Ed Driscoll

Sleepwalking Through History

While I was away last week, Jonathan Last’s brilliant essay, “American Narcissus,” appeared at the Weekly Standard. Last assembles an extensive catalog of the two sides of Obama: extreme narcissism — and its flipside, extreme boredom with every aspect of life that doesn’t immediately advance the career of Barack Obama.

Let’s look at a few instances of the latter:

David Remnick delivers a number of insights about Obama in his book The Bridge. For instance, Valerie Jarrett—think of her as the president’s Karen Hughes—tells Remnick that Obama is often bored with the world around him. “I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually,” Jarrett says. “So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that they had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy.” Jarrett concludes, “He’s been bored to death his whole life.”

With one or two possible exceptions, that is. Remnick reports that “Jarrett was quite sure that one of the few things that truly engaged him fully before going to the White House was writing Dreams from My Father.” So the only job Barack Obama ever had that didn’t bore him was writing about Barack Obama. But wait, there’s more.

David Axelrod—he’s Obama’s Karl Rove—told Remnick that “Barack hated being a senator.” Remnick went on:

Washington was a grander stage than Springfield, but the frustrations of being a rookie in a minority party were familiar. Obama could barely conceal his frustration with the torpid pace of the Senate. His aides could sense his frustration and so could his colleagues. “He was so bored being a senator,” one Senate aide said.

Obama’s friend and law firm colleague Judd Miner agreed. “The reality,” Miner told Remnick, “was that during his first two years in the U.S. Senate, I think, he was struggling; it wasn’t nearly as stimulating as he expected.” But even during his long, desolate exile as a senator, Obama was able to find a task that satisfied him. Here’s Remnick again: “The one project that did engage Obama fully was work on The Audacity of Hope. He procrastinated for a long time and then, facing his deadline, wrote nearly a chapter a week.” Your tax dollars at work.

And as we’ve noted earlier around these parts, Obama has expressed frustration with other aspects of life. “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 late last month 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.”

Maybe that explains Obama’s fascination with radical chic figures such as Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers: perhaps only rhetoric that venomous could break through the all-enveloping forcefield of young Obama’s existential ennui.

But most presidents don’t arrive at the White House so bored with the quotidian details of the American people. Reagan lived out the American dream of being a self-made man in first broadcasting, then show business, then the governor of one of the nation’s largest states. Ike brought freedom to western Europe. Teddy Roosevelt was the consummate outdoorsman. As Machiavellian as Richard Nixon could seem, he could at least outwardly sympathize with, rather than be bored by, the Silent Majority. Even men born into wealth and privilege such as JFK and FDR appeared much more connected with the American people than our current president.

And as Last writes, far from bored, America’s founding father was extremely humbled by the tasks he had taken on:

When he accepted command of the Revolutionary forces, George Washington said,

I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust. … I beg it may be remembered, by every Gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.

Accepting the presidency, Washington was even more reticent. Being chosen to be president, he said, “could not but overwhelm with despondence one who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”

Jonah Goldberg recently wrote that Obama’s elephantine ego causes him, and his sycophantic advisors, both to inflate the challenges they’ve faced in the Oval Office and the current administration’s place in history:

Rahm Emanuel, as he was fleeing for the healthier and more civic-minded political environment of Chicago’s backrooms, said, “I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”Really? The times have been rough, we can all agree, but if memory serves, the Civil War was no cakewalk either. And that Pearl Harbor thing — not to mention 9/11 — might compete with the miserable economy Obama inherited and then ignored as he pursued his own “transformational” vanity projects.

There’s an irony to occupying the Oval Office. When presidents think they’re bigger than the job they hold, they shrink in office. When they think they’re smaller than the honor they’ve been temporarily bestowed, they grow into it. Obama has done nothing but shrink.

Of course, Obama’s liberal worldview and his current fishbowl-like existence in the White House aren’t helping him maintain contact with anything resembling the day-to-day reality you and I inhabit.

As others have written throughout the last decade, many liberals live in a media cocoon; none more so than the nation’s current president. Peggy Noonan proposes one solution to help him escape its confines: inventing “The Special Assistant for Reality:”

What a president should ideally have, and what I think we all agree Mr. Obama badly needs, is an assistant whose sole job it is to explain and interpret the American people to him. Presidents already have special assistants for domestic policy, for congressional relations and national security. Why not a special assistant for reality? Someone to translate the views of the people, and explain how they think. An advocate for the average, a representative for the normal, to the extent America does normal.

If Mr. Obama had a special assistant for reality this week, this is how their dialogue might have gone over the anti-TSA uprising.

President: This thing is all ginned up, isn’t it? Right-wing websites fanned it. Then the mainstream media jumped in to display their phony populist street cred. Right?

Special Assistant for Reality: No, Mr. President, it was more spontaneous. Websites can’t fan fires that aren’t there. This is like the town hall uprisings of summer 2009. In the past month, citizens took videos at airports the same way town hall protesters made videos there, and put them on YouTube. The more pictures of pat-downs people saw, the more they opposed them.

President: What’s the essence of the opposition?

SAR: Sir, Americans don’t like it when strangers touch their private parts. Especially when the strangers are in government uniforms and say they’re here to help.

President: Is it that we didn’t roll it out right? We made a mistake in not telling people in advance we were changing the procedure.

SAR: Um, no, Mr. President. If you’d told them in advance, they would have rebelled sooner.

President: We should have pointed out not everyone goes through the new machines, and only a minority get patted down.

SAR: Mr. President, if you’d told people, “Hello, there’s only 1 chance in 3 you’ll be molested at the airport today” most people wouldn’t think, “Oh good, I like those odds.”

And so on. It’s a cute idea, but who wants to be the man to tell the president’s finely tailored clothes (just ask David Brooks) that they have no emperor inside? Particularly when, as Jonathan Last highlights, quoting a 2008 New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza on Obama’s presidential run, this is going to be the likely response:

Obama said that he liked being surrounded by people who expressed strong opinions, but he also said, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” After Obama’s first debate with McCain, on September 26th, [campaign political director Patrick] Gaspard sent him an e-mail. “You are more clutch than Michael Jordan,” he wrote. Obama replied, “Just give me the ball.”

Certainly the legacy media that created the president doesn’t have the courage to admit the president’s faults, as Sarah Palin satirically wrote in her terrific Thanksgiving posting:

My fellow Americans in all 57 states, the time has changed for come. With our country founded more than 20 centuries ago, we have much to celebrate – from the FBI’s 100 days to the reforms that bring greater inefficiencies to our health care system. We know that countries like Europe are willing to stand with us in our fight to halt the rise of privacy, and Israel is a strong friend of Israel’s. And let’s face it, everybody knows that it makes no sense that you send a kid to the emergency room for a treatable illness like asthma and they end up taking up a hospital bed. It costs, when, if you, they just gave, you gave them treatment early, and they got some treatment, and ah, a breathalyzer, or an inhalator. I mean, not a breathalyzer, ah, I don’t know what the term is in Austrian for that…

Of course, the paragraph above is based on a series of misstatements and verbal gaffes made by Barack Obama (I didn’t have enough time to do one for Joe Biden). YouTube links are provided just in case you doubt the accuracy of these all too human slips-of-the-tongue. If you can’t remember hearing about them, that’s because for the most part the media didn’t consider them newsworthy. I have no complaint about that. Everybody makes the occasional verbal gaffe – even news anchors.

Perhaps though, there is one clarifying benefit to Obama’s narcissism, as Scott Johnson quipped recently at Power Line:

One of President Obama’s most prominent and least attractive qualities is his vanity. It almost disposes of the speculation that Obama is a Muslim. The man can’t be a Muslim; he worships himself.

What does it all mean moving forward? Byron York believes that “Obama’s poll numbers point to his defeat in 2012”:

“He’s got to realize the reason he lost independents,” says Winston of the president. “He thinks it was about communications. It wasn’t. It was about substance and policy.” Whether Obama can gracefully back away from the policies that got him in trouble — federal spending, Obamacare — is simply not clear.

Obama supporters point to the example of Bill Clinton, whose approval dipped to 40 percent after losing Congress in 1994, only to climb to 54 percent before winning easy re-election in 1996. Maybe that will happen again.

But Clinton’s former pollster, Doug Schoen, doesn’t see it that way. Schoen recently did a survey asking voters whether Obama deserves to be re-elected and found that 56 percent believe the president doesn’t deserve another term, while just 38 percent believe he does.

Despite his problems, there are still ways Obama can win. His greatest hope, as always in politics, is that the other side will screw up. Maybe the newly empowered House Republicans will do a terrible job, or the GOP will nominate an awful presidential candidate. But that just underscores a stark reality. At this point, it will be hard for Obama to save himself. He’ll need a lot of help to win a second term in the White House.

But as the Professor advises, Republicans should refrain from cockiness. Particularly since the campaign trail in 2008 was one of the few times in his life Obama didn’t appear to be entirely bored with the reality enveloping him.

Related: “Obama is heavy bored,” Neo-Neocon writes, with a vintage assist from poet John Berryman.