Descending from the heavens for the G8 summit at beautiful Lough Erne this week, President Obama caused some amusement to his British hosts. The chancellor of the exchequer had been invited to give a presentation to the assembled heads of government on the matter of tax avoidance (one of the big items on the agenda, for those of you who think what the IRS could really use right now is even more enforcement powers). The president evidently enjoyed it. Thrice, he piped up to say how much he agreed with Jeffrey, eventually concluding the presentation with the words, “Thank you, Jeffrey.” Unfortunately, the chancellor of the exchequer is a bloke called George Osborne, not Jeffrey Osborne. President Obama subsequently apologized for confusing George with Jeffrey, who was a popular vocal artiste back in the Eighties when Obama was dating his composite girlfriend and making composite whoopee to the composite remix of Jeffrey Osborne’s 1982 smoocheroo, “On the Wings of Love.”
I suppose it might have been worse. When Angela Merkel proposed a toast to a strong West, he could have assumed that was the name of Kim and Kanye’s new baby. At any rate, President Obama’s mishap had faint echoes of a famous social faux pas during the Second World War. Irving Berlin, the celebrated composer of “White Christmas,” was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street and was surprised to find that Churchill, instead of asking what’s that Bing Crosby really like, badgered him with complex moral and strategic questions and requests for estimates of U.S. war production. It turned out the prime minister had confused Irving Berlin with the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, then under secondment to the British embassy in Washington, and thought it was the latter he’d invited to Number Ten. In the Obama era, any confusion is the other way around. It would be a terrible thing for the president to invite the eminent rapper Jay-Z to lunch only to find himself stuck next to the turgid British philosopher Professor Sir Jay Zed. Although Obama’s confusion went largely unreported in America, the BBC’s enterprising Eddie Mair got Jeffrey Osborne on the line and inveigled him into singing George Osborne’s best-known words — “Tax cuts should be for life, not just Christmastime” — to Jeffrey’s best-known tune.
The following day Mangue Obama — whoops, my mistake, Mangue Obama was the prime minister of Equatorial Guinea from 2006 to 2008, and has a way smaller and less incompetent entourage — Barack Obama departed for Berlin (the German city, not the American songwriter or British philosopher). Five years ago at the Brandenburg Gate, he thrilled a crowd of 200,000 with his stirring clarion call to himself, “Ich bin ein Baracker.” This time, he spoke to an audience barely a fiftieth of that size — 4,500, most of whom were bored out of their lederhosen. As I wrote of Obama’s Massachusetts yawnfest in 2010, he went to the trouble of flying in to phone it in. If the BBC’s mash-up of Jeffrey Osborne’s 1982 Billboard hit and Chancellor Osborne’s recent speech at the Mansion House in London was something of an awkward fit, you could slip large slabs of “On the Wings of Love” into Obama’s telepromptered pap and none of the 27 Germans still awake would have noticed the difference:
Peace with justice means extending a hand to those who reach for freedom, wherever they live. Come take my hand and together we will rise, on the wings of love, up and above the clouds, the only way to fly . . .
Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons — no matter how distant that dream may be, just smile for me and let the day begin. You are the sunshine that lights my heat within, and we can reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking, because we are angels in disguise, we live and breathe each other, inseparable . . .
The effort to slow climate change requires bold action. For the grim alternative affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods . . . coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise, you look at me and I begin to melt, just like the snow when a ray of sun is felt. . . . This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time. . . . That is our task. We have to get to work. We’re flowing like a stream, running free, flowing on the wings of love . . .
The wings of love don’t seem to carry Obama as far as they used to. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews blamed the lackluster performance on the sun’s glare affecting his ability to read the text. That’s how bad it is: Global warming melted his prompter. But the speech itself was barely distinguishable in its cobwebbed utopian pabulum from the video for a nuclear-free world just released by Michael Douglas and other celebrities. And Mr. Douglas, who recently gave a fascinating interview to the Guardian in which he blamed his cancerous walnut-sized tongue tumor upon his addiction to oral sex, at least has a better excuse as to why his silvery tongue doesn’t work its magic quite the way it used to. Der Spiegel, which is the very definition of mainstream media in Germany, described the president’s Berlin stop as a visit by “the head of the largest and most all-encompassing surveillance system ever invented” — and under the headline “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism.”
Obama isn’t a “soft” totalitarian so much as a slapdash one. His apparatchiks monitor the e-mails of both Jeffrey and George Osborne, but he still can’t tell one from the other. Likewise, in Syria as in Libya, “the largest and most all-encompassing surveillance system ever invented” can’t tell a plucky freedom fighter itching to build Massachusetts in the sands of Araby from your neighborhood al-Qaeda subsidiary whose health-care plan only covers clitoridectomies.
His G8 colleagues have begun to figure out that America no longer matters. To be sure, the trappings of the presidency are a lagging indicator: He still flies in with more limos and Secret Service agents than everybody else, combined. Then again, the other American story to catch the fancy of the Fleet Street tabloids in recent days is that of the unfortunate Las Vegas man with the world’s biggest scrotum, weighing 140 pounds, yet unable to perform. Of his talks with Vladimir Putin, the president said, “With respect to Syria, we do have differing perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest in reducing the violence.” Putin aims to reduce the violence by getting his boy Assad to kill everyone he needs to. Obama aims to reduce the violence by giving a speech about the “intolerance that fuels extremism” — or is it the other way round? The world understands that Putin means it and Obama doesn’t — just as in Afghanistan everyone knows the Taliban means it and the fainthearted superpower doesn’t.
Thanks to the stork delivering his bundle to Miss Kardashian (see above), Americans seem not to have noticed that the U.S. has just lost yet another war. But in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, they noticed, and they will act accordingly. On the wings of love, up and above the clouds, Obama wafts ever higher on his own gaseous uplift. Down on solid ground, the rest of the world must occasionally wonder if they haven’t confused the U.S. delegation with the world’s most empty-headed boy band.