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
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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 Fruits of office were offered and then withdrawn, as with General Zinni, or spit back on the presidential silver salver, as with Senator Gregg.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.

I don't mean to suggest that Obama is the Hamlet of the newspaper cartoons--indecisive, melancholy, of antic disposition. He is something very different. He is Shakespeare's Hamlet as he saw himself, a man of action who knows himself through and through--but is neither. Both princes have spent their youth waiting for an opportunity that is worthy of their talent to take off their inky cloaks and reveal themselves. Obama is precisely like Hamlet in his conviction that his eloquence proves his leadership ability and his self-knowledge. And, like Hamlet's, his preparation for high office consisted of playacting, speechmaking, and self-examination.

Hamlet is obsessed with finding and playing a role--and uncertain that he is quite up to the task. Such is the Obama we have watched for the first 40 days. For Hamlet, the role he must play is rather simple: He does not expect to combine in himself the qualities of Lincoln and Roo-sevelt, as our unenviable president does. Hamlet only has to be an avenger. Hamlet's dream of his father assigns him this role in the first act, and, for the rest of the play, poor Hamlet repeatedly tries and fails to live up to it. Instead of taking action, Hamlet whiles away the time until his death despising, envying, and imitating the single-minded souls who can play their appointed role in life without agonizing self-consciousness. He tries to imitate them all--young Fortinbras, Laertes, his dead father. To do so, he devises over-complicated rhetorical tricks--writing speeches for the strolling company of actors, pretending to be mad, writing love letters, ordering secret renditions for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, throwing Polonius and Ophelia under the bus. Hamlet dies--and inadvertently achieves his revenge--only because he is so jealous of Laertes's fencing skill that he agrees to the fatal one-on-one that ends the play.

Hamlet's trajectory describes exactly what is unique about Obama's pathway to power--what he didn't do. Most young men of Obama's generation with presidential yearnings have tried putting their hands on the steering wheel of a smaller vehicle, like an attorney-generalship. A state AG's office is an excellent place to practice the swordsmanship that a president needs. Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo prepped this way. Rudy Giuliani matriculated as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Spitzer was the most presidential of all, because he didn't bother with actual lawyering but merely harried and bullied businessmen with something to lose--no indictment necessary.

At the same stage of his life, Obama--skill, intelligence, and training outmatching Cuomo's and Spitzer's, and with even more ambition--didn't burden himself with such responsibilities. He prepared himself purely through the exercise of rhetoric. A brief speech at a student anti-apartheid demonstration gave him a vision of power, he took an assistant professor's salary from a charity to become an organizer of community protest for such causes as asbestos removal. Most of all, he wrote autobiographies. In his books he rehearsed a vision of himself as leader, solving problems with ease that no one had ever solved before. And the key to leadership, he discovered in his very first autobiography, was not the exercise of authority but the telling of stories.

He argues that black people in America do best for themselves when they stick to the truth of things, when they share the "absence of delusions [perhaps he means illusions] that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people" that he had met as a neighborhood organizer. So he decides that what will save his community--preserve its self-esteem and bring about a better world--is to write down his own life story. Or as he puts it more eloquently, to "struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan." "Our sense of wholeness" must find root in "Mrs. Crenshaw's story and Mr. Marshall's story, in Ruby's story and Rafiq's"--and, most of all, the prince's own. When rival princelings like Spitzer and Cuomo were accumulating executives' scalps, the future President Hamlet was rehearsing his own story in a couple of bestsellers. Within their covers he could count himself a king of infinite space.

As a storyteller and speechifier, Obama didn't need to come up with new plans--his new budget is pretty much what Stevenson, Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, and Kerry would have shown us. Nor did he waste his time assembling allies among the movers and shakers, as Hillary did. Instead of superdelegates, Obama, like a real prince, assembled around him a court and filled it with courtiers--hundreds and hundreds of his closest and cleverest friends. During the campaign, Obama admitted to having over 300 unruly knights among his official foreign policy advisers. And each of these courtiers regarded himself or herself as valued for a unique insight and point of view. Among so many, is it any wonder that the courtiers include Zionists and anti-Semitic crackpots, free-traders and protectionists, education reformers and ed-school apparatchiks?

And even today, the Obama administration draws names from among the courtiers seemingly at random--Israel-lobbyist Hillary Clinton yesterday, Saudi-lobbyist Chas Freeman today. The jobs to which they are appointed are as symbolic as the members of a coronation procession. Dennis Ross, the long-promised "point man on Iran," might have been happier as a Guardian of the Royal Robe than he will be trying to live down his new job description:

What Dennis is going to be charged with doing, is trying to integrate policy development and implementation across a number of offices and officials in the State Department. .  .  . He will be also trying to ensure that there's a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region. Let me be clear, he's not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He'll be working on regional issues. He will not be--in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. .  .  .

To the untutored eye, the Obama administration can seem merely lazy. Economic stimulus? Let Nancy do it. Give a heavyweight like Bob Gates a job that would affront the dignity of a Guildenstern--make him plead with the Europeans to help us in Afghanistan, but force him to admit that his boss hasn't made up his mind about whether to protect NATO members against the new Iranian/North Korean missiles. Close Guantánamo one of these days soon, decide even later what to do with its population. But it's not laziness; it's the way that a Hamlet thinks the world works. To a Hamlet, a leader like himself "who can inspire the American people to rally behind a common purpose" issues a decree. And that's all that needs to be done.

For Hamlet and Obama, leadership is something that one can imagine or speechify oneself into. Hamlet feels that the only thing that stops him from being as effective a king as Fortinbras--or the Player-king--is that he lacks their sincerity and self-delusion. Obama thinks that being FDR is a matter of making FDR-like speeches--so FDR-like that Richard Cohen had a vision of an amber cigarette-holder while Obama spoke! He needn't bother to study how FDR connived, threatened, charmed, lied, and manipulated to get his way.

In Obama's Hamlet-like world of leadership, he has no need for men like the grumpy, incorruptible Harold Ickes to serve as reality principle and enforcer. There is no brilliant, vain, and unreliable Harry Hopkins to stimulate the economy. There are certainly no fixers like Tommy the Cork or Jim Farley to make things happen in the states and cities. Instead, the administration is filled with Poloniuses. There's one sitting in the vice president's chair in the Senate. Another runs the EPA. And Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns fill the high offices at State and Treasury.

Only Shakespeare could write the mise-en-scène of my lords Summers and Geithner on their knees before the Earl of Dodd, entreating him not to ruin the king's money-lenders with a salary cap--and failing. To our new and unseasoned King Hamlet, it must have seemed like a good idea. FDR would have sent Harold Ickes and Jim Farley, and Dodd would take a long weekend at his Irish cottage, half frightened out of his wits, half convinced he was the next appointment to the Supreme Court.

Obama could fill half a dozen New Deal-era brain trusts with the courtiers still hanging around without appointments. But our President Hamlet takes the estimable people he attracts and turns them into airy nothings. He does so not out of malice or cunning, but from utter innocence of how the world works. The weakness of the Obama administration is not that it is a permanent campaign, but it is a permanent court, in particular with the fecklessness and jealousy that characterizes the court of a crown prince unsure of his power. Whatever the talent of the courtiers, what they learn to study most of all is caution. That is why there was no one among them with the courage to tell the king that if he doesn't deal with our foreign enemies now, there will be no way to cut military spending later. Fear about their futures meant that no one had the nerve to point out to Obama that raising taxes on the rich will produce not more income but less. And none was suicidal enough to remind Obama that undoing welfare reform would return the urban black population--the great beneficiary of reform--to its prior misery.

Hamlet never became a king in his own eyes, or even managed, except by accident, to avenge his father's death. A Hamlet, prince or king, can never overcome his own self-doubt, and Obama's self-doubt, unresolved by his books, may remain impervious to the fact that he has indeed made himself president. I fear our president will only fitfully be a president to himself. This fitfulness, coupled to his deeply held belief that heartfelt desire, gorgeously expressed, must inevitably lead to workable plans, will set the pattern for his administration. I expect four years of drama, muddle, and self-regard. Hamlet was a tragedy, but fortunately for Denmark Hamlet died in the last act. We perhaps reluctant playgoers will have the privilege of seeing its sequel.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, was publishing director of the American and publisher of Wigwag.