The more we see of him, the more we hear him, the more we are all perplexed by Barack Obama. The American people voted for him and wished fervently for his success, but increasingly they feel, as Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post, that "he casts no shadow." Link here.
This should not be too surprising. When you vote for a fictional character, you will likely get a fictional character. If you thought that Obama was going to redeem America's original sin of racism, and that this would heal the nation's financial plight, you were obviously deluded. And if you thought that the financial crisis was punishment for America's sins, you are far more religious than you think.
When Cohen said that Obama does not cast a shadow he meant, I assume, that when it comes to Obama there is no there there. When you take away the preening and the posturing, when you strip away the rhetorical swirls, his animadversions and circumlocutions, you will find yourself faced with someone who is fundamentally insubstantial.
Last weekend Cohen was reading some suggestions about how Obama might recover his poll ratings and salvage something of his presidency. All were written by serious pundits.
While the pundits all had cogent suggestions, none of them really resonated for Cohen. He simply did not see how Obama could implement any of them.
In order to act a leader has to be someone; he has to have presence. And Obama, Cohen suggested, is not someone. Neither Cohen nor anyone else has any real idea of Obama is.
When Obama called himself a blank screen on which people project whatever they want him to be, he was saying that he was simply not sufficiently present to take up space and to assert his leadership.
This sounds a bit metaphysical. It is as difficult to grasp as Obama's character, but it is worth the effort.
Among other things, it means that just because you have received the most electoral votes and have been duly installed in the office of the President of the United States, that, in and of itself, does not make you the president.
As I and many others have pointed out, Obama did not work his way up the ladder and did not really earn his place at the top. He was not made president because he had accumulated a series of great achievements. He was elected because he had accomplished nothing, and therefore, he offered people the opportunity to imagine anything they wanted about him.
Obama was cast in the role of president. Somehow or other the American people had been convinced that they were voting for the next American Idol or the next Top Model. They redefined the role of voter and transformed it into casting agent. They were not asking: Who can best lead? But, who best can play the part?
So, Obama was cast in a role and, therefore, he has always looked like something of an impostor.
Then Cohen took his reflection a step further. He was reading about comparisons between Obama and Ronald Reagan, and again, something went tilt in his mind.
With Reagan, Cohen wrote, people always knew who he was; they knew what he stood for. They might have voted for or against him, but they knew what they were voting for or against.
Reagan might have started out as a movie star, but he had worked his way up to the office. And therefore, this actor occupied the office better and more surely than does Barack Obama.
In Cohen's words: "Reagan ... was not defined solely by gauzy campaign ads but by countless speeches, two contentious and highly controversial terms as California governor, and a previous race for the presidency. There was never a question about who Reagan was and what he stood for. Not so Obama. About all he shares with Reagan at this point are low ratings."
And also: "What has come to be called the Obama Paradox is not a paradox at all.... He supported the public option, then he hasn't. He's been cold to Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu and then all over him like a cheap suit. Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting."
Why don't we know who he is? Because he doesn't know who he is.
Why doesn't he know who is? Because he does not keep his word. You do not know whether he is the man who is going to close Gitmo or the man who is going to keep it open. You do not know whether he is the centrist he was during the campaign, or the leftist he has governed as.
This means that he is intrinsically untrustworthy. And that means that there is no there there.
Being good to your word is the most important element in human character. If you say one thing and do another, there is no way that you or anyone else can know which is the real you.
By default, they will feel obliged to take your actions as more truthful than your words, but that will also force them to disregard everything your say. They will be living in a state of anxiety, never certain that you will do what you say or will not.
If people do not know you as a man or woman of your word then you cannot exist as a person of character, as a leader, or even as a reliable friend. As Cohen says, people liked Ronald Reagan. They do not much like Barack Obama.
Human identity is based on the connection between what you say you will do and what you actually do. If the two are not closely connected, to the point where everyone knows that when you say you will be there or do that, then you lack identity, and are simply not there.
To his credit, Cohen first saw this aspect of Obama in July 2008 he wrote: "Obama is not noted for sticking to a position or a person once that position or person becomes a political liability.
"He has been for and against gun control, against and for the recent domestic surveillance legislation and, in almost a single day, for a united Jerusalem under Israeli control and then, when apprised of U.S. policy and Palestinian chagrin, against it.
"I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I'm still not sure, though, what's in it." Link here.
Many people have spent much time trying to figure out the Obama perplex. It does not make much sense comparing him to previous presidents, so they have more often evoked fictional characters.
Prominent among them is Chance the Gardener, aka Chauncey Gardiner, the lead character in the book and movie: Being There. Link here.
Chance the Gardener is one of the best fictional embodiments of mistaken identity.
A simple and not very smart gardener, Chance is mistakenly assumed to be a wealthy man named Chauncey Gardiner.
Once he has been renamed, people start believing that whatever he says is brilliant, cogent, and extremely valuable. He can offer some innocuous comments on the seasons, and people think he is giving great advice about fiscal policy. The president of the United States takes him for a genius and people are talking about making him president himself.
Chance or Chauncey is the perfect embodiment of someone who is not there, but who is taken to be there by nearly all of those who meet him.
If you do not believe in intrinsic merit or intrinsic value, and for those who believe that interpretations create reality the story of Chance the gardener dramatizes your belief system.
Now, of course, Barack Obama is a new Chance the gardener. He was the perfect candidate for the media elites who had learned their elite universities that there is no such thing as intrinsic merit or intrinsic.
Barack Obama was simply the creation of those elites, a creation that they skillfully sold to the general public.
The journalists and media executives who compromised their integrity in order to get Obama elected had studied at the best universities. There they learned that there is no such thing as intrinsic value or merit.
The might have learned this idea in a literature course. There, their professor might have explained that there is as much value in a comic book or a porn flick as there is in Shakespeare or Aquinas.
The latter are held up as intrinsically brilliant because their ideas sustain the power of the patriarchy or the capitalists.
People who learned these lessons in college applied them well in creating Barack Obama. The fact that he did not manifest the intrinsic merit that we normally seek in the president did not matter.
His merit was transcendent. He was purer for not having gotten himself dirty working in politics or business.
They may not have seen his academic transcripts or his college boards, and they may have been surprised to hear that he was the only president of the Harvard Law Review who never published an article during his tenure, but they knew that all they had to do was to keep saying he is smart for him to become smart.
No matter what he said, they pronounced it brilliant. By now, you cannot even say Obama's name without adding that he is very smart.
If he got something wrong, his fans in the media interpreted it to make it sound right. If he contradicted himself, they said that the system was forcing him to do it.
And as we now know, when anyone dared question or challenge a candidate who was, effectively, their very own creation, leftist journalists would band together and start accusing people of being racist.
In many ways Barack Obama was the product of a perfect political and media storm. But that does not mean that we really know who is or that he can function effectively as President of the United States.
As Richard Cohen put it, you have to be someone before you can do something. Right now, most people are beginning to see that Barack Obama is not someone.