Different presidents have different strengths. President Obama’s genius is for antagonizing everybody at once. The other day his decision that the Department of Justice should cease defending the Defense of Marriage Act outraged opponents of gay marriage. Meanwhile White House spokesman Jay Carney’s assurance that Obama still personally disapproved of gay marriage squashed any possibility that the DOMA decision might win back the once-fervent gay supporters whose feeling that he’s on their side has been eroding steadily since January 20, 2009.
Of course, Obama isn’t just your run-of-the-mill opponent of gay marriage. No, he wants to have that one both ways, too. So it is that every time he reiterates his hostility to gay marriage, he insists on adding that he’s “grappling” or “wrestling” with the issue. The Associated Press report on the DOMA decision, for example, included the information that Obama “is still wrestling with whether gay couples should have the right to marry.”
For my part, I support gay marriage and I’m glad that the Department of Justice is no longer going to devote its energies to standing up for DOMA. But what I want to focus on here is not gay marriage but that most remarkable of mysteries, the mind of Obama. Could he be a more polar opposite to his immediate predecessor? George W. Bush sought to create the illusion that he was a good ol’ boy without a brain in his head — a regular guy who looked down on book learnin’ and whose idea of intellectual exertion was clearing brush on his ranch. Obama, by contrast, wants us to think that he’s constantly engaged in moral and intellectual reflection of the most profound and subtle sort — “grappling” and “wrestling” with thoughts weighty enough to send Immanuel Kant to the rubber room.
Back when Mario Cuomo was governor of New York, wags called him the Hamlet of Albany because he made a show of pondering everything to death but was painfully short on meaningful action. Obama makes him look like a Marvel Comics superhero. (As opposed to Marvel’s own efforts in that department.) In his recent hagiography of Obama, The Bridge, David Remnick labors on almost every page to dispel the notion that our president is in any way a left-wing extremist. But one thing that comes through clearly, even in Remnick’s skillfully sanitized pages, is that Obama’s distinguishing characteristic throughout his adult years has been a species of intellectual vanity that seems to overwhelm his every other personal attribute, good or bad. So pronounced is this intellectual vanity — and the self-seriousness that goes with it — that it stood out even at Harvard Law, where he studied, and the law school at the University of Chicago, where he taught. He has, in short, even by the formidable standards of the Ivy League, the law profession, and high-stakes politics, an exceedingly lofty opinion of his own mind and wants us to share that opinion. Nothing else, it would seem, matters to him nearly as much.
So thoroughly does this trait dominate Obama’s character, indeed, that it utterly dwarfs other traits that one might consider important in a president — or, for that matter, an alderman, school superintendent, night manager at a deli, or anybody else in a position of responsibility. Time and again, when the impressive thing would be to make a strong and timely decision — and to make a clear case for it — Obama hesitates, vacillates, equivocates, and ends up, as in the matter of gay marriage, making a muddle of things and riling up pretty much everybody; and instead of recognizing this habit as a weakness, Obama himself shows every sign of considering it a virtue, a mark of excellence, that distinguishes him from lesser — which is to say less cognitively inclined — beings.
A president is judged by what he accomplishes for his country and the world. But Obama seems to be constituted in such a way that he cannot transcend his perception of the country and the world as, first and foremost, objects of — and an admiring audience for — his own reflection. From the time he first emerged on the national scene, the emphasis was on Obama as orator — like Reagan, his admirers enthused, he was a Great Communicator. But what a difference! Reagan held strong opinions about the great questions of the day, and he sought to convey those opinions as lucidly and powerfully as possible. The communicating wasn’t about him — he was just the vehicle. Obama’s most admired speeches, by contrast, have been, above all, attempts to impress — his goal is not to persuade us with argument but to bowl us over with his brilliance, his easy way with exalted ideas. To look back now at Obama’s much-lauded campaign oratory is to recognize that what he was offering to us wasn’t a plan or a platform or a philosophy but nothing more or less than his own putative intellectual heft. The reason why Obama has proven such a crushing disappointment is that for Obama himself, it never really went beyond the cerebration — there never was any political program worth speaking of. The thought, and the advertisement of it, were their own end. He thinks, therefore we are.
One recalls W. B. Yeats’s poem “Long-Legged Fly,” which celebrates, even sacralizes, the act of quiet contemplation by great men, as seen in the first of its three stanzas:
That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand upon his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.
A great man’s thought, Yeats reminds us, can lead to exploits that save the world from disaster or alter it in monumental ways. The poem attends to the thought, not the action — but the point is that the action is the reason for the thought; without the follow-through, the thought itself is ultimately meaningless. Obama’s focus, like the poem’s, is on the thought, not the action to come; yet for him, as opposed to Yeats, the thought is an end unto itself, and action need not be a part of the picture at all. It is no surprise that Obama is so indecisive about so many things, any more than it is a surprise that during all his years as a teacher of law he famously never published a single law review article: to make an executive decision about an issue, or to put into print one’s opinion about a legal question, is to mark an end to thought about that topic. Obama may have spoken at thousands of lecterns about the “change,” whatever it was supposed to be, that he would bring to America; but even as he was preaching about action, he wasn’t itching (in the way that, say, Reagan or Clinton was) to get to work changing America, but was, quite simply, savoring his own rhetoric — enjoying the narcissistic conceit of his own mind moving in silence.
It’s thanks to this flagrantly conspicuous deliberativeness, this relentless penchant for philosophical posturing, that many people who once despised Hillary Clinton now recognize her, in comparison with Obama, not only as someone who is capable of being a good and solid — but unpretentious — thinker but also as someone who understands not just the politics of campaigning but the politics of governing, which means that she knows that thought itself is not enough, that taking a stand matters, and that it is action that defines character.
Of course, the topper here is that all of Obama’s deep thinking is ultimately bogus. It’s as if he’s posing for Rodin, elbow on knee, chin on fist — all the while staring in a mirror, pleased by what he sees. Consider for a moment this sentence about Obama’s views on gay marriage, also from the AP’s DOMA story: “He said his feelings on the issue continue to evolve but he still believes in allowing strong civil unions.” Now, what person who holds a strong and sincere opinion about anything describes that opinion as “evolving”? One’s take on this or that issue may change over time, to be sure, but only in retrospect will one view it as having “evolved”; for a person who still supposedly has a firm belief in any given proposition, it’s nothing less than perverse to say that that belief is “evolving.”
Yes, this sentence could be interpreted as a cynical politician’s attempt to communicate to gay-marriage supporters that if they stick with him, he’ll eventually declare himself to be on their side once it becomes politically safe to do so. But it feels weirder than that. It feels almost as if Obama is imagining himself standing outside of his own thought processes, contemplating himself contemplating — the implication being that he’s so fine an observer of his own mental processes that he’s able to assure us that the path of reflection along which he’s making his effortful way will indeed, in the fullness of time, lead him to support gay marriage.
In any case, Obama’s direction of the spotlight upon his own supposedly “evolving” philosophy about gay marriage places his personal thought processes at the center of things in a way that comes off as distinctively obnoxious and self-regarding — and just plain insulting to American citizens whose lives are touched by the issue in question in a way that Obama’s isn’t. For another politician to respond to gay marriage with a flat, firm, decisive “no” seems to me less condescending toward gay couples than this obnoxious, self-regarding business about Obama’s “evolving” views. Again, this isn’t just about gay marriage: this one remark about Obama’s “evolving” views illuminates the way he thinks about the way he thinks. And what one comes away with is the clear impression that, in his view, there’s nothing odd or inappropriate about demanding that hundreds of thousands of American citizens wait patiently, hold their collective breath, and keep their lives on hold while Obama’s mind performs its exquisite work — moving, like the very mind of Caesar in his tent, in perfect and magnificent silence.