The Magazine

President Hamlet

After a youth spent as the indulged and inevitable prince, he has become the king that Hamlet would have been had he enjoyed the services of Axelrod and Plouffe, instead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By SAM SCHULMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

To the relief of his friends and the consternation of his doubters, President Obama found his presidential voice last week in his congressional address. "It came a bit late, but Barack Obama finally gave his inaugural address," Richard Cohen rejoiced on his Washington Post blog. "He is president at last--and not a minute too soon."

The speech's magniloquence and grandeur only partly account for the jubilation of Obama's admirers. The balance is their expression of relief. They hope that his oratorical performance proves that Obama has recovered from the first 40 days of his administration, in which he acted not like a triumphant winner, but with a defeated joy. Five weeks of disappointments followed in grim procession. There was the great disappointment that, despite the boasts of a grand and visionary plan for economic recovery in his inaugural morning coat, he hit the ground delegating. As he said last week, "as soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day." Rather than present a Goolsbeean masterstroke, Obama beguiled Nancy Pelosi to give us more of what had caused so much woe.

And the cabinet! Instead of the brain trust we expected, Obama ennobled a long procession of ethically tainted and self-interested men and women. But if it was not done well, it was not done quickly either. Fruits of office were offered and then withdrawn, as with General Zinni, or spit back on the presidential silver salver, as with Senator Gregg. Worst of all, the president seemed edgy, unsure of himself, every bit as irritable as his press secretary, indecisive about dog breeds, short-tempered with reporters, impatient with Joe Biden.

What about the flurry of executive orders which flew like angels and ministers of grace off the president's desk in the first days? After a few weeks, they all now have missed their target or fallen flat--and clearly there was no Plan B. Iran responded to Obama's hand of friendship by setting preconditions of its own for a meeting and running more centrifuges. Our NATO allies, asked nicely for more support in our Afghan venture, replied, nicely, that they would prefer not to. Guantánamo turns out to be completely in harmony with the letter and spirit of the Geneva Accords--and, according to the attorney general, a nice place to visit even if you wouldn't want to live there. Bush's anti-terror policies remain largely in place.

Worst of all, Obama's magnificent instrument of power, his voice and tone, seemed to have escaped his control. He frightened small children and investors with his dark prophecies of doom should the stimulus bill not be passed without delay, review, or criticism of any kind. He frightened grown men by his insouciance when he fled to Chicago for a yuppie family weekend of shopping and gossip, leaving the vital bill unsigned on his Oval Office desk.

I suspect that Obama was as disappointed in himself as we were--and even more puzzled. He expected that his bold words would produce bold action. Instead, he finds himself appointing committees of graybeards to study at leisure the very Gordian knots that his snazzy executive orders were meant to slice through. None of us--not even those who wanted him to fail--expected this kind of incompetence and inelegance, mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage.

I think we are seeing something very different, and very special, and to those who know their Shakespeare as well as they know their Obama, something poetic. Obama is not a hypocrite, a programmatic radical, or an incompetent--anyone with the patience to read his books can see that he is a 20th-century liberal of a very conventional type: incurious, superior, and vain. What is unique about him is what is unique about Hamlet. Obama avoided the path that so many ambitious men of his own generation have followed--Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo--from law school to bigger and bigger government offices. Instead, he followed Hamlet's course. He deliberately prolonged his youth, avoided responsibility and serious challenges, put his great gifts to work in the tiniest possible ways--all in order to protect his illusions from contact with very much reality. And now, in this particular job, he is up against the real world for the very first time. Obama's trajectory is Hamlet's, a youth spent as the recognized, indulged, and inevitable Prince, untrammeled by responsibility or experience. But now he is a character in a play that Shakespeare never wrote: Obama has become the king that Hamlet would have been had he enjoyed the services of Axelrod and Plouffe instead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.