Once upon a time we had a president who sulked that his relatively uneventful tenure denied him the chance to thrust his way into greatness. In the days after 9/11, the New York Times carried a quotation from a “close friend” about Bill Clinton’s misfortune: “He has said there has to be a defining moment in a presidency that really makes a great presidency. He didn’t have one.” Clinton, the Times reported, was “described by friends as a frustrated spectator, unable to guide the nation through a crisis that is far bigger than anything he confronted in his eight-year tenure.”
This tracked with earlier accounts from two of Clinton’s advisers. George Stephanopoulos wrote that Clinton “envied Lincoln his enemies, knowing that it takes a moral challenge to create a memorable presidency.” In his book about his White House years, Dick Morris related a conversation he had with Clinton about his place in history. “You can’t be first tier,” Morris explained gently to his boss, “unless unanticipated historical forces put you there.” “Like a war,” Clinton agreed glumly, before asking, a little more hopefully, “Okay, second tier?”
At the time, this sort of wistfulness seemed the height of vanity. Today, it’s almost charmingly quaint.
Earlier this year on March 11, a Friday, Japan was struck by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. An hour later a 30-foot tidal wave swamped the northeast portion of the country, killing thousands and leaving devastation in its wake. Four hours after that, Japan declared itself in a state of nuclear emergency. Within days, at least three of the country’s nuclear reactors were in states of partial meltdown. While the crisis in Japan was accelerating, oil prices continued to hover around $100 per barrel, America’s domestic economic recovery continued to disintegrate, a revolution in Libya continued to blossom into a full-fledged civil conflict, and American troops continued to fight in Afghanistan.
On Saturday, March 12, President Obama played golf. On Monday, March 14, President Obama visited a middle school in Northern Virginia to kick off a week’s worth of activities centered around “Winning the Future” of education. Because it was a big day, he also kicked off a “Sunshine Week” celebration to trumpet reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. On Tuesday, March 15, President Obama sat down with ESPN to tape a segment about his NCAA March Madness picks.
As he surveyed the globe you could practically hear Obama thinking to himself, Chance the Gardener-style, I like to watch . . .
We’ve seen this President Obama all too often. It started with the stimulus. Instead of crafting his own bill, one which put government money into projects with both economic impact and practical benefit—like, say, defense procurement—he handed the job to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The result was $787 billion for Democratic clients and “shovel-ready projects” that, Obama now says laughingly, were never really shovel-ready. He took the same approach with his health care reform act, arguing and arm-twisting from the sidelines without getting involved in the specifics of the legislation. After having a budget rejected by the Senate (97‑0) last March, he declined to put forward another plan. Oh, he talked a lot about what his plans might be. His collected mutterings on the subject prompted Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf to quip, “We don’t estimate speeches.”
But it’s not just his executive approach to policy. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up last summer, Obama spent a lot of time on peripheral activities. As the rig was leaking in May, he sat for an interview about basketball with Marv Albert, toured the country promoting the stimulus, and met with Duke’s basketball team. During a memorial service for the workers killed on the oil rig, he was on his way to a fundraiser in California. When he did finally get down to Louisiana, the very first thing Obama did after he walked off the plane—literally—was put his arm around Gov. Bobby Jindal and take him aside. He did not want to talk about the spill in the Gulf. Jindal explains what followed in his book, Leadership and Crisis:
I was expecting words of concern about the oil spill, worry about the pending ecological disaster, and words of confidence about how the federal government was here to help. Or perhaps he was going to vent about BP’s slow response. But no, the president was upset about something else. And he wanted to talk about, well, food stamps. Actually, he wanted to talk about a letter that my administration had sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a day earlier.
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:
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.