Albert Camus was expert at describing a man apart, an existential man, The Stranger, who doesn’t belong in the society in which he finds himself. He doesn’t have emotional roots; in fact, this character is haunted by shadows — the real and the metaphorical. He is the quintessential rebel challenging normative standards.
At the risk of drawing literary comparisons, I am persuaded, based on his performance, that President Obama is a man apart. He seems to equate power with arrogance, pride with willfulness, and exceptionalism with dominance. As a consequence, he has changed foreign policy perceptions. The America he leads is a nation like any other — no more, no less. In fact, as a Nobel laureate, he is considered by the Europeans as a man of the world, not merely a citizen of the United States.
When asked if the United States is exceptional, President Obama said America is exceptional, and England is exceptional, and Greece is exceptional. That the United States is sui generis didn’t cross his mind. How could it? He is pledged to a scenario in which America opts out of its traditional role as peace keeper, the balance wheel in maintaining international equilibrium. The war against terrorists is over along with the nation’s hegemonic role.
Unfortunately the war fatigue President Obama embodies is not embraced by our global enemies who see this shift in his policy attitude as a sign of weakness and retreat. I believe President Obama actually thinks that unilateral concessions to our real and putative enemies will result in reciprocal responses. But as his bizarre overtures to the Olympic Committee demonstrated, gestures directed at multilateralism and celebrity status do not result in favorable outcomes. Real power as opposed to soft power still has meaning on the world stage.
A man with roots would know that wild policy swings of the kind that we’ve experienced with health care, cap and trade, and education proposals cannot possibly fly with the American people — even with those who voted for President Obama in the last election. Despite cultural shifts, the United States still fashions itself as a conservative nation. Only a man apart cannot sense that condition.
My contention is not that the president is devoid of conviction. In fact, his political tilt is decidedly to the left — the hardcore left. My assertion is different. I believe this president doesn’t understand the rhythms, the pulse of the American people. He is not merely outside the mainstream. He doesn’t even recognize it. He is a basketball player who has been asked to step up to the plate and bat.
At first I thought his initial popularity would carry him through to a second term. But as each day passes and the false, almost inappropriate gestures register with the people, Americans are beginning to recognize this president as a man apart. He is our stranger in a land he doesn’t understand.
Americans are not warlike; nor does imperial ambition fill their soul. They have done almost nothing for which daily apologies are necessary. Their blood soaks the beaches of Normandy; their graves litter European towns. And their fortune saved millions from the plight of destitution. Americans do not appreciate a man so removed from their history, so out of tune with the American experience, that he reflexively expresses regret for the very conditions that should engender pride.
Perhaps this president will learn. But I am not confident that can happen. His life experience without a father in his home and a mother seeking adventure abroad was unstable. His closest associates vilified the nation he now leads. Is it any wonder his wife said she could take no pride in America till now? The past is to be rejected. Milestones in history are erased from memory as storage, cast aside as unnecessary.
This is a unique moment in our history. It is certainly the only time in my life when our national instincts are being reconditioned. From a nation that was a model to the world, we are now told that superiority is unbecoming, a hindrance for the emergence of global egalitarianism.
President Obama, as a man apart, may attempt this recasting of America. But, as I see it, America is not yet ready for his experimentation and, most likely, never will be.