Monday, November 8, 2010

Divining Barack Obama

Taking the measure of an American president is hardly a frivolous pursuit. Everyone, whether citizen of the nation or citizen of the world, has an interest in knowing who Barack Obama is, how he is likely to act, and where he will try to lead the nation.

Yet, Barack Obama remains a mystery, and the less we understand him, the more likely it is that someone will draw a wrong conclusion or mistake him for someone else.

Moreover, the less we know him, the more anxious we are. The world likes to know where its leaders stand, who they stand with, what they stand for, and what they will not stand for.

Political figures, captains of industry, and investors have a vested interest in understanding Obama. For slightly different reasons writers and other intellectuals have joined in the enterprise.

All told, they have approached Obama from three different angles. As one who has been playing this game, I have, at one time or another, tried each of them.

First, is the psychiatric approach. For whatever the reason-- and I suspect it is not a good one-- we look first to psychiatry when we want to understand human beings in terms of personality types.

Some recoil at this rather unflattering exercise. They are not happy reducing our president to a mental or emotional disorder.

This has not deterred serious thinkers from scanning their copies of the DSM IV to find a diagnostic category/personality type for Obama, the psychiatric patient.

Not surprisingly, they have lit on categories like narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, and even pathological narcissism. Those who are more old fashioned prefer variants on Freudian categories; they opt for egoism and egomania.

Psychiatric categories are two-edged. On the one side they say that the person in question is emotionally unbalanced. On the other they say that his condition is treatable, if not curable.

For now we will ignore the fact that psychiatry has always had a great deal of difficulty curing narcissistic disorders.

The second approach to Obama involves ethics and morality. Those who prefer philosophy to medicine see Obama suffering from moral failings, that is, character flaws.

Very recently, Michael Bloomberg was reported to have said that Obama is the most arrogant man he has ever met. That is a character flaw. Others speak of Obama’s vanity, his excessive self-confidence, or even of his hubris.

None of these qualities is good. None makes you a good person. Most of them would disqualify you from many jobs, to say nothing of many friendships.

All of us have character flaws. They can and should be corrected. In principle, we are always working to improve our character. Many of us turn to books on ethics to find guidelines for character building.

Only the most extreme character flaws, the ones that fall under the category of hubris, are thought to be irreparable. Poets have written great tragedies to show us what happens when an individual arrives at a state of terminal hubris.

The third approach to Obama goes beyond the first two because it does not see Obama as a human being. It sees him as someone who has superhuman capacities, who is more god than man, who is the Messiah.

Here I am talking about people who love Obama. Those who do not like him think of him more as the Joker than Superman.

When his supporters complain about Obama’s emotionless demeanor, his failure to connect with the people, they are suggesting that there is something not-quite-human about the man.

Of course, that is the quality that attracted them in the first place. When they make Obama a godlike figure, they are saying that he is too good for the nation, and even too good for the world. (As the old line goes: We are not worthy.)

They may despair of the fact that his demeanor is costing him votes, but, they should know that winning and losing are irrelevant to a god's divinity.

Being a god means winning for losing.

Considering that Obama the man had nothing on his resume that would remotely suggest that he was qualified to be President of the United States, the public support he garnered must have been akin to a leap of faith.

Many people voted for Obama the god, and were shocked and dismayed to discover that he did not have godlike powers. Others are, as the other old saying goes, keeping the faith.

As I said, I have worked on all of these three approaches to Obama. The one that has recently made the most sense is the last one. In a recent post I said that the problem with the Obama presidency is that the American people sent a god to do a man’s job. Link here.

For another perspective see the: "The ego factor: Can Barack Obama change?" By John F. Harris & Glenn Thrush in Politico. Link here.

At the time I wrote my post I had not read David Remnick’s book on Obama. If I had, I would have included a description of Obama offered by long time Obama confidant and now White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett.

In Jarrett’s words: “I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. ... He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... So, what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. ... He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”

I confess to you that those lines take my breath away. Do you think that someone with either self-confidence or humility would listen to a shameless idolator like Valerie Jarrett?

How can you deal with reality, how can you even recognize it when you surround yourself with people who worship you? What kind of individual needs constant affirmation of the fact that he is too good for the world, for his job, and for the likes of you and me.

If your soul doesn’t seize up in horror when you read Jarrett’s words, you certainly have issues.

Jarrett is not alone in her estimation. White House political director Patrick Gaspard recounts what Obama told him in his job interview: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

And James Carville noted that Obama seems to believe that people should take him on faith, that he does not need to explain himself because people should simply accept what he says because of who or what he is.

You do not, after all, ask a god to explain himself.

If you do not accept his word, then you are either obtuse or insufficiently pious. If you do not follow a god's lead, that does not reflect him; it reflects on you. It means that you do not love the god well enough.

People flocked to Obama because he allowed them to have a religious experience. Atheists and agnostics, in particular, were grateful that Obama provided something that had been missing from their lives.

Obama provided spiritual transcendence and emotional rapture where other politicians were arguing about policy.

People loved Obama, but it was not, with all due respect to Bernard Goldberg and Mort Zuckerman, a love affair. They did not swoon over Obama as preteens swoon over Justin Bieber.

Admittedly, a few young women were lusting after Obama, but most of them have, by now, outgrown their infatuation. The more enduring love, the kind that involves worship, adulation, and adoration, the kind that is reserved for a god, is the one that his supporters continue to hold for Barack Obama.

Obama promised miracles; he pretended to have powers to heal the economy and the planet. For whatever the reason, the majority of the American people bought it.

When the miracles did not happen, the true believers kept the faith and the sometime dupes lost theirs.

True believers understood that the miracles had not happened because we had not given ourselves, heart and soul, to the god Obama. They knew that a divided nation was not good enough for someone as divine as Barack. And that if we did not love him enough, then he could not produce any miracles.

Spiritual love does not falter when the promised miracles do not happen. It knows that gods do no wrong; they do not change.

Like the Biblical Job, true believers see loss, sacrifice, and suffering as a test of their faith. When anyone complains about the state of the economy or the nation, those who believe in the divinity of Barack accuse them of being faithless, adolescent whiners.

If Obama is a god, then we need to recognize that a god doesn’t change. He may pretend to change. He may pay lip service to change, but he remains what he was.

A god does not compromise. A god does not reach across the aisle to work with the other party. He does not really mind losing, because it feels like he is being martyred for a cause.

Those who believe that Obama is going to morph into Bill Clinton and work with the Republican Congress should prepare themselves for a rude awakening. Bill Clinton might have been a seriously flawed human being, but he was an experienced politician who liked to win. No one ever thought that Bill Clinton was a god.

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