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Ed Driscoll

The Commander in Chief of MSNBC

October 31st, 2010 - 11:00 pm

“I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me,” Barack Obama told the AP in the early 1990s, as Joel Kotkin reminds us, in this passage highlighted by Instapundit:

Many of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives have tended to reflect the views of urban interests – roughly 20 percent of the population – rather than suburban ones.

When the president visits suburban backyards, it sometimes seems like a visit from a “president from another planet.” After all, as a young man, Obama told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”

Add that to Obama’s previous utterances regarding other aspects of America that induced in him a sense of ennui as a young man.  In 2008, Jim Geraghty spotted this telling passage in a book by David Mendell titled Obama: From Promise to Power:

“[Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day,” said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who enticed Obama to Chicago from his Manhattan office job. “The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions… that was scary to him.”

And then there was this classic bit by Michelle Obama on the campaign trail:

“We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Faced with that reality, she adds, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”

Flash-forward two years, as Doug Powers runs down what is likely an incomplete list of the numerous industries that Obama, once in power, punitively demonized with either harsh rhetoric, harsh legislation, or both, and then asks:

Only one question remains — what area of the private sector — aside from the slip-and-fall attorneys — isn’t hated and vilified by the Obama Democrats?

And of course, Obama has thoroughly demonized Republicans, both as a group and individually by name before and after taking office. And the Chamber of Commerce. And Fox News. And Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. And even “the Professional Left,” in a crude effort at triangulation. And many of America’s previously stalwart foreign allies have felt the cold shoulder as well, starting with England.

And note the 20 percent number that Kotkin quoted above. The president has rather consistently backed issues approved by 40 to 20 percent of the public, a trend that seemed to only increase this summer, perhaps explained by an attempt to rally his moribund base. But for the rest of us it’s an awfully perplexing strategy.

So who’s left? Basically Media Matters, MSNBC, Comedy Central, the builders of the Ground Zero mosque, and academia, it seems. While I can understand the president wanting to circle the wagons, it’s awfully difficult to rally the country from inside the studios of MSNBC, no matter how robust their switchboard system.

In her latest op-ed, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post takes time in between gushing over the president to finally figure out another element of what ails him as a leader:

Stewart had just asked Obama how he could square his campaign mantra of “change” with hiring economic advisers such as Larry Summers, who looks the same as those who had served in previous administrations. In response, Obama said that Summers had done a “heck of a job.”

Whereupon, Stewart said, “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

Everyone got the joke. George W. Bush used the same words to commend Michael “Brownie” Brown after his disastrous performance as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Katrina. Translation: You’re fired.

Everyone got the joke, that is, except for Obama. He got it eventually, after seeing the “oops” expression on Stewart’s face, but he couldn’t take the joke. There’s a world of difference.

Instead of laughing at himself, he turned to the audience – a beat too late – and said, “Pun intended.”

No, it wasn’t. Anyone watching could see that. He slipped. Obama is a nice guy; he was trying to say something nice about Summers, and “heck of a job” just tumbled out. No big deal. We get it. Stuff happens. But Obama couldn’t roll with the gut punch.

In that, among other moments, Obama revealed his fatal flaw. He has no sense of humor. He might be able to laugh at a joke. He can even tell one, as he demonstrated at the last White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Whoever wrote that script should send his resume to Comedy Central. Oh, wait, some of the writers do work at Comedy Central.

No, what Obama revealed was that he has no sense of humor about himself. This is utterly huge.

It is entirely appropriate that the president take his job seriously. And no one would urge Obama (or anyone else) to try to be funny with Jon Stewart. He’s the funny guy, and producers doubtless remind guests of that fact. A good guest on “The Daily Show” is expected to be the straight man so that the comedian has some place to go with the material. I’m sure there’s a Rolodex of “bad guests” who tried to out-funny the comedian.

But it is imperative that leaders not take themselves too seriously. What should Obama have done instead? How about saying: “I can’t believe I just said that”? Or, “Oy!”? Whatever. Anything to signal to the audience that, “Oh, well, I’m human.”

But it’s awfully hard to have a sense of humor when you’re so disdainful of a large swatch of the nation you govern. (How bad is it? This bad.) You risk appearing not as an elected official, but as a stiff clichéd parody university professor, all but looking down at the voters from the bridge of your pince-nez. Or as James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Barack Obama is a pragmatist, James Kloppenberg tells the New York Times. No, he doesn’t mean Obama is practical-minded; no one thinks that anymore. In fact, Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, disparages the “vulgar pragmatism” of Bill Clinton while praising Obama’s “philosophical pragmatism”:

It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Kloppenberg has a new book coming out, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition.” According to the Times, Kloppenberg “sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president,” a “true intellectual.” Such philosophers are a “rare breed”: the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson and now Obama.

“Imagine the Republicans driving the economy into a ditch,” the philosopher president said the other day. “And it’s a deep ditch. It’s a big ditch. And somehow they walked away from the accident, and we put on our boots and we rappelled down into the ditch–me and Jack and Sheldon and Jim and Patrick. We’ve been pushing, pushing, trying to get that car out of the ditch. And meanwhile, the Republicans are standing there, sipping on a Slurpee.” John Dewey had nothing on this guy!

If the president does not seem to be the intellectual heavyweight Kloppenberg makes him out to be, the Harvard historian has an explanation: Obama is a sort of secret-agent philosopher. “He would have had to deny every word,” Kloppenberg tells the Times, which helpfully explains that “intellectual” is “a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.”

When Sarah Palin called Obama a “professor,” some professors accused her of racism. What she really meant, they claimed, was “uppity.” Kloppenberg’s similar characterization, however, draws a quite different response:

Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

One assumes that Andrew Hartman is a serious scholar, although one doesn’t know for sure because one has never heard of him. Barack Obama, by contrast, is a scholarly dilettante, a professional politician who has moonlighted as a university instructor.

Exactly. Or as Michael Ledeen and PJ O’Rourke each independently dubbed him, a perpetual undergrad — and remarkably politically correct — student.

At Ricochet, Rob Long responds to Kloppenberg’s profile in the Gray Lady and adds:

Let’s focus on the idea that Barack Obama is a “philosopher president.” What a spectacular piece of delusional straw-grasping idiocy! How perfectly it encapsulates the unplugged, unhinged cocoon of the academic left.It’s an analysis that has a delicious appeal, of course, to Barack Obama’s most loyal following. Here’s the punch line:

Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

That’s really all you need to know, isn’t it, about our arrogant, out of touch, and hyper-vain president? He reminds that puffed-up, flatulent class of academic hoo-has of themselves! Applause, applause! He’s just like us! We, too, could be presidents. Well, philosopher presidents.

Of course, there was an earlier American president who went almost immediately from academia to the White House, with little more than a cup of coffee at lesser elected office along the way.

In 2008, both as a candidate and as president-elect, the media frequently — and in retrospect with staggering absurdity — compared Obama to some of the most respected presidents in American history: Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy. (And Obama was more than willing to feed into the charade himself.) But there was one wartime president whose name was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as Obama, which brings us to John Steele Gordon in Commentary:

I’ve just finished reading Louis Auchincloss’s mini-biography of Woodrow Wilson (part of the “Penguin Lives” series), and I was struck by the similarities between the country’s first liberal president and the man who might be its last (I know, I know, ever the optimist).Wilson was, at heart, an academic, the author of several books, (including Congressional Government, still in print after 125 years). He thought and acted like a professor even after he entered politics. Wilson always took it for granted, for instance, that he was the smartest guy in the room and acted accordingly. Does that sound familiar? Wilson was a remarkably powerful orator. (It was he who revived the custom of delivering the State of the Union message in person, a custom that had been dropped by Thomas Jefferson, a poor and most reluctant public speaker.)

Both men had very short public careers before the White House. Wilson’s only pre-presidential office was two years as Governor of New Jersey. And Wilson thought he had a pipeline to God, which allowed him to divine what was best for the world and gave him a moral obligation to give it to the world whether the world wanted it or not. This last tendency, evident even when he was president of Princeton University, became more pronounced with age as a series of debilitating strokes (the first at age 40) increasingly rigidified his personality.

Both Wilson and Obama were the subjects of remarkable public adulation, and both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their aspirations rather than their accomplishments. In Wilson’s case, at least, it only increased his sense of being God’s instrument on earth. Although the Republicans had won majorities just before Armistice Day in November 1918, in both houses of Congress — and the Senate’s consent by a two-thirds majority would be necessary to ratify any treaty — Wilson shut them out of any say in the treaty he went to Paris to negotiate with the other victorious powers. Obama, of course, shut the Republicans out of any say in both the stimulus bill and ObamaCare.

Jonah Goldberg (who along with Glenn Beck and Reason’s Charles Paul Freund) has done much in recent years to remind Americans of their forgotten decade of the 20th century, much to the New York Times’ chagrin. As he wrote in February of 2008 in the Christian Science Monitor, “You want a more ‘progressive’ America? Careful what you wish for — Voters should remember what happened under Woodrow Wilson.”

But they didn’t — and Obama’s core constituency wasn’t about to remind them, perhaps in part because they’ve voluntary deleted most of the details of this era of American history from their own memory banks as well.

(Bumped to top.)

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