Throughout this summer, Democrats were groaning and Republicans were crowing over President Obama’s miserable performance in the polls. Certainly Obama had no reason to celebrate the July 4th holiday, which began with 44% of voters strongly disapproving of him and only 24% strongly approving, according to the Rasmussen daily tracking poll. In the same
poll, 45% approved of him to some degree, but 55% disapproved. Since then, his Rasmussen numbers have continued in the same way, though some other polls show him dipping even lower.
Obama has fallen far since his inauguration, when 65% approved, 44% strongly, and only 30% disapproved, 16% strongly. This is interesting, but still more interesting is the fact that Obama’s slide corresponded with none of the major problems that began to worry even the mainstream media during the first months of 2010. I refer to the abject failure of the stimulus plan; the long slog toward a hopelessly unpopular healthcare bill; the attempt to claim responsibility for saving the Gulf Coast, while boodling most aspects of the salvation try; and the brilliant idea of suing Arizona over an immigration law that is wildly popular throughout the country.
No, as the Rasmussen people pointed out, the big slide had already happened. It happened during the first five months of Obama’s administration. By mid-2009, his numbers were down pretty much to the place where they are right now. This can’t be explained by the president’s recent, disastrous failures. There’s a much more important factor.
A hint at the right explanation comes from Wesley Pruden of the Washington Times, who recently referred to Obama’s habit of being “puzzled” when his propaganda gets “no applause.”
That was a good observation. Pruden correctly identified the weird woodenness of the Obama persona. The reason why Obama is puzzled that his propaganda doesn’t work is that, strangely, he believes his own propaganda. Not every detail, of course — nobody could — but in general, he’s convinced that it’s perfectly okay. He has no capacity for self-criticism or self-irony, and this is not a mark of intellectual distinction. Neither does it engender popularity with the American people. It’s light years away from Fiorello LaGuardia, whom people still remember fondly for saying, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!”
A second hint can be found in a series of adjectives that the talking heads started to use this summer. When discussing the president they began, somewhat to their own surprise, using words like “predictable” (as in, “Such and such Obama nominee was a predictable choice”), “normal” (as in, “That’s normal behavior for any White House”), “usual” (as in, “That’s the usual thing for the presidential press secretary to say”), and finally, hesitantly, and with the air of a great theoretical discovery, “ordinary” (as in, “He’s turned out to be an ordinary president”).
It’s that last word that’s killing Obama. Yet it’s a word that had occurred to normal Americans, more than a year before the pundits thought of it.
It’s also the right word. Obama is a very ordinary man.
I don’t mean that he’s a cross-section of the American populace. No one gets to be president, these days, without a peculiar degree of ambition and baseless egotism. Peculiar because very few people actually consider themselves qualified to be president; people are more perceptive than that. Baseless because no one could possibly be qualified to assume the ridiculous degree of power that the president possesses. Obama is, and always has been, one of the most egotistical, self-centered, and gratuitously ambitious men on the planet.
His ambition, however, lacks any other quality that would make it interesting. Despite all the terms of abuse that the Right so easily finds for him, his ambition is not like Caesar’s or Napoleon’s or Franklin Roosevelt’s. Neither is it similar to the ambition of an Albert Schweitzer or a Desmond Tutu. It’s simply the amorphous, featureless, yet remorseless ambition one sees in anyone who always wants to be chosen for the highest post he has some chance of obtaining.
The intensity of Obama’s ambition is peculiar, but its kind is not. It’s the kind of ambition that makes someone crave to be the mayor of Akron or the CEO of a long-established firm,
Obama is, and always has been, one of the most egotistical, self-centered, and gratuitously ambitious men on the planet.
with lots of consultants to write reports and speeches and lots of people waiting for him to show up and chair the conference. It’s the kind of ambition that makes someone who doesn’t like research or teaching crawl up the administrative ladder until he becomes the president of some locally important college.
You can picture Obama, can’t you, in any of those jobs? And it’s hard to imagine that he would perform really badly in them. They’re fully within his range of competence. Even the college presidency would pose no problem. Like many other opponents of Obama, Jonah Goldberg, who is often right, pictures him as an “ivory tower intellectual.” Oh no, he’s not. If
he were, he’d be living in an ivory tower right now. Nothing easier for a black man who went to Harvard. But Obama has no interest in assessing intellectual issues, or even in reading books. And he has no interest in being left alone in his tower. What he wants is to attend a lot of meetings, present a lot of official awards, make a lot of speeches, and hear that a lot of people he never met and cares nothing about hold him in high regard.
As a CEO, or a bush-league college president, he’d play golf and trade pleasantries with his buddies on the course. When he thought the worker bees needed cheering up, he’d read them a “dynamic” speech that some flack had written for him, and he’d deliver it with many gestures. If his enterprise got into trouble, he’d do what is fashionable for mayors or CEOs or college presidents to do in such circumstances — he’d blame the previous administration and make embittered remarks about people who disagreed with him. Sometimes his schemes would work, and he’d take credit for them; some- times they wouldn’t, and he’d contrast them favorably with those of other administrators, real or imagined.
So far, that’s a pretty good description of what Obama has done. The difference is that the putative mayor or college president or whatever would be flirting with fewer dangers. His schemes would usually work — partly because they were devised by people who needed to think more practically than he did, just to keep their jobs, and partly because a mayor or a CEO or a college president manages an enterprise of contracted scope. He or she doesn’t have the opportunity to screw up in as many ways as a president of the United States.
There are some presidents who, for bad or good, can’t be pictured in any of the roles I’ve mentioned. Think of George Washington. Andrew Jackson. Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan. But Obama is easy to picture that way.
And here’s what I think happened. After a few months of watching Obama in action, the American people began picturing him in exactly the way I’ve stated. One by one, it occurred to them that he was a lot like their mayor or their college president or their boss’ boss. Maybe like their priest, who’s known for giving “inspiring” sermons but lets his secretary run the parish.
Once people pictured Obama in that perspective, they saw his limitations, and they turned away. In particular, they stopped listening to his speeches.
A while ago, someone commented in these pages about a news report indicating that few people, even those who profess to admire Obama’s public speaking, can actually remember any specific words he says. But political enemies remembered his gaffes. Independent voters started to notice them too. Political friends remembered his response to forecasts of Democrat doom in the elections of 2010. He was reported as saying something like, “Don’t worry; this time around, you have me speaking for you” — as if he actually believed the propaganda about his “soaring rhetoric.” No one seemed capable of remembering any particular place to which the rhetoric soared — just that it was always soaring. Then, as I say, people ceased to care.
Obama’s constant, seemingly compulsive public speaking became his mark of Cain, the infallible indication that he was just an ordinary pol. An extraordinary person speaks only when he has something important to say; an ordinary person chatters away. Heard once or twice, Obama fitted the image of the inspiring preacher: you didn’t need to remember the ideas, if any, that he intended to convey; you could just enjoy the feeling he aroused. Heard three or more times, Obama became the blowhard boss or the relentlessly pontificating uncle, the person whom you don’t need to hear again, because you already know what he’s going to come out with. It’s predictable. It’s normal. It’s ordinary.
It’s also very thin stuff, and thinner when you catch it extempore. Absent a manuscript and a teleprompter, Obama is a very poor talker: slow, hesitant, sometimes fumbling, and always deadly dull. He’s the college president who’s forgotten where he put the notes his assistant wrote for him. One of the few amusements you can look forward to on these occasions is the opportunity to count how many times he says “uh.” It averages around 20 a minute. Sometimes it goes up to 24 or 25. And it’s getting worse. Obama used to specialize in spatters of short, discreet noises — a leakage of brief little “uhs” that were almost as hard to count as the pulses in your forearm. It was more like a stutter than anything, and it presented a welcome relief from the sad, deep, rumbling “uhhhhs” of such servants of the public as his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Now, however, Obama is increasing the frequency of his “uhs”; he’s increasing the length and volume of what now amount to growls; and he’s doubling or tripling up, sneaking in a second or third “uh” after the first one.
We all do this kind of thing from time to time. We do it when we’re not sure of what we want to say, or when we’re sure that we don’t have anything to say and need time to make something up. We do it when we’re afraid, consciously or unconsciously, that someone more articulate will break in on our discourse, and other people will prefer to listen to him or her. “Uh” is a mark of the ordinary person who isn’t willing to concede the floor to anyone else. And it’s the mark of a tedious blowhard — for that’s what Obama is.
“Eighty- uh seven uh years ago the uh ancestors, men and women uh black and white uh of this country uh uh came together on uh uh uh this part of the country uh where we’re uh standing today uh uh . . . “ That would be Obama’s version of Lincoln’s speech.
It has been said that some people are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. To put this in slightly different terms, the members of that third group are ordinary, yet are changed by their reac- tion to extraordinary challenges. Their reactions may turn out well or badly, but they are significant reactions.
Harry Truman was an ordinary person, forced to make unprecedented decisions. He rose, or fell, to the occasion, and became of much more interest than the little machine politician he started out to be. The same can, perhaps, be said of John Tyler, an insignificant ticket-balancer (“Tippecanoe and Tyler too”) who faced the great sectional disputes of the 1840s with a remarkable — almost a creepy — stubbornness. The same can be said of James K. Polk, an ordinary politician who wrested the empire of the West from Britain and Mexico (both potent enemies in those days) and emerged victorious from one of the most difficult wars that any politician ever fought.
There have also been presidents of unusual interest as personalities — Madison, Van Buren, Pierce, Buchanan – whose responses to their times were drearily predictable. These people’s interest lies entirely in their personal character. But only a handful of presidents have been ordinary both by their character and by their reactions to the events of their time.
James Monroe was one of them. So were Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthur, and William Howard Taft. The two Bushes fit in here. Faced with extraordinary circumstances — the collapse of communism, the attack of 9/11 — the Bush presidents took a predictable course. “Predictable” doesn’t mean right or wrong. It means ordinary. They were ordinary people.
Now comes Barack Obama, whose birth and upbringing made him appear completely out of the ordinary, and whose circumstances required him to face unusually difficult economic, political, and diplomatic problems. Despite these challenges, however, he consistently achieved the ordinary.
Only one of his decisions has surprised me — his bizarre idea that it would somehow aid him politically to berate the Supreme Court in person, during his state of the union address.
Obama showed no better knowledge of his- tory and economics than the normal office holder — which is to say, virtually none.
The idea was original; no one had thought of it before. Yet it was only a divertissement. Obama’s major actions, however strange they may seem when compared to what might reasonably have been expected from a thoughtful person, aren’t the least surprising for a contemporary American politician.
What’s to be surprised about? Before coming to office, Obama showed no better knowledge of history and economics than the normal Democratic or Republican officeholder — which is to say, virtually none. If you want to search his books for some extraordinary knowledge or insight, go ahead, and let me know when you find it. Good luck. Since then, he hasn’t improved.
It’s sometimes interesting to identify people’s intellectual age: find the newest idea that’s important to them, and that’s how old they are, intellectually. (This can also be done with people’s technological age. What’s the last device or invention you really understand? Mine is the washing machine. That makes me about 100 years old, in technological terms.) In this connection, let’s consider Obama’s ensemble of economic ideas.
I believe that the last significant element of his economic ideology dates from the 1920s. I refer to the silly business about stimulating the economy, promoting consumer spend- ing, guaranteeing mortgages, supporting badly managed enterprises with government bucks, and all the other stuff. This little package of false ideas was popular even before John Maynard Keynes.
So that makes Obama about 90 years old, intellectually. Time for retirement from the job of planning the economy.
You can calculate this stuff in another way, too. You can try to identify the earliest big idea that a person missed. That’s harder to do with ordinary people — because, being ordinary, they miss almost all the big ideas. But again, let’s stick to economics. I’d say that Obama’s innocent trust in the welfare state and the managed economy puts him back around Bismarck’s time. (This is a generous calculation.) He isn’t a Marxist; he obscurely realizes that Marxism must be wrong, for some reason — perhaps the contributions that wealthy capitalists make to his political campaigns. Yet he shows not the slightest awareness of any intellectual critiques of a government-managed economy, which means that he hasn’t
Obama’s personal management was taken over by a bully (Emanuel), a used car salesman (Axelrod), and a mouthpiece (Gibbs).
the slightest awareness that this argument was decided, conclusively, by the later 19th century. And that means that our president, the person who has by far the greatest influence on our $16 trillion economy, is actually more than 120 years old. Can we trust a man that old to make decisions for us?
Right or wrong, Obama’s decisions certainly seem perfectly ordinary, as viewed from inside the intellectual nursing home in which he and his friends reside. Jefferson observed, sarcastically, that ordinary people seldom have occasion to “revise their college opinions.” Obama’s college opinions consisted of a naive post-’60s leftism, coupled with an unwillingness to probe the implications of any idea he was taught. His politics operated, and continues to operate, entirely at the level of unexamined assumptions — a sure sign of the ordinary man. Thus, he became a “community organizer,” but did virtually nothing in the job. Thus, he became a member of a leftist, black nationalist church, but did nothing special in that role, either. Martin Luther King Jr read books, thought about them, and tried to find his own way. He made difficult decisions. He went to jail. He was an extraordinary man. Contrast Obama. He cites books, joins a political machine, and runs for president.
But I mentioned Obama’s friends. One of them was the Reverend Mr. Wright, a racial demagogue. Obama spent a long time lauding Wright as if he were a conventional Christian. When he was shown not to be, Obama lied, then shrugged him off. Wright became a nonperson. Many other Obama associates have suffered the same fate. But he hasn’t thrown David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, or Robert Gibbs under the bus. Why not? Is this evidence of some principled, or at least unusual, loyalty?
Not at all. A more than ordinary politician would realize that these purported wizards were destroying his administration, and dismiss them. But Obama doesn’t realize that. He knew that his association with Wright would destroy him if he didn’t do something about it, but Wright was easy to sacrifice, because Obama was never really intimate with him, despite what he said. If he had been, we would have heard, by now, all the damaging details. But he wasn’t. He never got carried away by an extraordinary religious enthusiasm. For a while, Wright was helpful to his political career; then he wasn’t, and he disappeared. But other people’s advice, operational political advice, has always been vital to him. He can’t live without it — and in his case, the other people happen to be Axelrod, Emanuel, and Gibbs.
It’s like the mystery of a failing corporation. After it’s gone belly-up, you read its history and discover that the CEO kept relying on the same kind of surface-level experts who’d been wrongly advising the firm for years. Get rid of them? Not a chance. You can’t expect him to manage things by himself, do you?
This is Obama’s situation. There was nothing special about him. He was the kind of acceptable, superficially credentialed pretty boy whom political machines typically adopt as their figureheads. He was a little more respectable, a little more credentialed, a little prettier, a little more boyish — that was all. He didn’t have an unpredictable idea in his head, and that was fine. Essential, in fact. So his personal management was undertaken by a predictable crew: a bully (Emanuel), a used- car salesman (Axelrod), and a mouthpiece (Gibbs). These people were so ordinary, so predictable, that they all looked exactly like their roles. There hadn’t been people so typecast since the Nixon regime.
Obama was undoubtedly surprised when his trial-balloon presidential candidacy got real. The timing hadn’t been entirely predictable. He had thought in terms of 2012. But living for nothing but ambition, he went for it, and won, because he seemed less ordinary than his opponent, George Bush. And he was . . . superficially.
Consider his inaugural address. Here’s a passage, chosen at random from the White House Blog:
“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”(Applause.)
What does any of that mean? Nothing. A question is asked — Is the market good or bad? — in order for the question not to be answered. The market is said to generate wealth and expand freedom, which seems like a good thing; but it is also said to have an ability that other generators don’t possess, which is to go spinning out of control. That seems like a bad thing. But how exactly does a market “spin”? No answer — only a non sequitur about how “the nation” (which appears to be the same as “the market”) “favors only the prosperous.” How does that contention comport with the preceding ones? Again, no answer.
The next sentence, the one about “success,” is another benchmark of mediocrity. As anyone can see, “success” can mean an infinite number of things. To Fyodor Dostoyevsky, it meant the triumph of the Russian Orthodox Church. To Eleanor Roosevelt, it meant the triumph of niceness. To other people . . . Well, you get the point. Obama says that success depends on something called “the reach of our prosperity,” which I suppose means the number of people who are prosperous. So what’s an acceptable number? Seventy per- cent? One hundred percent? Still, no answer. And no answer is conceivable, given the next contention, that the success of an economy depends on its “ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart.”
Every willing heart? I know a person who was a decent football player in a rural high school. He’s five feet, eleven inches tall, and he weighs 180 pounds. This young man conceived the idea of starring in the NFL. To get there, he accepted sports scholarships from a series of small, obscure colleges — nonprofit institutions that gave him “opportunity.” After many years of this he gave up and joined the Navy. His is the story of a willing heart that had every chance to participate in the great marketplace of American sports. According to President Obama, it is the kind of story that should inspire our nation’s economic policy. According to me, it’s a story of illusion and failure. It has precisely nothing to do with “our common good.” Only the most mediocre, cliche-driven politico could mistake it for an account of the American economy as it ought to be.
Should I blame Obama for failing to test his cliches against such common examples as this? Indeed I should. You, and every other reader of Obama’s speeches, can think of a hundred other proofs that his words are nothing but syllables. There are no ideas here — no historic truth, no inspiring wisdom, no insights gained from the experience of life — only the sort of abstractions that a bad writer (likely, more than one bad writer) can generate from the chance impressions of an ordinary politician.
Distinctive concepts, the fruits of long reflection and careful analysis? Obama has none. Among his political notions, we find the bailout, the stimulus, and government health- care. These notions became giant initiatives, in terms of their economic expenditures and effects; but each of them entailed only a paltry expenditure of intellect, a mere endorsement of discredited notions. Weren’t skill and intellect required to get them enacted? By no means. The first two happened quickly, because people were scared; the third happened with excruciating slowness, despite the fact that Obama’s party held an immense majority in both House and Senate.
The important thing to remember is that this majority resulted from the people’s disgust with the ordinariness of the preceding administration, which in its waning days maintained a popularity rating at the irreducible low of both American parties, 40%. And that’s more or less where Obama is now.
Some of the 40% who like Obama are dumb enough to think that he is in fact a genius, simply because he is a member of their party. Some of them are smart enough to see him for what he is, while continuing to vote for him, as the exponent of policies they advocate. This also is ordinary and predictable.
But to another 40%, the people who wouldn’t vote for a Democrat if he parted the Red Sea, belongs the choice of politicians who will oppose Obama. The question for them is: what extraordinary men and women do you have among you? And I don’t mean extraordinarily stupid.