Something About Obama

March 28th, 2009

There’s something about Barack Obama that worries me.  It’s been in the back of my mind since the early days of the primary campaigns, and I’ve only recently begun to understand it.  He’s a man more of form and less of substance who, like a chameleon, instinctively displays the colors most suitable to his environment and most useful in pleasing others and promoting himself.

This is not to diminish Obama’s obvious strengths and positive personal qualities.  He’s very intelligent, by all the normal measures—apparently a high IQ, excellent memory, the ability to write well, a rational mind capable of reasoning through problems to find solutions, academic achievement, and so on.  As far as we know, he’s also a man of high moral standards, he’s kind to others, and he’s a loyal and loving husband and father. 

I don’t doubt that these admirable qualities reside in his core, and that would be enough for any normal man.  But this man is President of the United States, and more is required of him.

I’ve worked and studied among many highly intelligent people, a few of whom were like Obama.  They coasted to success and achieved recognition simply on the basis of characteristics like Obama’s, rarely being required to do the hard grunt work and endure the stress of high-risk decision making.  These people generally lacked substantive executive experience, especially in the most demanding kinds of circumstances.  Many of them moved quickly through a series of high-prestige positions, relying on their intelligence and likability to get by.  Sometimes, though, they ended up in serious positions where style wasn’t enough and substance was essential, and they failed.

Obama’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in June 2008 was the first thing that lit the little warning light in the back of my mind.  As I watched the speech live on CNN, I began to experience something akin to Chris Matthews’ thrill.  I strongly support Israel and the thrust of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  What he was saying, and the way he said it, was music to my ears—nothing short of inspirational. 

About halfway through the AIPAC speech, he said, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”  That put a slight glow on the little warning light, but I was enjoying the speech so much I didn’t notice.  After the speech was over, I was still feeling positive and reassured with Obama’s views on Middle East policy.  That was important to me because Democrats tend to be more supportive of the Palestinian cause than of Israel’s struggle for survival.  But the more I thought about the Jerusalem statement, the more I realized that, in policy terms, it was untenable.

Sure enough, the Obama campaign spent the next several days trying to assure angry Palestinians, other Arabs, and Democrats in general that Obama didn’t really mean what he clearly said.  I began to wonder if the speech was just routine political pandering or if it signified something darker about Obama.  Events since then have forced me to conclude that it was the latter.

A few examples will suffice.  The President voices strong support for the military and surrounds himself with soldiers in public because it looks good, but his Administration moves toward forcing disabled veterans to pay for VA medical care with private insurance if they have it.  He publicly expressed outrage at the AIG bonuses because that’s what people wanted to hear, but his White House made it clear that they understood the nature of the contracts involved, and his subordinates helped craft the legislative language that protected the contracts.  While the nation suffers and worries through severe economic woes and the Administration fumbles ineffectively, Obama is on TV making predictions about the NCAA basketball tournament and joking inappropriately with Jay Leno.

Does all this mean that Obama isn’t really a liberal?  Clearly not.  But he’ll float around on the left, taking positions that please moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats at one moment, hard-corps leftist Democrats at another.  He’ll praise free-market economics and American exceptionalism in one statement and promote redistributionist socialism in another.  He’ll promise to reduce taxes for 95 percent of the people while advancing policies that require incredible amounts of spending and generate unprecedented deficits.

Some might try to defend these contradictions by saying that other people write his speeches and statements.  Nonsense.  Obama may just read them off the teleprompters, but even if he hasn’t put in the work to know the details, he’s responsible for what he says.  Some might say he’s at the mercy of his staff and advisers, especially the Darth Vader of American politics, Rahm Emanuel.  More nonsense.  Obama selects these people, and they supposedly reflect his policy vision—assuming there is one.

So what we apparently have in Obama is a leader without a compass who has no clear vision of where he wants to go and how he wants to get here.  He shape-shifts his way through life, being what he needs to be at the moment.  He just wants to be famous and liked, the President in form if not in substance.  As intelligent and decent as he undeniably is, he’s dangerous. 

We need a steely-eyed leader ready and able to lead us through minefields, not a graceful dancer too busy performing to do the hard work.

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5 Responses to “Something About Obama”

  1. Jan |

    Uh…the last “steely-eyed leader” in the White House was Nixon. Some legacy there: good on some things, terrible on some others. But could Tricky Dick have fixed the mess on Wall Street?

  2. Kevin |

    Against the backdrop of just having survived the George W. Bush presidency I find this hard to agree with.

    Dubya’s “executive experience” consisted of a stint as Gov. of the state in the union which constitutionally denies it’s governor of more power and authority than any other state. And he presided over a series of companies which went belly-up, yet, strangely, he came out of each corporate implosion wealthier than he went in. And as President he had what everyone I’ve heard address the issue describe as far and away the most powerful Veep in American history.

    That is the history of a man with very weak “executive experience.” His one shining moment was as part-owner of a baseball team where he used the tyranny of government (via Eminent Domain) to enrich himself. His victim in that case sued and eventually won a huge settlement – payed for by the taxpayers of Texas, of course.

    One thing that Obama brings to the Office that his modern predecessors lacked is an expertise in the single most critical factor involving any President – Constitutional law.

  3. Tom |

    I’m not comparing Obama to Nixon, Bush, or any other president. If my concerns about Obama are accurate, he could end up being the second-most intelligent failed president. Number one on that list is Jimmy Carter, of course, although he failed in his own unique way.

    Obama went to law school, yes, and he presumably knows more about the Constitution than the average bear. Again, I don’t question his intelligence, his knowledge, his decency, etc. It just looks to me like he’s playing the role and enjoying it to the hilt without doing the hard work and focusing on the details of the job. There are people, and he may be one, who go through their whole lives that way.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like Obama, and I want him to be a successful president. I’m particularly concerned about economic recovery and foreign policy at this point, and it doesn’t look to me like he’s doing very well. It may not be 100 days yet, but these problems can’t wait.

  4. Kevin |

    So… you want to discuss your perception of Obama’s lack of executive experience but don’t want to compare it to that of other Presidents?

    And what part of going from graduating from an elite Ivy League insitution to the streets of Chicago as a community organizer among the lowest socio-economic classes to being the Editor and then President of one of the most prestigeous law journals on the planet to going back to the streets of Chicago and other parts of Illinois helping the disenfranchized register to vote, supplimented by being a lecturer at the University of Chicago – strikes you as consistent with moving quickly through a series of high-prestige positions?

    I understand what you’re saying, Tom, and don’t disagree with all of it. But aren’t you making the flawed assumption that he does nothing beyond that which you are made aware via the media?

    The example of Carter brings up another issue. When was the last Democratic President who could rely upon Congressional majority Democrats to help rather than hinder? Seems to me that Tip O’Neal was as responsible as anyone for Carter’s failure to advance his agenda as President.

    As for Rahn Emanuel, my gut feeling the moment I first heard that he was being tapped as Chief of Staff was that he’s there to play hardball with on Obama’s behalf. He’s there to play “bad cop” to Vice President Biden’s congenial “good cop.” Events since then have only reinforced that perception.

  5. Robert |

    I don’t see where its necessary to compare the experience of Obama in any case. The comparisons do nothing to make the case that he is better or worse than any other. He stands on his own merit, which at this point is unimpressive. I agree with the author here, Obama has all the trappings and eloquence of a president but it all seems to be nothing more than a facade. I’m afraid when the aura around him wears off we will be left nonplussed by what we find. I want our country to succeed. If Obama can do that I will praise him accordingly. Simply getting elected is not enough to impress me, now that he’s there I would like to see him keep the promises he made and not indulge liberal utopian fantasies.

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