I have never been one to bang on about Obama’s golfing. As a small government guy, I’m more than happy to see the head of the executive branch spending a good amount of his time relaxing. It’s a tough job, and its occupants need rest. That they like to cut brush or spend some time on the links by no means indicates that they are “checked out” or that they “don’t care anymore.” Rather, it shows that they don’t spend all their time working. In the case of this president especially, I think that’s been a blessing.
As a result of this, I’ve been more reluctant than others to suggest that Obama has “given up.” After last night’s performance, however, even I am beginning to wonder. It wasn’t just that the speech was a mess. It wasn’t just that it contained some easily avoidable mistakes. It was the way in which it was delivered. To my eyes, Obama looked old and tired and sad — as if he had realized that, on the questions of terrorism and of guns, he’s never going to see eye to eye with the majority.
If a president is going to address the nation from the Oval Office, he really has to do it well. He has to be angry or reassuring or didactic. Obama was none of these things. He was lackluster. He stumbled. He was distracted. If they had not been told otherwise, I daresay that nobody watching would have guessed that this was the first time he’d given such an address in half a decade. In fact, a casual observer would possibly have assumed that he had been holding these briefings every week for the last seven years and was simply exhausted by them. It was, in a word, uninspired.
The shameful “terror watch list” demagoguery aside, nothing that Obama said last night was especially objectionable. In fact, like Ramesh I was pleased to hear him speak so forthrightly at points. But for a man who made his reputation as an inspiring orator it was almost sad to see. I understand that we tire of our leaders after a while, and that we eventually want them to go away. No doubt Obama is suffering from the same “fame fatigue” as have his predecessors. But I couldn’t avoid wondering if the exhaustion runs both ways. Is Obama bored with us? Is he tired of the system as constructed? Of the country as it is? That seems possible to me.
In the fever swamps, this idea is often expressed as “Obama’s a secret Muslim!” or “he’s out to destroy America.” But one does not have to believe this in order to make the case. In a sense, this was inevitable: Barack Obama came into office as the guy who was going to change everything, and he hasn’t. He’s altered a lot, yes — in my view, mostly for the worse — but he has not fundamentally transformed the country and he has not managed magically to blunt the harsh dissent for which Americans are rightly so famous. In his final 14 months he must be keenly aware of this. And that must make him sad.