Our 'Face in the Crowd'

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Elia Kazan’s classic A Face in the Crowd is a good primer on Barack Obama’s rise and fall. Lonesome Rhodes arises out of nowhere in the 1957 film, romancing the nation as a phony populist who serially spins yarns in the most folksy ways -- confident that he should never be held to account. Kazan’s point (in the film Rhodes is a patsy for conservative business interests) is that the “folks” are fickle and prefer to be charmed rather than informed and told the truth. Rhodes’s new first name, Lonesome, resonates in the film in a way that Barack does now. Finally, an open mic captures Rhodes’s true disdain for the people he champions, and his career crashes.

So what is collapsing the presidency of the once mellifluous Obama? It is not the IRS, AP, VA, or NSA scandals. Nor did the nation especially fault him for Benghazi or the complete collapse of U.S. foreign policy, from failed reset to a Middle East afire. In each case, he either blamed Bush or denied there was a smidgeon of wrongdoing on his part.

Certainly, the stampede at the border, as disastrous as it was, did not ipso facto sink Obama’s ratings. Ditto the embarrassing Bergdahl deal, in which we traded a likely deserter for five Islamist kingpins. Was it the ISIS ascendance that is leading to genocide and a nascent caliphate? Not in and of itself.

We could go on, but you get the picture that it was all of the above that finally became too much, as Americans turned Obama off because they were all lied out. In all of these scandals a charismatic Barack wheeled out the teleprompter, smiled, dropped his g’s, soared with “make no mistake about it” and “let me perfectly clear,” and then, like Lonesome Rhodes, told the “folks” things that could not be true or at least were the exact opposite of what he himself had earlier asserted.

The result is that should Obama claim again that he is going to lower the seas, cool the planet, or that he is the man whom we are waiting for, Americans would laugh. They would chuckle about more promised recoveries, millions of new green jobs, an expanding economy, or a safer world abroad. Again, we are just too lied out to believe anything our slick version of Lonesome Rhodes says anymore. And that fact may best explain his 39-41% approval rating.

Barack Obama is once again lamenting the charge that he is responsible for pulling all U.S. peacekeepers out of Iraq, claiming that the prior administration is culpable. But Obama negotiated the withdrawal himself. We know that not because of right-wing talking points, but because of the proud serial claims of reelection candidate Obama in 2011 and 2012 that he deserved credit for leaving Iraq. That complete pullout prompted Joe Biden to claim the Iraq policy was the administration’s likely "greatest achievement" and buoyed Obama to brag that he was leaving a stable and secure Iraq. Think of the logic: pulling all soldiers out of Iraq was such a great thing that I now can brag that I am not responsible for it.

In regards to Syria, does Obama remember that he issued red lines should the Assad regime use chemical or biological weapons? Why then would he assert that the international community had done so, not Barack Obama? Think of the logic: I issued tough threats, and when my bluff was called, someone else issued them.

If Obama were to readdress Benghazi, would anyone believe him? What would he say? That he was in the Situation Room that evening? That he was correct in telling the UN that a (suddenly jailed) video maker prompted the violence? That the consulate and annex were secure and known to be so? That Susan Rice was merely parroting CIA talking points? Think of the logic: a video maker was so clearly responsible for the Benghazi killings that we will never have to mention his culpability again.

Does anyone believe the president that ISIS are “jayvees,” or that al Qaeda is on the run, or that there is no connection between the ascendance of ISIS and the loud but empty boasting of red lines in Syria and complete withdrawal from Iraq? (If we had taken all troops out of South Korea in 1953 -- claiming that we had spent too much blood and treasure and that the Seoul government was too inept -- would there be a Kia or Hyundai today, or a North Korea in control of the entire Korean peninsula?) Think of the logic: the ISIS threat is so minimal that we need not be alarmed and therefore Obama is sending planes and advisors back into Iraq to contain it. If Obama truly believes that pulling all troops out made Iraq more secure, what will putting some back in do?

Was there any Obama boast about his Affordable Care Act that proved true: Keep your doctor? Keep your health plan? Save $2,500 in annual premiums? Lower the deficit? Lower the annual costs of health care? Win the support of doctors? Simplify sign-ups with a one-stop website? Enjoy lower deductibles? Think of the logic: you will all benefit from a new take-over of health care by a government whose assertions of what it was going to accomplish were proved false in the first days of its implementation.

There are many possible explanations about why the president of the United States simply says things that are not true or contradicts his earlier assertions or both. Is Obama just inattentive, inured to simply saying things in sloppy fashion without much worry whether they conform to the truth? Or is he a classical sophist who believes how one speaks rather than what he actually says alone matters: if he soars with teleprompted rhetoric, what does it matter whether it is true? If Obama can sonorously assert that he got America completely out of Iraq, what does it matter whether that policy proved disastrous or that he now denies that he was responsible for such a mistake?

Is Obama so ill-informed that he embraces the first idea that he encounters, without much worry whether these notions are antithetical to his own prior views or will prove impossible to sustain?

On a deeper level, Obama habitually says untrue things because he has never been called on them before. He has been able throughout his career to appear iconic to his auditors. In the crudity of liberals like Harry Reid and Joe Biden, Obama ancestry and diction gave reassurance that he was not representative of the black lower classes and thus was the receptacle of all sorts of liberal dreams and investments. According to certain liberals, he was like a god, our smartest president, and of such exquisite sartorial taste that he must become a successful president. In other words, on the superficial basis of looks, dress, and patois, Obama was reassuring to a particular class of white guilt-ridden grandees and to such a degree that what he actually had done in the past or promised to do in the future was of no particular importance.

Then there is the media, the supposed public watchdog that keeps our politicians honest. In truth, Obama winks and nods to journalists, in the sense that as a good progressive Obama is about as liberal a president as we have ever had -- or will have. Obama sees cross-examination as a sort of betrayal from journalists, who, for reasons of some abstract adherence to "journalistic integrity," would by their own reporting subvert a rare chance of a progressive agenda. Obama’s anger is not just directed at Fox News and talk radio, but rather reflects a sense of betrayal that even slight fact checking by liberal journalists exists: why must Obama tell the truth when he never had to in any of his earlier incarnations?

In A Face in the Crowd, the charismatic Andy Griffith character could more or less get anything he wished by saying anything he wanted, largely because he said it mellifluously and in cracker-barrel fashion of an us-versus-them populism. His admirers knew that they were being lied to, but also knew that Lonesome knew that they did not mind. Lonesome had contempt for hoi polloi, largely because of his own easy ability to manipulate them for whatever particular careerist cause he embraced.

So Obama has disdain for those who passed out at his lectures, who put up the Greek columns at his speeches, who came up with his Latin mottoes, and who gushed at his teleprompted eloquence. He knows that we know he is not telling the truth, but likewise he knows that we don’t care all that much -- at least until now. The secret to Lonesome’s success was to hide his contempt for those he lied to. When he is caught ridiculing his clueless listeners, he finally crashes and burns -- sort of like Barack Obama serially vacationing with the 1% whom he so publicly scorns, or golfing in the aristocratic fashion of those who, he assures us, did not build their businesses.

Lonesome did not end up well, and neither will the presidency of Barack Obama.

(Artwork created using multiple elements from Shutterstock.com.)