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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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Those letters that I read every night, some of them just break my heart. Some of them provide me encouragement and inspiration. But nobody is filming me reading those letters. And so it’s hard, I think, for people to get a sense of, well, how is he taking in all this information?

It was good of the president to let voters off the hook for not understanding how hard he works on their behalf. And he didn’t have to do that. Especially since, back in August 2009, the White House did film him sitting up late at night reading letters from Ordinary Americans. They even posted the video on the White House website and YouTube.

Maybe that’s why the president sometimes seems exasperated with the country he’s allowed to follow him. Just two days before the earthquake hit Japan, the New York Times carried an amazing little nugget: “Mr. Obama has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China,” the Times reported. “As one official put it, ‘No one is scrutinizing Hu Jintao’s words in [Cairo’s] Tahrir Square.’ ”

He’s right—Hu has a pretty sweet deal. Yet it’s not clear that Obama really would be happy as president of China. After all, China’s a big country with a lot of problems, too. And even Hu Jintao is expected to show some initiative. Tibetan monks don’t suppress themselves. But at least Hu probably has some awesome electronic gadgets at his disposal. Holograms, videophones, maybe even a Death Ray. Last spring Obama complained during a fundraiser, “The Oval Office, I always thought I was going to have really cool phones and stuff. .  .  . I’m like, c’mon guys, I’m the president of the United States. Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn’t happen.”

But we should forgive Obama his mutterings. Petulance is merely a sister of narcissism—and it’s not as if we didn’t know what we were getting into with this president. In 2004 Ryan Lizza penned a profile of Obama for the Atlantic Monthly. Obama was running for Senate at the time, largely unopposed. Lizza sat with Obama one day while the candidate was making fundraising phone calls. As he talked to the donors, he started drawing a little sketch on the newspaper lying in front of him. Lizza reported:

I couldn’t help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he’d doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself.

Bill Clinton’s vanity was that he wished he could have been at the center of a world historical event. Barack Obama’s vanity is that he believes he is a world historical event. And the greatness of his being dwarfs any necessity to establish greatness through action. That’s why, despite his passivity as president, we’re likely to see a much more vigorous Obama in the coming months as he switches from governing to campaigning. However ambivalent he may be about leading the country, arguing for the indispensability of Barack Obama is the one project that has always commanded his full attention.

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