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‘Like a Dog’: The Origins of Barack Obama’s Petulance

September 8th, 2010 - 6:15 am

I would be miffed too if I were Obama

Obama in just twenty months has developed a reputation for being petulant, unusually sensitive to the normal run-of-the-mill criticism. His latest pushback was his strangest so far: “And they’re not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That’s not in my prepared remarks, it’s just — but it’s true.”

Given that Obama has previously called out talk radio critics by name — Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh — attacked everything from limb-lopping surgeons to vacationing at Las Vegas, and in condescending fashion tsk-tsked those who attend Glenn Beck rallies, rural Pennsylvanians, and his own “typical white person” grandmother who raised him, his thin-skin touchiness seems inexplicable.

Surely the most powerful man in the world knows that when you elevate talk radio critics to near-equal adversaries, then one cannot complain that they press their now high-profile serial attacks even further.

Add that his team has indulged in invective like few recent administrations — whether Obama’s own slur against the stereotyping and stupidly acting police, Eric Holder’s collective denunciation of Americans as “cowards,” Van Jones’ various hysterics (e.g., polluting and mass-murdering whites, Bush in on 9/11, etc.), Anita Dunn’s attacks against Fox News, or the generic “Bush did it” chorus.

The wonder is not that Obama is angry at criticism, but why he is so surprised in a weird “how dare they?” fashion.

Various explanations come to mind. Like the early presidential years of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Obama has experienced a radical drop in approval ratings. His preconceived notions about the world abroad have proven shockingly therapeutic. He must be disappointed that an Ahmadinejad or Putin is not swayed by his charisma and does what he pleases, which is mostly to oppose America and its interests whenever he can. Messianic disappointment with an unappreciative lesser world can explain a lot.

Keynesian economics did not pan out. Pundits without the responsibility of governance, who advised him to borrow trillions, now abandon him for not borrowing more trillions. He must be confused why he is both being attacked by friends and yet unable to borrow his way to recovery.

Yet Obama’s petulance, I think, more likely derives from a certain surprise — leading to anger — that originates from novel and sudden demands for accountability. Quite simply, no one has dared question Obama before — much less press him for deeds to match his mellifluous words.

Did he really think he could talk his way through four years of the American presidency?

Apparently, he did, and apparently he was almost right — given that rhetoric and sophistry earned him the presidency in the first place. In what follows, I hold some empathy for Obama’s pique; you see in some sense those around him suddenly changed the rules, and what in the past had been habit and custom no longer quite applied.

An Old Story

This is an old story with a long heritage. We know Obama got into Columbia; we have no idea what he accomplished there — or whether his undergraduate transcript merited admission to Harvard Law School. Obama may have charmed his way into Harvard Law Review, but in brilliant fashion he seems to have guessed rightly that once there he would be singularly exempt from the usual requirements of quantifiable achievement.

A part-time visiting law professorship at the University of Chicago Law school rarely leads to a permanent tenure-track position, much less a tenured billet– and never without a body of published articles and books. In Obama’s case those protocols simply did not apply. He was not only offered whatever he wanted, but as Justice Kagan reminded us, Obama was courted by Harvard Law School as well.

Most candidates for state office do not sue to remove their opponents from the ballot. Obama petitioned (successfully) that most of them be disqualified in 1995. It is likewise rare for the sealed divorce records of a front-running primary rival to be mysteriously leaked, prompting a veritable uncontested nomination. But after Democratic rival Blair Hull imploded from such revelations, so did Obama’s general election Republican opponent Jack Ryan, who dropped out of the race after his divorce proceedings were eerily likewise exposed. Lightning does strike twice in the same place for the blessed Obama.

Obama had served in the Senate for about two years, when he announced his candidacy for the presidency. That too is rare, but not unprecedented; what was singular was his claim that he was a bipartisan uniter, when, in fact, he compiled the most partisan voting record among 100 senators of either party. He sponsored no major legislation; his memoirs reflected others’ interest in him, not his own record of lawmaking. His themes were winning over adherents rather signature accomplishments.

The exotic name, the mixed racial heritage, and the street cred cool, juxtaposed to the nerdy professorial sermonizing, trumped the need to author or repeal significant laws or create lasting community institutions — or to leave any footprint of achievement at either the University of Chicago, the Illinois legislature, or the U.S. Senate. Running for office or courting appointments or angling for promotions seemed divorced from worry about doing anything when such wishes were granted. Obama’s tragedy is that there is nothing left he can run for, no further adulatory confirmation for just being Obama. Performance for the first time in his life is now all that counts.

Names and images matter in America. Just as a hypothetical moderately attractive blond but empty “Pam Hill” would not earn the high profile accorded to her double-ganger Paris Hilton of similar non-achievement, so too a Barry Dunham does not catch on in the progressive political world in the manner of a Barack Obama.

Nobel Peace Prizes traditionally are awarded to those after a lifetime of activism, often after some exposure to danger, or at least a sizable body of inspirational literature. Obama simply had no such record. He is our collective Peter Sellers of Being There. To paraphrase the embarrassed awards committee, Obama was granted the prize more on his symbolic potential, rather than on the basis of anything he did. Like hundreds of other liberal elites, the Nobel committee seemed to draw more personal fulfillment and satisfaction for bequeathing the award than did Obama in receiving it.

Yes, Race Was a Factor

Throughout the Obama presidential odyssey, an enthralled media variously dubbed him a “god,” confessed to tingling sensations when he spoke, and in vicious fashion turned on any politician who tried to question Obama’s actual record of achievement — whether Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin.

There is no need to pursue the journalistic malfeasance that allowed the president of the United States to be inaugurated without any real past scrutiny. Suffice to say that any future presidential candidate who promises to cool the planet and lower the rising seas will be laughed out of contention — even if he puts “yes, we can” into Latin on his pre-presidential seal.

Race was a factor. Here the left is correct in assessing its importance in evaluating Obama, although not quite in the way they think. At various times, a disturbing racialist trope emerged that suggested white liberals were enthralled almost solely by Obama’s mixed heritage, his diction, and comportment. Not to mention the overall sense that he was a moderate and charismatic African-American that knew precisely how to put anxious well-meaning folks like themselves at ease — and that this was simply not true of the majority of other African-American politicians, and that this in and of itself would suffice.

Promoting Obama offered blanket exemption from even the suggestion of prejudice — a sort of cheap flip of a “get out of jail free” card than ensured liberal elites could otherwise pursue their sheltered lives without guilt or worry over demands for daily interaction with most African-Americans. Elect Obama, worry not what he did — and at last live guilt-free lives in seclusion.

That is a serious charge that should not be made lightly, but the emphasis on Obama’s diction, pigment, and appearance — rather than his actual record — is not my own.

Joe Biden, for example, blurted out, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Apparently Biden meant that the antithesis of Obama’s profile  — a non-mainstream African-American, who spoke a southern patois and who did not appear bright and clean and handsome — most definitely was not to be a storybook candidate and perhaps likely to put off white liberals like Biden. (Note that Biden did not mention any particular achievement of Obama, merely the impression that he made on those like himself.)

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was perhaps cruder even than Biden. It was reported that he had characterized Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Again, Reid’s implied antithesis — a dark-skinned African American who spoke with a Negro dialect all the time — would probably offend progressives like Reid. (Note here that Harry Reid seems to have been the first serious observer to publicly describe one of Obama most off-putting characteristics — the near cynical fashion in which he turns on not slightly, but entirely, different cadences and intonations to cater to particular crowds.)

Progressive Condescension

In short, Obama seems aware that a particular cadre of influential white liberals has traditionally accorded him deference not warranted by actual achievement, but rather by his projection of a progressive persona, as crudely outlined by a Biden or Reid — and that this by now is a normal course of events rather than an aberrant experience. Hence his anger that all that has at last begun to end.

It is hard to think that an Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, would have gushed over the rather undistinguished legal record of Barack Obama, had he been either a well published but obese white Harvard Law graduate, or a conservative African-American antipode to the Biden-Reid stereotype, perhaps in the Clarence Thomas mold. After all, it was not just Obama’s appearance or skin color or cadences that so impressed Biden and Reid and won over liberal Americans, but his politics as well that earned him an exemption not accorded even to an equally professional appearing Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice.

Now What?

But enough speculation over motives for the origins of Obama’s strange and growing petulance. All that matters for the country is that the current president of the United States seems surprised that as our chief executive he is earning scrutiny not previously accorded him — and that he finds that demand for accountability both exasperating and abjectly unfair. Thus this week’s latest “like a dog” whine.

For some reason, Obama believed that those who expected after his campaign promises a real upturn in the economy, or fiscal responsibility, or inspired foreign policy would be satisfied, as they had in the past, merely with soaring rhetoric and superficial reassurance. When they were not, and voiced such displeasure, as ingrates they had supposedly reduced Obama to canine-like status.

There is no need to add that abroad an Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Putin does not care a bit for the supposed personal chemistry or ethnic profile of Obama. Whether he was “clean” or not would be an absurdity to them. We sense only that those authoritarian sorts seem so far to like the idea that Obama speaks ambiguously about his country’s past and future, and appears more comfortable in pondering alternatives than making decisions.

Given all that, it is understandable both why America is very worried about what it has wrought — and why Barack Obama is miffed and lashes out.

You would too if both accountability and criticism were novel experiences at 49.

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