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Being Obama

It’s all about him.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The letter was rudimentary, bureaucratic, and ordinary. .  .  . We were simply asking the federal government to authorize food stamps for those who were now unemployed because of the oil spill. Governors regularly make these sorts of requests to the federal government when facing disaster.

But somehow, for some reason, President Obama had personalized this. And he was upset.

There was not a word about the oil spill. He was concerned about looking bad because of the letter. “Careful,” he said to me, “this is going to get bad for everyone.”

This summer it wasn’t a single oil rig that exploded but the entire nation’s economy, which is now rushing toward a double-dip recession. In the last month America’s long-term sovereign debt rating was downgraded, the Dow Jones shed nearly 10 percent of its value, unemployment stayed firmly over 9 percent, and the Fiserv/Case-Shiller Indexes pushed their projections for a housing recovery even further back, to the second quarter of 2012. All of which prompted President Obama to travel around the Midwest on a bus for three days. On the fourth day, he flew to Martha’s Vineyard for a well-deserved rest.

What makes President Obama’s executive passivity so interesting is that it seems to be a symptom not of policy uncertainty, but of personal narcissism. The president is free to delegate the tasks of the president because he’s already done the important job of simply showing up. It’s the same impulse that leads him to make all sorts of claims about the singularity of his tenure. For instance, at an August 15 town hall event in Minnesota, he boasted that after his administration took control of General Motors and Chrysler, the two companies posted profits for the “first time in decades,” even though both companies were profitable as recently as 2004. Similarly, he recently lectured reporters that,

What I have done—and this is unprecedented, by the way; no administration has done this before—is I’ve said to each agency, “Don’t just look at current regulations or don’t just look at future regulations, regulations that we’re proposing. Let’s go backwards and look at regulations that are already on the books and if they don’t make sense, let’s get rid of them.”

The Government Accounting Office sheepishly noted that “every president since President Carter has directed agencies to evaluate or reconsider existing regulations.” These little delusions give a window into Obama’s view of the relationship between his office and his self. Policy and initiative aren’t the point of his presidency. He is.

President Obama never tires of inserting himself into measurement of the world around him. Bestowing the Medal of Honor on Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta at the White House last November, President Obama felt it important to add his personal endorsement of the man: “Now, I’m going to go off-script here for a second and just say I really like this guy.” In a statement about the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Obama began by noting, “One year ago, I was humbled to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—an award that speaks to our highest aspirations, and that has been claimed by giants of history and courageous advocates who have sacrificed for freedom and justice.” On the Sunday after the 2010 midterm elections, Obama appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about his view of America going forward. “I think that I’ve learned that America is incredibly resilient,” he said, before continuing, “I think I’ve learned about myself that I’m pretty resilient too.” That’s right, America: You can knock Barack Obama down, but he’s going to get right back up and govern you, like it or not.

When people don’t appreciate how important the job of being Barack Obama is, our president can get a little testy. “As time passes, you start taking it for granted that a guy named Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States,” he told a group of donors in March. “But we should never take it for granted. .  .  . I hope that all of you still feel that sense of excitement and that sense of possibility.” Last November he met with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, who began his remarks by thanking the president for setting the “tone right” for their talks. Obama huffed, “That was my goal. Every once in a while, I do things right.”

In his postelection press conference that month, Obama complained that one of the problems his party has is that Americans don’t get to see him doing the hard work of being president. For instance, he mentioned that he reads letters from ordinary Americans all the time:

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