The Magazine

But Enough About Me . . .

Does Obama understand that the office of the presidency is bigger--much bigger--than he is?

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Barack Obama spoke at the National Archives last Thursday on the war on terror (not that he used that term). After paying tribute to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and before turning to a defense of his policies, the President of the United States said:

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn of their truth when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words--"to form a more perfect union." I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never--ever--turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

Who cares? Who cares about Barack Obama's father, his mother, or his "own American journey"? Is his journey so noteworthy that it needs to be intruded into a presidential speech on weighty matters of constitutional law and public policy, of civil liberties and national security? After all, tens of millions of other Americans have ancestors who came to these shores in search of the promise of a better life. Tens of millions of other Americans have lived in a foreign land--and some of them were presumably awakened early by their mothers.

And so what? Are those Americans who didn't live abroad as youths any less attached to the principles of the Declaration? Didn't the rest of us study the Constitution as well? Haven't millions of other Americans also been bound by it as lawyers and legislators--to say nothing of tens of millions who have sworn oaths to it when serving in the military and other public and civic roles?

And isn't the point of the Declaration and the Constitution--and of the various oaths we swear, the pledges of allegiance we make--that our individual backgrounds should recede as we assume the duties of public office or when we exercise our rights as citizens? Perhaps not in the eyes of Barack Obama. Even by the standard of political types, he seems strikingly self-preoccupied and self-referential.

Doesn't Obama's self-regard sometimes seem greater than his regard for the position he occupies? Does he understand that the office of the presidency is bigger--much bigger--than he is? Or does Obama think of the presidency primarily as a vessel through which to exercise his political gifts and pursue his personal achievements?

In an interview for Richard Wolffe's new book, Renegade: The Making of a President, Obama told the Newsweek reporter he wants to hold a "Muslim summit."

If I had a Muslim summit, I think that I can speak credibly to them about the fact that I respect their culture, that I understand their religion, that I have lived in a Muslim country, and as a consequence I know it is possible to reconcile Islam with modernity and respect for human rights and a rejection of violence. And I think I can speak with added credibility.

Leave aside the foreign policy naïveté in this comment--the notion that foreign leaders will adjust their policy aims because of where in the world the president of the United States happened to live when he was in grade school. Consider what it says about Obama's self-understanding. The implication of his comment is that American leaders don't routinely respect others' culture or understand their religion. That is Obama's special gift. And to speak to foreign leaders merely with the credibility and authority inherent in being president of the United States isn't good enough. Does Obama grasp that his task is to advance U.S. interests in a lasting way, not his own personal approval rating in the world? As we saw on his earlier apology tour through Europe and his attendance at the Summit of the Americas, the attempt to advance his own standing can come at the expense of standing up for the nation he represents.

Politicians are of course allowed to allude to--even to make a big deal of--their personal qualities. As a candidate, Abraham Lincoln exploited his youth in a humble log cabin. But as president, he rarely dwelled on his personal background. When he did, it was to an opposite effect from Obama. When Lincoln told the soldiers of the 166th Ohio Regiment that "I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has," it was to emphasize that "I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House."