Politics & Policy

O Vanity, O’s Vanity

John Boehner as Simon Cowell: Understanding Barack Obama.

If Carly Simon were a conservative, she might be writing “You’re so vain, you probably think this White House is beneath you,” to accompany the next big tea-party rally.

Some of those who try to make some sense — or science — of politics for a living have been scratching their heads about Barack Obama lately. There was the ostentatious vacation, followed by the apparent boredom with the Iraq address the president didn’t even have to give, and certainly not in the way that he did — as a formal, evening, Oval Office address. There was the wading (botched and incoherent) into the Ground Zero mosque debate. There is the constant belittling of his Republican critics, lowering the office of the president by attacking the largely unknown house minority leader.

If you are a White House political strategist, you might be bewildered and dismayed, never mind stressed. If you are a Democrat in the unfortunate position of running for reelection, you’re running far away from wherever President Obama is, to the best of your ability — and your integrity, if that’s of concern to you. In short, none of this has proven to be smart politics. Certainly not in the short term, at a time when the Democrats are sinking and could use a leader to lift them up. At least one who doesn’t make it worse.

Some of what Barack Obama does can be attributed to a fondness for socialism. He has a very different understanding of the role of the federal government from some of us (who follow the Founding Fathers and the Constitution), on a number of issues. But these issues of ideology aren’t sufficient for an attempt to understand Barack Obama lately. He doesn’t seem to be an ideologue in the purest sense. Plenty of people in his administration and who supported him and gave him large sums of money are, and some of them are frustrated by him — because of his incoherence on gay marriage, for example, or on Guantanamo.

He’s also not a long-term thinker in any kind of strategic, political, or ideological way. He made a lot of Democrats fall on their swords for a health-care plan that could conceivably be dismantled before it’s even remotely fully implemented.

The answer for all the analysts may be just a bad old-fashioned vainglory, one that the man just can’t keep in check. Thus the snippy Slurpee comments, about Republicans standing on the sidelines (drinking them). Besides the issues of truth — House GOP leader John Boehner has been making concrete bipartisan proposals, so he can’t legitimately be attacked for standing on the sidelines — more Americans today could probably relate to 7-Eleven than to Martha’s Vineyard.

From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has not been fond of critics, real or imagined. And make no mistake: Some of the critics he talks about are pure strawmen — the critics he broad-brushes without naming names, and the ones he names only to add the most manipulative mischaracterizations of what they really stand for. From early on, he reportedly had the audacity to ask elected officials, directly, not to take him on publicly. His version of bipartisanship is that you abandon your partisanship. He won the election, as he has reminded us, so hush up and get out of the way. He may call the GOP the party of no, but he’s the party of no tolerance for an opposition. It’s as if he won American Idol fair and square and he’s going to do with the win what he will, make of his title what he will.

Of course, a presidential election is not American Idol. But one gets the sense that’s what he thought it was: Once he got past the judges and those pesky weekly votes, he’d be able to make of his title what he wanted to and people would be so awed by his audaciousness and believe everything he’s telling them that they’d beg him for an encore.

Instead, the first album — health care — was far from a hit, despite all the effort and hype and casualties (full count will be available the morning after Election Day).

And the man is in such a vainglorious fluster now that he seems to lack any self-awareness about it. In a classic campaign move, he appeared on daytime talk show The View this summer. (Oprah’s the ideal, but that’s just another campaign-team get-together for this president.) And when he appeared on The View, he said: “We shouldn’t be campaigning all the time.” He would go on to sound almost biblical about it: “There is a time to campaign and there is a time to govern.”

There’s good news, though. His poll ratings are falling and the intensity of the rallies against his policies is mounting.  Opposition-party candidates this year seem to have drive and integrity: They are not as ready to surrender their country to its remaking as Barack Obama would like them to be; they want to have something to show for their time in Washington, and don’t simply want to lord their victory over others. They can see beyond themselves and their next election.

Only time will tell how this all shakes out, in November and thereafter. But there are warning signs. And John Boehner — and America — might just benefit from the summer bonfire of the presidential vanity. Politics works in mysterious ways.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com.This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.


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