Politics & Policy

Decline and Fall: The Tragedy of Barack Obama

How he fell into the tragic error he once deplored.

If thou beest he; but O how fall’n! how chang’d . . .

     — Milton

The signs of the times are as foreboding as the chorus before the palace of Oedipus in Thebes. The jobless rate stands nominally at 8.3 percent, but is in reality considerably higher. Some 55 percent of voters say they’re not better off than they were four years ago, and more than 60 percent of them think the country is on the wrong track.

The oracles of Gallup and Rasmussen paint a gloomy picture for President Obama, but even if November should bring him another term of office, it will not restore him to the height from which he has tragically fallen.

Not so very long ago AOL’s Politics Daily was speculating about whether the president might “actually be a Zen Master, operating on a level so far above regular people that we can only hope to gain a bit of enlightenment from his calm demeanor.”

What flattery could not supply, fortune made good. In the months before Obama entered the White House, two of his books sat atop bestseller lists; vast crowds greeted him, not only in the United States, but even in Berlin; the president of the French Republic virtually endorsed his candidacy in the Elysée Palace; and the stock market crashed at the most propitious moment possible.

In the early days of his presidency, Obama was still clothed with the transcendent brightness of a campaign in which he had portrayed himself as a different kind of politician. As a candidate for the White House, he renounced the “slash-and-burn” techniques of “attack politics”: “We’re not going to go around doing negative ads,” he said. “We’re going to keep it positive, going to talk about the issues . . .” The lofty tone was faithful to his 2006 manifesto The Audacity of Hope, in which he envisioned a “new kind of politics,” one that would replace the “bitter partisanship” of the past. The new politics would favor consensus and common sense over divisiveness and ideology, and would build on “those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.”

The new politics never materialized. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama lamented the “fractured” country America was becoming. Yet in the fourth year of his presidency, he presides over a nation more divided than it was on the day he took office.

As Obama’s faith in consensual politics waned, he discovered the virtues of methods he had once deplored, and his reelection effort so far has been largely devoted, not to laying out his own plans for the future, but to discrediting the character and motives of his opponent. The president, to be sure, has no obligation to sacrifice his chances by eschewing tactics other politicians routinely use. But once he held himself to a higher standard. What happened?


. . . intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability . . .

     — Burke

At the time of his election in 2008, Barack Obama possessed, in the eyes of much of the world, a stock of moral authority greater than that of any other American then living. Not since Woodrow Wilson sailed to Europe on the George Washington to negotiate a peace treaty in Paris had an American statesman inspired so much hope in so many hearts.

“When President Wilson left Washington,” John Maynard Keynes wrote, “he enjoyed a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequaled in history.” Yet great as Wilson’s prestige in December 1918 was, Obama’s in 2008–09 was greater. In the 1918 midterm elections, Republicans gained majorities in the House and Senate, victories that tarnished Wilson’s prestige and would prove a formidable check on his potency. Obama, by contrast, presided in 2009–10 over a Washington in which Democrats controlled both the executive and the legislative branches. His power was further enhanced by the gravity of the economic crisis. Wall Street and Detroit lay prostrate at his feet, and millions of Americans hungered for his leadership.

Obama has criticized George Bush for having construed the vast authority that hedged his presidency after September 11 as a warrant to impose democracy on the Arabs. But Obama showed no greater restraint when he construed the crisis of his own presidency — an economic rather than a national-security one — as a justification for . . . nationalizing medicine.

In two respects, Obama’s was the greater stretch. Whatever the merits of Bush’s case for war with Iraq, there was a plausible connection between Americans’ chief anxiety at the time — security — and an effort to topple a malevolent dictator in a region that supplies the United States with nearly a quarter of its crude oil. Health-care reform, by contrast, had a much less obvious connection to Americans’ chief anxieties in 2009, which centered on jobs and the economy.

In The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber shows that in his first year in office, “Obama was loath to accept that the economy was singularly important.” The “Obama White House never grasped quite how closely its fate was tied to the labor market. This misunderstanding dated all the way back to the transition, when the president-elect stuck with his otherwise noble ambitions on health care and the environment rather than switching his focus to jobs.” Scheiber portrays an out-of-touch, self-absorbed chief executive who devoted his efforts not to healing the economy but to enacting a health-care law that the bulk of the country didn’t want and saw as irrelevant to its needs.

Obama overreached, too, by continuing to pursue the health-care law even after it became clear he could not create a bipartisan consensus in favor of it. Bush, preparing for war with Iraq, obtained the consent of leading Democrats. Twenty-nine Democratic senators voted for the Iraq War Resolution (21 opposed it); 82 Democrats in the House, nearly 40 percent of the caucus, supported it. Obamacare, by contrast, was a party-line measure. In the House every Republican, together with 34 Democrats, voted against it; the Senate vote was similarly partisan. Unlike such other epochal social reforms as LBJ’s 1965 Medicare legislation and FDR’s 1935 Social Security legislation (both of which had bipartisan support), Obamacare was deeply unpopular in the country and remains so today.

Obama has blamed truculent Republicans for this failure of consensus. But GOP lawmakers did little more than reflect their constituents’ skepticism about the merits of Obamacare. When a president proposes a momentous change in the national life, he bears the burden of persuading the country to embrace it. Obama, however, left the task of both designing and explaining health-care reform to Nancy Pelosi. She was an inferior publicist. Not only did she glibly argue that Obamacare would help revive the economy, she was coy about how the legislation worked and what it did: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

Who “would have thought,” Camille Paglia wrote,

that the sober, deliberative Barack Obama would have nothing to propose but vague and slippery promises — or that he would so easily cede the leadership clout of the executive branch to a chaotic, rapacious, solipsistic Congress? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom I used to admire for her smooth aplomb under pressure, has clearly gone off the deep end . . . 

Like millions of other Americans, Paglia found Pelosi’s arguments in favor of Obamacare risible:

Virtually all nationalized health systems, neither nourished nor updated by profit-driven private investment, eventually lead to rationing. . . . The bureaucracy required to institute and manage a nationalized health system here would be Byzantine beyond belief and would vampirically absorb whatever savings Obama thinks could be made. And the transition period would be a nightmare of red tape and mammoth screw-ups, which we can ill afford with a faltering economy. 


There remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. . . . A tragedy, then, to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this construction.

     — Aristotle

To gauge the extent of Obama’s dereliction of leadership, imagine if in 1981 Ronald Reagan had left to Bob Michel, the top Republican in the House, the work not only of putting together his economic program but also of explaining it to the country. Reagan, of course, would never have considered leaving the burden of formulating and justifying his policies to others. He gained legitimacy for his tax and spending proposals by taking his case directly to the people. With addresses like his July 27, 1981, “are you for ’im or agin ’im?” speech, he persuaded not only Republicans but also Democrats (whose party controlled the House, 244 to 191) to support his program. “Reagan Democrats” did not flock magically to Reagan’s standard in the name of national unity. The president himself forged the consensus that made his policies palatable to the country as a whole.

In a recent interview with CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose, Obama conceded that during his first two years in office he did too little to win the battle for hearts and minds:

When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. 

Was Obama really so naïve in 2009–10 as not to understand the importance of “telling a story,” of making an argument, of at the very least candidly explaining a bill in order to rally the country to his cause?

And if he was not so naïve, why did he do what he did?


But what is strength without a double share

Of wisdom?

     — Milton

To understand what happened, go back to February 2010, when opposition to Obamacare was hardening. The midnight roll calls and cynical deals that led to the Senate vote on Christmas Eve 2009 had disgusted millions, and in January Scott Brown, declaring “I can stop it,” defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the election for the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat.

Obama considered changing course. In February 2010 Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, proposed what Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown describe as “a smaller, piecemeal approach” to reform rather than an all-encompassing grand design.

The battle of the two Obamas began. In The Audacity of Hope Obama portrayed himself as an ambitious striver who, chastened by failure to win a seat in Congress, became reconciled to modesty and “came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.” Skilled in listening to people and building consensus, he disdained the “winner-take-all” politics of zealots who felt “no need to compromise” and whose fatal overreaching nourished “tribal hatreds.”

At the same time, The New Republic’s Scheiber observes, there was

a strain of messianism in Barack Obama, a determination to change the course of history. And it was this determination that explained his reluctance to abandon his presidential vision [of health care and environmental reform]. Recessions would come and go, even recessions as painful as this one. But the big achievements — like health care and climate change — were the accomplishments that posterity would recall. 

The tension between Obama the pragmatic conciliator and Obama the visionary man of destiny was evident in the 2008 campaign, when the modest bridge-builder showed an alarming tendency to become, at times, an aloof, humorless redeemer, a secular Savonarola who spoke in daemonic-prophetic accents of the place “where the perfection begins” and associated his rise with the healing of the planet.

Obama looked upon his mystical passion for transformation as wholly benign and selfless. Like all tragic characters who slenderly know themselves, he was blind to the hard kernel of will in his soul. As a result, he was scarcely conscious of the disconnection between the politic consensus-builder in him and the willful lawgiver. His candidacy for the White House did nothing to enlighten him on this score. Campaigns flourish in spite of, indeed because of, internal contradictions. Presidencies don’t. It was only after he reached the Oval Office that the inexorable pressures of governing revealed his two personas to be irreconcilable.

February 2010 was the ripping point of the Obama presidency. The only way the president could be a Hegelian Great Man of History — a doer of world-historical, taxpayer-subsidized deeds — was by sacrificing the ideals of unity and conciliation that had gotten him elected in the first place. For his transformative agenda was curiously unsuited to the times: Instead of confessing himself “childlike to the genius of his age,” he seemed to think he was living in 1933. He was blind to the fact that in 2010 not even a statesman of FDR’s gifts could have forged a consensus in favor of a centrally planned, state-run behemoth like Obamacare.

A chorus of Democratic lawmakers counseled restraint. Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Barney Frank, Politico reported, wanted Obama to put health care on a “back burner” and concentrate on jobs. The president hesitated. In his divided state, he resembled the Macbeth whom Lady Macbeth describes in Act I:

. . . thou wouldst be great;

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it: what though wouldst highly,

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false.

And yet wouldst strongly win.

Obama, too, would “strongly win,” but at the beginning of February he was as reluctant as Macbeth to “play false” with his principles. Fondly as he cherished the idea of doing what no other president before him had done, a part of him shrunk from forcing health-care reform on the nation by means of the “winner-take-all” politics he had long deplored.

In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth breaks down her husband’s resistance to the “illness” — the morbid willfulness — of ambition by persuading him to overleap the conscientious fences that stand between him and the “golden round” of a glorious destiny. “Art thou afeard,” she asks him,

To be the same in thine own act and valour

As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”

Like the poor cat i’ the adage? 

In February 2010 Nancy Pelosi found President Obama wavering like the “cat i’ the adage.” Like Lady Macbeth, she resolved to pour her spirits in her man’s ear. The speaker “kept the steel in the president’s back,” Anna Eshoo, a Democratic congresswoman from California, told Politico. “During a mid-February conference call with top House Democrats,” Politico’s Thrush and Budoff Brown write, Pelosi “made it clear she would accept nothing short of a big-bang health care push.” She ridiculed Rahm Emanuel’s modest version of health-care reform as “kiddie care.” The chief of staff was a mere “incrementalist.” “We’re in the majority,” the New York Times quoted Pelosi as telling the president. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now. We can make this work.”

If we should fail?” The president did not perhaps speak the actual words, but the question almost certainly hung in the air. Because there is not (yet) a record of the language the speaker used to allay the president’s fears, this must suffice:

We fail!

But screw your courage to the sticking-place,

And we’ll not fail . . . 

Obama was settled; the deed was done. The candidate who preached consensus, restraint, and humility became the president who imposed an unpopular and intrusive law on a reluctant and uncomprehending people.


O how unlike the place from whence they fel1 . . .

     — Milton

Werner Jaeger, the great classicist, said of the tragic poetry of Sophocles that it tends always to promote an ideal “of balance and proportion.” Balance and proportion, Jaeger wrote, come together, in Sophoclean tragedy, to form the “principle of all existence. . . . It is not for nothing that [Sophocles’] choruses again and again describe disproportion as the root of all evil.”

The history of power is in large part a history of disproportionate overreaching. Napoleon placed an imperial crown upon his own head, Robespierre wanted to establish a Republic of Virtue, James II tried to make England Roman Catholic, Alexander aspired to world empire. George Washington made them all look a little paltry by declining either to seek a crown or to play the narcissistic demiurge, virtuously striving to remake the world in his own image. But America, admirably unsympathetic though its founding lawgivers were to extravagant aspiration, enjoys no special immunity from hubris. In the last century alone Woodrow Wilson sought to make the world safe for democracy, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court and free the world from fear, Lyndon Johnson wanted to build a Great Society, Richard Nixon claimed quasi-royal authority, and George W. Bush dreamt of a constitutionally governed Middle East.

The cycle of success transmuted into an arrogance that culminates in humiliation is so common in our politics that we are inclined to look upon the sequence as a comic one. Obama’s rise and fall can certainly be viewed through the prism of comedy, but tragedy alone can illuminate the deeper significance of that unenviable trajectory.

In 2008 Obama promised to restore balance and proportion to a national politics that seemed in the eyes of many to vacillate between unsavory extremes. The candidate’s personal qualities marked him out as a healer, a peacemaker, a bridge-builder. An amalgam of Kansas and Kenya, he moved easily between different worlds. He projected a sense of detachment from the passionate follies of ordinary politics; he was thoughtful, cool, perhaps ascetic, and in his withdrawn aloofness he was sometimes compared to an adept of one the Eastern philosophies, liberated from the wheel of gross material life. That a man who appeared so wise, so balanced, so self-knowing should upon attaining power have fallen into the very error he condemned, that of overreaching hubris, may be ironic, but it is not comic. The degeneration of the hero of 2008 into the smaller, meaner figure we see today is not funny: There is always something tragic in the sight of a brilliant and gifted man sinking beneath himself.

Once Obama spoke of the “shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.” Today he stirs up the resentment of various classes of citizens. Once he refused to prey upon Americans’ doubts and fears. Today his surrogates suggest that his opponent is a criminal. Once he deplored George Bush’s arrogance. Now he acts like an English king before the revolution of 1688, dispensing with statutes he doesn’t like and flouting his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Conventional politicians might stoop to low arts; but the whole point of Barack Obama’s candidacy was that he was supposed to be different from the others. The retailers of tendentious commonplace prefer to forget this. Thus Lawrence Downes writes in the New York Times that the president has never been anything more than “a more-or-less mainstream, smarter-than-average pol.” If you were among the millions who thought Obama was something more, you were the dupe of a man distinguished from every other run-of-the-mill hack only by the superior seductiveness of his charlatanry.

The president’s face tells a different story. Try as he might, he cannot hide his soul’s desperation before the chasm that separates what he once was from what he now is. Like all blinded heroes “exiled from light,” he does not see — cannot admit — that his tragedy lies precisely in this, that he is himself the prime cause of what he now suffers.

He knows his record is an unsatisfactory one, and his pride recoils from the stigma of having failed. “That fault I take not on me,” he says with Milton’s Samson. He shifts the blame to Bush, to Boehner, to the Europeans, to the rich. He comforts himself with the thought that if by hook or crook he can win reelection, all will be well; the stain of his first term will be washed clean by his second. In pursuing this mirage the president has sacrificed even the pretense of possessing a special nobility of character. Once he said he would be content with a single term of office. Today he passionately covets another four years. To justify his undignified avidity, he pretends that he is running as hard as he is only because his opponent is uniquely terrible. Obama’s “mostly joyless campaign,” Politico’s Thrush writes, is motivated not by devotion to “a hard-fought cause,” but by the president’s “own burning competitiveness” and “his remorseless focus on beating Mitt Romney — an opponent he genuinely views with contempt and fears will be unfit to run the country.” This, of course, is the delusion of every desperate candidate whose fancy would tenderly coddle his unhappy conscience.

A campaign based on so little comes perilously close to being an exercise in self-pity and a study in the very nearly pathological egotism of a man afraid to lose. Yet however “remorseless” a campaign the president wages, victory in November will not restore him to the place from which he fell. He would, indeed, be a greater man, and truer to his original idea of himself, were he to undergo the purifying loss with dignity rather than evade it through arts he once disdained.

— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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