Belmont Club

This is the Moment

Jonathan V. Last has a long article on the importance of Barack Obama to Barack Obama entitled “American Narcissus” in the Weekly Standard. Last doesn’t argue that Obama is bad or even an incompetent president. All he does is argue quite convincingly that the president sees — and has always seen — himself as the center of an historical drama.

Obama saw himself as a hard act to follow. While still a junior faculty member at Chicago, Obama accepted three book advances on three different subjects and wrote just one on a completely different topic, but a supremely important one in his view: an autobiography of himself at age 32.  No office could contain him. Every elevation to greater honor bored him, as if they were unnecessary delays to his ultimate goal. Being a United States senator irked him because it forced him to assume the role of a junior senator. And he was junior to no man. Fortunately his stay in the Senate was brief and did not unduly hinder him from assuming the Oval Office at the earliest possible time. Once there, Obama saw himself not just as any president, but as someone who even before he began his term was on the level of Abraham Lincoln. That was his starting point, the only benchmark that could even remotely approximate his inevitable greatness.

He mentioned Lincoln continually during the 2008 campaign. After he vanquished John McCain he passed out copies of Team of Rivals, a book about Lincoln’s cabinet, to his senior staff. At his inauguration, he chose to be sworn into office using Lincoln’s Bible. At the inaugural luncheon following the ceremony, he requested that the food—each dish of which was selected as a “tribute” to Lincoln—be served on replicas of Lincoln’s china. … It’s troubling that a fellow whose electoral rationale was that he edited the Harvard Law Review and wrote a couple of memoirs was comparing himself to the man who saved the Union.

But assuming the mantle of Lincoln is only troubling to Last. To Obama, it seemed perfectly natural, even self-evident. He knew what stuff he was made of. “Confronted with worries that 2010 could be a worse off-year election than 1994, Obama explained to the professional politicians, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.'”

Of course Obama would not be the first leader to feel born to greatness. Winston Churchill, whose bust Obama removed upon taking office, wrote of the night the king summoned him to take charge of a battered nation preparing for a Nazi invasion. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” But it was not his destiny alone; and the coming struggle was not to be a display of his ample powers, but simply concentration of the fate of his own people, whose destiny he shared. Churchill saw himself as the mirror of England’s greatness. If Obama could tell America “you’ve got me” so don’t worry, Churchill would only say he was great because “I’ve got them.”

“by the confidence, indulgence, and loyalty by which I was upborne, I was soon able to give an integral direction to almost every aspect of the war. This was really necessary because times were so very bad. The method was accepted because everyone realised how near were death and ruin. Not only individual death, which is the universal experience, stood near, but, incomparably more commanding, the life of Britain, her message, and her glory.”

Both men saw themselves as agents of greatness. Where they differed was where they ascribed its source.  That and the fact that Lincoln and Churchill have already achieved that mantle of greatness which Obama so confidently believes is his. In the case of Lincoln and Churchill their presentiments are confirmed by the fact that they fulfilled them. They have already walked the walk. And now we see the talk was true. In the president’s case his claims have not yet been confirmed by events. Yet as Last argues, he did not feel the need for affirmation. On the night that he defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries,  the hand of fate was so clear to him he could proclaim:

I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.

It may be that his presentiment will prove true, though perhaps he  should have waited until those events actually took place before claiming the due. But that would have been for lesser men, for minds less certain of their powers. And the central point of Jonathan Last’s entire essay was that for Barack Obama, destiny shone so clearly before him that he could touch it and hold it in his hand.  And therein lies the danger. For if fate can promise, it can also betray.  The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew that some things should only be reckoned in the end.

When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

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