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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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.