The Obama Delusion, cont.
Michael Lewis swoons...over nothing.
Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Lewis has succumbed inevitably to the Obama Delusion, the vision, once so widely shared, of the blinding splendor of this fellow who has proved to be so ordinary. As a Delusionist he happens upon Obama doing unexceptional things that become, by virtue of Obama doing them, wildly impressive. Lewis discovers, for example, that President Obama is required to make many decisions in his job. He makes fewer of them than we might hope, of course, as in his temporizing response to the Syrian uprising; and the ones he does make are ones we might wish he hadn’t made, as in his insistence on spending so damn much money.
But what wows the author is the incredible complexity of the process by which those decisions are made.
“Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control,” Lewis writes, as if bringing the news. “They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration.”
He quotes President Obama at length on the subject. Indeed, the president seems to have spent as much time thinking about how he makes decisions as he has spent making decisions.
“You wind up dealing with probabilities,” the president told Lewis. “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
Reading Lewis’s article you’re reminded that Obama was himself the first Obama Delusionist. He can take an unoriginal observation, as he does here—nothing’s for certain in this big ole world, so you better get used to it—and make it seem as complicated as possible, draping it in “probabilities” and using the moment’s most fashionable words: He not only “owns his decisions,” he works in a “shifting model” and needs to “frame an issue” to create a “narrative” that might inspire a “conversation.”
And he releases these clouds of jargon, the cant of a Vanity Fair pseud, knowing that his fellow Delusionists will be knocked over. The White House staff, surely smitten, never suspects that the president is a windbag.
Lewis says the president himself suggested the outline for his article. “He led me to the general idea that I should frame this piece around a single decision,” Lewis told Gross. With the president’s help, he discovered that “the decision about Libya was so interesting.” He’s referring to the president’s decision last year to use troops to help dethrone Muammar Qaddafi. (Unluckily, Lewis’s article was published during a week when the wisdom of the Libyan intervention began to look, in hindsight, maybe not-so-wise.)
At this point in “Obama’s Way,” Lewis goes all Bob Woodward on us. He reconstructs, tick-tock fashion, how Obama decided to intervene.
In making his decisions, Lewis explains, the president attends meetings. Beforehand, he is given a list of the people who will be there. Many people speak at these meetings. The president listens to their arguments. He considers the actions they recommend. And when he’s not satisfied with the actions they’re recommending, he asks them to come up with other ideas, sometimes on short notice. In the end, he adopts the arguments he’s persuaded by and chooses the actions he agrees with.
It’s incredible. Perhaps he is The One.
You wonder why the president should want Lewis to write in-depth about the Libyan decision, which was made a year before Lewis began shadowing him. For all his unprecedented access, his six months of being a fly-on-the-wall, Lewis apparently wasn’t able to witness a decision firsthand that would serve as an example of the president’s excellence. And Lewis neglects to mention that in the long catalogue of the president’s foreign-policy making, the Libyan intervention is an anomaly—an intervention from an administration notable for its reluctance to intervene in anything but the American economy.
Lewis writes as though he’s never read a presidential biography or a White House memoir; and his White House handlers were betting, I suppose, that his readers haven’t either. Certainly the media figures who helped him publicize his gee-whiz thesis, interviewers like Gross and Rachel Maddow (was Charlie Rose sick last week?), were enthralled. The president’s frustration with a stubborn opposition, his difficulty in keeping fresh and informed by outside advice, his habits of leisure (he works out a lot—a lot), the variety of tasks he’s asked to perform, the solace he takes from family life—all appear to the Delusionist to be new and unexpected in the annals of presidential leadership.