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.