President Obama has acted out our forgetfulness of human limits and human darkness
Three days before his second debate with Governor Romney, President Obama flew to Newport News, Va., and was driven in one of the presidential SUVs to the Kingsmill Golf Resort, where, in a house overlooking the James River, he prepared for the impending ordeal. The resort lies on the site of the old Kingsmill Plantation of Lewis Burwell III, an 18th-century scion of Virginia’s planter aristocracy. In March 1865 Abraham Lincoln, aboard the River Queen, steamed past it on his way to City Point, where General Grant was preparing the fall of Richmond.
Obama was once fond of invoking Lincoln in a way that suggested that he and the 16th president bore more than a passing resemblance to each other. But fortune, Hamlet said, is a strumpet. Stinted of the glory that capricious harlot bestowed so lavishly on Lincoln in the last days of his presidency, Obama came down to the James not in triumph but in the final phases of a cruel descent from the high places. No longer the would-be redeemer of his country, he found himself in the less gratifying condition of an ordinary politician, one whose reelection was in jeopardy and who by his own admission was “not too proud to beg” for votes.
Ten days earlier, in Denver, Obama had given what Hendrik Hertzberg (a supporter of the president) called “the worst performance in a one-on-one Presidential TV debate in the history of one-on-one Presidential TV debates.” Hence the retreat to Kingsmill, where the president hoped to sharpen his debating skills. “What, was Camp David booked?” quipped fellow guest Danny Sullivan, a former racecar driver who had come to the resort, the Virginian-Pilot reported, for a Ferrari show. But however singular the president’s choice of a golf resort as the scene of his candidacy’s reinvention, it worked for him, as the saying goes. On the eve of the second debate there was some doubt as to whether he could even meet, much less exceed, the accepted standard for extemporaneous, teleprompterless presidential talk. His performance in Hempstead put those doubts to rest.
In one respect this was good. There is a temptation, when President Obama gets something really wrong, to dismiss him — and his presidency — as a joke. But while it may be comforting to think that the errors of the Obama presidency are the expression of the follies of a particular man, the reality is that the president is only the most visible instance of a more general problem, that of a culture that has lost sight not only of how imperfect human beings naturally are, but also of the way their imperfections limit their ability to change the world for the better.
Go back to 2008, when Obama resembled the golden boy of Virgil’s fourth eclogue, a charmed figure who would turn our national winter into spring. What was less striking than the spectacle of a politician’s courting hero-worship was the revelation that those who duly worshipped him were oblivious of what they were doing, unaware that they possessed this altogether human trait, the need to adore.
It is not surprising to find people mistaking a man for a corn god; they have been doing that since the beginning of time. It is surprising to find them so insensible of their own natures, so snugly settled in their own complacencies, that they are unconscious of how much primitive darkness lies concealed beneath the fragile surface of their civilized selves. The same impulses that once exalted the shaman and the witch doctor, the prophet and the priest-king, live in them, as they do in us. We consult the dubious oracles of Gallup with the same apprehensive curiosity with which the old Greeks consulted the priests and priestesses of Apollo; I have sometimes caught myself taking seriously even the artfully contrived hogwash of Nate Silver, who solemnly asserted the other day that President Obama has a “70.4% chance of winning” on November 6. The precision of the decimal point is a nice touch.
We are less remote from our primitive ancestors than we like to think, and in some respects more deficient in self-knowledge. The ghosts and goblins that haunted our forebears — the evil spirits they feared would lead them into temptation — were only aspects of their own natures that they personified as distinct beings. In dreading the malignant demon, they dreaded what was malignant in themselves. They were thus conscious not only of the pervasiveness of evil, but of the way it sinks its fangs into the human soul. This was salutary: If you know yourself to be unregenerate, you will be less likely to succumb to the delusion that you (or others like you) can regenerate a fallen world.
The barely literate peasant, spelling out his Genesis by the light of a peat fire, has this advantage over us: He knows, as we too often do not, that the serpent in us is “more subtil than any beast of the field.” In losing touch with the theory of Genesis — it is roughly the same theory that is found in such other classics of Western wisdom literature as Macbeth and Oedipus Rex and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus — we have lost a valuable check on the more audacious forms of overreaching. Some fruit really is forbidden. Perfection is one of these fruits, for perfection is an attribute of divinity, and we are not divine. When Satan tempts Eve with the apple of divine perfection — “and ye shall be as gods” — he is, of course, setting her up for a fall.
The delusion that we can radically improve our human condition grows out of a most understandable desire, the craving for a perfection purified of pain. At the bottom of every dream of utopia is the dreamer’s belief that we can be happier than experience tells us we were meant to be. By contrast, the older wisdom we have (in some measure) forsaken acknowledged that life imposes limits on the amount of pleasure and happiness we are able to experience. These limits were defined by traditional prohibitions and taboos, and by prudential restraints on conduct — boundaries that, if crossed, would lead not to more fun but to more suffering. In the modern era a different philosophy emerged, espoused by thinkers such as Nietzsche, who praised the seeking of “what is forbidden.” “Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it,” Nietzsche says, means “seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence, everything so far placed under a ban by morality.” Michel Foucault derived his idea of “limit experiences” — an ecstatic defiance of boundaries in pursuit of new and exquisite sensations — from Nietzsche. This chasing after the holy grail of ever-more-intense, ever-more-perfect forms of gratification was very different from the older philosophy of pleasure worked out by Epicurus, who preached renunciation and restraint, and who lived simply and modestly in seclusion from the world. Foucault, on the contrary, repudiated restraint, and in seeking the ne plus ultra of pleasure pursued the road that Emerson said leads to perdition: “What a hell should we make of the world,” he wrote in his journal, “if we could do what we would!”
This chase after unexampled felicity produces, too, another sort of wretchedness by encouraging those who engage in it to believe that if they do not become ideally happy, they have been unfairly defrauded of the perfect contentment to which they are entitled. According to a statistic published in the Telegraph, 26 percent of British workers have been diagnosed with depression. The statistic is questionable: When someone is said to be “depressed” today, it very often means only that he believes he ought to be happier than mortal beings ordinarily are. A. E. Housman said that “the state of mankind always had been and always would be a state of just tolerable discomfort.” But in an age of inflated expectations, what is normal has ceased to accord with what is tolerable. As the gap between the kinds of happiness that are achievable and the kinds of happiness that are desirable widens, we confront the melancholy spectacle of people’s turning in ever-greater numbers to the happiness pills of the pharmaceutical companies in an effort to escape the intolerable burden of their sorrow.
The pursuit of an ideal happiness in the private sphere, and the connected belief that such a happiness can be attained by transgressing customary limits, have their counterparts in the public sphere, where politics has for some time been characterized by an extravagant lack of restraint and a refusal to accept the limitations that life places on felicity. The Constitution speaks of a “more perfect Union” and assumes the fact of an imperfect world. America’s is thus a mature political order, for such an order involves an acceptance of limits, a knowledge that in a world formed as ours is, no system of politics or political economy can be wholly acceptable: One must choose the least bad. In the mid–20th century, Americans reached a consensus about what the least-bad system was: democracy in politics, somewhat modified by counter-majoritarian constraints, and liberty in economic matters, somewhat modified by redistributionist social-welfare programs. It was an admittedly imperfect system — and the best we could do. Democracy is not perfect; the demos often chooses badly; but aristocracy and monarchy are even less satisfactory. Liberty of action in the economic sphere has its drawbacks, but government control is worse.
Both Republicans and Democrats chafed at the limits imposed by these bargains with imperfection, and the result has been a series of fiscal crises. When the Johnsonian and Nixonian spending sprees left the country strapped for cash, Nixon disavowed Bretton Woods and made the dollar a fiat currency, a move that enabled the government to print as many greenbacks as it liked. The Nixon administration’s petrodollar arrangement with OPEC propped up the liberated dollar, and Reagan’s and Volcker’s policies cleaned up the country’s fiscal house. But a raft of imprudent policies, from “too big to fail” to “a mortgage in every pot,” pushed the fiscal limits anew and culminated in a crash.
Enter Barack Obama, who in 2008 spoke of the moment when the “perfection begins” and equated it with his elevation to the presidency. If plenty of other politicians, on both sides of the aisle, had flirted with fiscal extravagance before Obama came to power, he was the first president to portray the country’s basic bargain with imperfection as shameful rather than wise. No sooner did he take possession of the White House than he began to spend his way to felicity. Confronted with the argument that the country couldn’t afford the perfection he sought, he replied, “I won.” Faced with uneasiness about the deficits he ran up, he proposed to tax the rich. Confronted, at last, with the argument (classically expressed by E. L. Godkin in his essay “Who Will Pay the Bills of Socialism?”) that even if all the private capital now existing were equitably distributed, it would destroy the economy’s seed corn — its reserves of accumulated capital, the sole source of new growth — without significantly improving anyone’s quality of life, Obama . . . promised to take the matter under consideration in a second term.
Under the current administration, governance itself has become a Foucault-like “limit experience,” one that has brought the country to the edge of a fiscal cliff. Not that President Obama was motivated, as Foucault was, by the desire to experience whatever sensuous pleasure is to be had in dallying with doom. But in his fiscal profligacy Obama has amply demonstrated his faith in the idea, so common in our age, that we can have it all, that our possibilities are less circumscribed by the imperfect nature of our condition than the hard lessons of experience show to be the case. Our choices, Burke said, are in many cases not between good and good, or even between good and evil, but between evil and evil. It requires a certain degree of political maturity to acknowledge this terrible fact, a maturity that President Obama resists.
Yet it would be wrong to make too much of the shortcomings of a particular man. President Obama is not a cause but a symptom of the recklessness of an age that shrinks from acknowledging limits. Even so, there was something almost infinitely expressive in his descent to the golf resort in an effort to salvage a presidency that, having been consecrated to perfection, could only compound disaster. The carefully tended links on the James are a parable not only of a failed presidency but of the failed philosophy that inspired it, that of an overreaching civilization that dreamt of a great renovation but seems destined to leave behind it the meagerest of memorials, its “only monument the asphalt road. / And a thousand lost golf balls.”
– Mr. Beran is a lawyer and a contributing editor of City Journal. He is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.