Work and Days

Obama Bets Against Human Nature — and Usually Loses

There are many ways to learn about the bleaker aspects of human nature. One would be to run a pizza shop, or regularly to have to clean a public restroom. Perhaps giving close attention to the text of Thucydides might give a more abstract lesson. Also, the Old and New Testaments offer plenty of examples of the fallen state of man.

Obama apparently did not get the message. What is the common denominator of his failed foreign policy initiatives (reset with Russia; a new, kinder, gentler Middle East; supposed breakthroughs with China; outreach to Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela) and his domestic catastrophes (Obamacare, deficits, huge debts, chronic unemployment)? In a nutshell, he does not seem to know much about human nature, whether in the concrete or abstract sense. Obama never held a menial job or ran a business. In lieu of education in the school of hard knocks, he read the wrong, if any, seminal texts.

The problem with a thug like Vladimir Putin is not just that he does not respond to “outreach” and “reset,” but rather that he interprets such loud magnanimity as weakness. And when sermonizing and lectures are added to perceptions of American impotence, the impression of timidity leads further to contempt, and ultimately to a devilish desire to humiliate and disabuse a naïf Obama of his moral pretensions. And what of the world watching all this? Unfortunately, it is more likely to enjoy viewing a strong rebuff of utopian idealism than a weak embrace of it.

For the sellout of the Czechs and the Poles over missile defense, the unnecessary effort to enter into more strategic arms talks with the Russians, and the sermons about being a good citizen at the UN or tolerating dissent at home, in return we received Russian snubs over Eric Snowden and Putin’s obstructing U.S. efforts against Iran or Syria. Had Obama from the outset kept quiet about “reset,” avoided trashing his predecessor, and stood firm when Putin pushed, Putin would now respect him as much as he feels contempt.

In his Al Arabiya interview and Cairo speech, Obama sought to reach out to the Middle East on the unlikely premise that his own affinities with Islam (a Muslim father, a Muslim middle name, Muslim relatives), his mixed racial heritage, and his multicultural sympathies for the Islamic world would turn stand-offish moderates into friends and prior enemies into moderates.

But why so? All the silly euphemisms in the world — man-caused disasters, overseas contingency operations, workplace violence — would not make jihadists suddenly like the U.S. just because the new president was not a white, Christian Texan.

Such superficial affinities are as unlikely to promote diplomatic breakthroughs as they are likely to appear insulting. Does Obama have any experience with the particularly disturbing human characteristic — learned both from literature and the experience, say, of going to a dangerous public school — that forced efforts to fit in, to accommodate, to ingratiate, to seek affinities where they don’t exist are not interpreted as outreach as much as condescension?

The almost eerie hatred for Obama seen in Egypt — among the military, the Islamists, the Egyptian street, and even the secular pro-Western reformists — in part derives from a sense that Obama tried to cajole them all with cheap commonalities and mytho-histories rather than negotiate often conflicting national interests through tough transparent talks.

A good way to get beaten up in the hallway at a tough school is to assure the local king-of-the-hill thug that both of you really have a lot in common. In some sense, Obama’s entire Middle East policy mirrors the hilarious scene in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, where the white punk attired in pseudo-gang attire believes he can out-jive gangbangers into leaving his girl alone. He can’t. Obama has unfortunately become such a wannabe in the eyes of unapologetic Middle East gangsters.

On the home front, Obamacare is imploding largely because interested parties are acting in predictably human ways that escape Obama and his elite technocrats.

Why would an employer incur extra health care costs when he could juggle and reduce employee hours to avoid them? If you work for government most of your life, you are usually not fired, usually expect annual pay raises, and usually are assured of an ample pension.

But not the self-employed. The tire store owner, the 200-acre peach grower, or the restauranteur sees hourly money going out but not necessarily coming in. That constant angst makes the entrepreneur wonder which wrong decision will be the proverbial final expense that breaks his back.

In other words, there is nothing in Obamacare to turn natural self-interest into group interest: not the employer mandate; not the clumsy efforts to force healthy youth to pay a tax for care they most likely will not use; not assuring the well-funded public employee or union member that he can get even better government-brokered insurance; and not even telling the uninsured homeless person that he should sign up and pay something for a plan rather than walk into the free emergency room or local cost-free government clinic.

At the very time the president made it in the material and psychological self-interest of the employer to pull back from hiring, he gave equally negative incentives for people to scramble for work by vastly expanding food stamps, unemployment and disability benefits, and health care entitlements. The result is that a part-time job in Obama’s new economy is either no better, or often worse, than receiving government benefits while sitting at home. Why would most — human nature being what it is — take a break from watching daytime television to take a pay cut to pick peaches or mop floors?

Bosses are also human, and resent the tiresome class rhetoric. “Spread the wealth” or “not the time for profit” initially could be written off as the president’s funny tics. But add in “fat cat,” “one percent,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and “you didn’t build that” and the monotonous becomes bothersome and finally odious.

The business person is all too human and understands that Obama seems to resent his success, and thus will seek to regulate it further, tax it more, and deride it in ways that express either his ignorance of how hard it is to make a profit or a teenage sense of envy of earned success. But an economy is simply the sum total of millions of private agendas — partly the result of predictable material self-interest, partly a consequence of equally predictable notions of honor or pride. Feeling that the president does not respect what you do does not encourage risk-taking; magnified millions of times over, that individual stasis instead leads to a collective slowdown.

Why are Obama’s polls plummeting again despite a successful reelection, a still obsequious press, and a perennial campaign of demonizing his opponents? Scandals like the IRS mess, the NSA embarrassment, the Benghazi disaster, and the AP monitoring certainly account for much of his current unpopularity. Yet some of the dislike is also due to a growing anger at Obama’s hypocrisy — one of the strongest of all human emotions that affects us as no other paradox.

No one begrudges Obama his Martha’s Vineyard annual getaway, or his incessant golfing in his yuppyish get-up, or sending his family by separate plane to Aspen, Vail, or Costa del Sol. But why would someone so wish to rub shoulders with the very one percent who, he has so incessantly assured the country, are mostly the source of our problems?

Does Obama have a hierarchy of good and bad fat cats, both good and bad corporate jet owners, or noble grandees who really built their businesses? More likely, the public thinks that Obama either is an abject hypocrite — demagoguing while enjoying the fruits of wealth — or he suffers from a weird psychological guilt over enjoying the good life that forces him to trash in the abstract what he so indulges in the concrete.

Either way the common denominator is hypocrisy. Had Obama gone after supposedly selfish CEOs, and then flown to his home to Chicago for some hot dogs in his backyard, there would have been some consistency. Or had the president talked of the need for big business to be successful to provide jobs as he hobnobbed with such CEOs at Martha’s Vineyard, no paradox would arise.

Other paradoxes encourage such hypocrisy. Why weigh in personally on white/black controversial interaction — the Professor Gates psychodrama or the Trayvon Martin death — when the expectation will only arise that such a racially sensitive president will comment on all such public faultlines? That becomes a dilemma when white/black crime occurs at one-eighth the frequency of black on white crime. Most American do not want sermons on the history of race relations, only simple answers as to why their president focuses on some interracial controversies and not far more frequent others. That sense of parity is also human nature, and so entirely missed by Obama.

In almost every policy debacle — subsidizing money-losing wind and solar while ignoring profitable fracking, trashing the previous administration’s anti-terrorism protocols while vastly expanding drones, or lecturing on civil liberties and transparency while overseeing the Benghazi IRS, AP, and NSA scandals — Obama has no sense of the very natural reaction of all-too-human Americans.

Such wisdom about what makes average people tick is not necessarily found in prep school in Hawaii, the Ivy League, politics in Washington, or Martha’s Vineyard — and after five years that fact is all too apparent.