eventually render all his public statements irrelevant. That is now unfortunately the case with Barack Obama, who has established a muddled record of confused and contradictory declarations.
Last week, the president invoked executive privilege to prevent the release of administration documents related to the Fast and Furious operation. All presidents on occasion use that tactic, but rarely after they have put themselves on record, as did Senator Obama just five years ago, damning the practice as a de facto admission of wrongdoing. Does President Obama remember his earlier denunciation — or why he thought a special prosecutor was necessary to look into the Scooter Libby case, but not the far greater mess surrounding Eric Holder?
About the same time, President Obama offered de facto amnesty for an estimated 800,000 to 1 million illegal aliens. Aside from his circumvention of Congress and his casual attitude toward his own constitutional duty to enforce the laws as they are written, Obama had on two earlier occasions stated that he not only would not grant such blanket exemptions from the law, but also legally could not. That was then, this is now — the middle of a reelection campaign?
Candidate Obama derided George W. Bush as “unpatriotic” for borrowing $4 trillion over eight years; what term might President Obama use to characterize his own record of borrowing $5 trillion in less than four years? “Extremely unpatriotic”? In his first year in office, Obama announced that he would deserve just a single term if the economy had not improved after his agenda was reified. What then is he to say to that earlier Obama when 8 percent unemployment is now in its 41st consecutive month, GDP growth is flat, and we continue to borrow $1 trillion per year?
As a candidate, Obama promised to play by the rules of public campaign financing, only to renounce that pledge when he was well on his way to raising $1 billion. Obama did not just promise to shut down Guantanamo and cease renditions, preventive detention, and military tribunals; he also denounced them in such venomous terms that his later embrace — or indeed expansion — of all these protocols was not so much hypocritical as surreal.
President Obama does not like filibustering in the Senate; Senator Obama apparently felt differently when he was in the minority and tried to stop a vote on the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. The list of the Obama about-faces and obfuscations grows weekly — the revolving door, lobbyists in the White House, the new transparency, opposition to super PACs, attitudes toward Israel, huge savings from Obamacare. And we are at a point now where no one can verify anything from the president’s past, given that his own memoir was largely mythographic — details about his family, friends, and girlfriends made up to enhance his preferred narrative of racial oppression. If a writer will fudge on the very details of his own dying mother’s seeking to obtain health care, then he will fudge on almost anything. And if the Birthers were unhinged for suggesting that Obama was born in Kenya, what are we to make of Obama himself allowing just that untruth to appear on his literary agent’s biography of him for over a decade?
What explains these weird disconnects? There are many contributory factors. First, Obama is a quintessential postmodernist, who believes that there is no abstract “truth,” only floating narratives that gain credibility by their aims — false if for ignoble reasons, true if spoken for egalitarian purposes. Obama would argue that his literary fictions were not actually fictions given that they served the cause of exposing racial bias — it is the intent that matters, not the details. The larger truth is that Barack Obama suffered angst because of his biracial identity; how, when, and where all that happened is immaterial.
Obama once really did lament that he could not legally offer amnesty, only to do just that; similarly, the use of executive privilege for a President Bush is not the same thing as for a President Obama. A statement can be judged true or false only by its ultimate objective — and in Obama’s case all his untruths must be true because they were intended to serve a progressive end.
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.