Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great classical liberal poet and historian, often spoke of the “insolence” of the British kings. At first it seems an odd expression. Almost always, insolence is associated with inferiors acting disrespectfully to superiors. Macaulay may well have intended an irony: to him, an arrogant public official was, simply by virtue of his arrogance, rendering himself inferior to the people over whom he wished to tyrannize.
But perhaps Macaulay was simply identifying a psychological characteristic that is obvious but needs to be made explicit: the empty pride of politicians, or any other people, who mistake their office for themselves.
Amid the multiform responses of President Obama to his disastrous defeat at the polls on Nov. 2 were some much trumpeted invitations to G.O.P. leaders to come to the White House for discussions with him. For a year after his inauguration he had refused all meaningful talks with them. Then he had staged televised “discussions” in which he treated them as if they were the backward students of a tetchy master. He pontificated, he filibustered, he rolled his eyes and pointed his finger; he did everything except respond to them as equals.
Then, flying back from his strangely pointless post-electoral trip to Asia, he told reporters that he was looking forward to talking things over with the Republicans. Well, isn’t that nice? But no, not the way he said it. He announced that when he sat “down with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner this week,” he expected “that there are [i.e., would be] a set of things that need to get done during the lame duck [session of Congress], and that they are not going to want to just obstruct, that they’re going to want to engage constructively. . . . Then we’re going to have a whole bunch of time next year for some serious philosophical debates. And they should welcome those debates next year.”
I tried to set that quotation up so it would be as syntactically and grammatically correct as possible. I realize that I did not succeed completely, but you have to understand how hard it is to do that with the oral statements of the current Great Communicator. Nevertheless, several things are clear.
First, Obama spoke blithely of meeting “this week,” which is something the Republicans had not agreed to do, and something that they never did agree to do, before Obama flew off on another flippin’ trip.
Second, he posed a false and invidious alternative: the Republicans would either “engage constructively” with him — in other words, agree substantially with his own program — or they would “just obstruct.” The posing of such false alternatives is Obama’s stock in trade. He does it constantly. He is incapable of imagining that anyone who dissents from (“obstructs”) his legislative ideals could possibly be working toward a “constructive” end.
Third, he told his opponents what their own ends should be: they should welcome wasting their time on “philosophical debates” with him.
Suppose you have a falling out with the president of the local PTA or the chairman of your condo association. Then there’s an election, and your side wins. How would you feel if he then announced to the world, without your agreement, the time when you were going to meet with him, publicly admonished you not to become obstructive, and stipulated the plans and even the emotions you should have. Would you say that was insolent? I would. And I might find some other adjectives for it, too.