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Obama: ‘What About Compliments?’

Advance copy from the November 22, 2010, issue.

4:00 PM, Nov 12, 2010 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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At his November 12 press conference in Seoul, President Obama was asked the following question by CBS’s Chip Reid: “What was the number-one complaint, concern, or piece of advice that you got from foreign leaders about the U.S. economy and your stewardship of the economy?”

Obama: ‘What About Compliments?’

Whereupon the president began his response with a complaint: “What about compliments?” he asked. “You didn’t put that in the list.”

Well, soorrrrrry, Mr. President.

Poor President Obama. He’s (allegedly) getting all these compliments from his fellow world leaders—and the press just isn’t interested in having him tell us about them. True, President Obama became accustomed, as a candidate, to having a compliant press corps. But even so. After a contentious economic summit where the president was forced to defend the Fed’s ill-advised monetary policies, a summit that followed on the heels of the biggest midterm electoral defeat ever suffered by an elected first-term president, a defeat partly due to his ill-advised fiscal policies, did Obama really expect a reporter to stand up at the end of last week and ask, “Mr. President, what compliments did you receive from foreign leaders?”

That is, apparently, exactly what the president expected.

And that has us worried. We’ve assumed the president would learn from the voters’ repudiation of his party on November 2. We’ve assumed he would learn from reality’s refutation of his policies over the last two years. But the vanity that Jonathan V. Last elaborates on elsewhere in this issue seems to be standing in the way of such learning. President Obama has been mugged both by the voters and by reality—but he thinks that he’s still looking good, that he deserves plaudits, and that the only problem is people don’t know about all the compliments he’s been getting.

It may be true, as Mark Twain observed, that “an occasional compliment is necessary to keep up one’s self-respect.” So let’s hope the compliments the president claims he was getting from his fellow leaders have done the job of bolstering his self-respect. Perhaps now he can get on with doing what’s right for the country.

It’s not that hard. The president can compromise with Republicans in Congress to extend current tax rates for the next few years, which would give the economy a boost. He can—with the support of most economists—urge the Fed to stop the quantitative easing before we really destroy the role of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. He can engage in a healthy competition with the Republican House in cutting unnecessary domestic discretionary spending. He can stand up to the false and dangerous allure of cutting defense when our military is stretched thin, and when our defense R&D and procurement are underfunded. As commander in chief, he can—with Republican support—lead us to success in Afghanistan.

All the president has to do is abandon some foolish ideological presuppositions, get down to work, and stop fishing for compliments. If he did so, he’d end up getting genuine compliments—from us and, we dare say, from the American people. And then his self-respect would have a firmer ground than vanity.

—William Kristol

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