Bruce Thornton: The President We Deserve?

n 1920 H.L Mencken wrote prophetically, “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.”

Like the long tradition of antidemocrats from Plato to Founding Father Fisher Ames, Mencken believed that a democratic leader would reflect the self-interested aims and passions of the necessarily mediocre mass of voters. The disaster of Barack Obama’s administration invites reflection on the truth of this proposition.

Obama’s narcissistic self-regard by now is obvious to all but the most besotted of tingle-down-my-leg, smartest-president-ever, trousers-crease-bedazzled Obamaboppies, as Mark Steyn calls them. Obama’s favorite words are “I,” “me,” and “my,” except of course when he’s dodging responsibility for his failures, as he did recently when he blamed his intelligence agencies for his own neglect of the growing threat from Islamic State in northern Iraq. He’s still blaming George W. Bush for many other failures, most recently when he blamed him for the lack of a status of forces agreement with Iraq––something he really didn’t want so he could brag, as he did in 2011, “The tide of war is receding. Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan . . . Our troops are finally coming home.” A year later he made this political calculation explicit when he said of the SOF agreement during the foreign policy presidential debate, “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down.”

Dodging accountability and refusing to confess one’s mistakes are classic signs of the egomaniac. So too is seeking out audiences that uncritically accept one’s own estimation of personal greatness. That’s why the president prefers fund-raisers to governing. It’s not just about garnering money for his party; it’s also about bathing in the waves of adulation from the carefully selected audience of fans. That’s certainly more gratifying than sitting through the Presidential Daily Briefings, 56% of which he missed in his first term, and 62% in his second. George W. Bush, in comparison, almost never missed the PDB.

And when someone does get by the gatekeepers and asks an even slightly challenging question, Obama gets a bit snappish, as those convinced of their own brilliance are wont to do. For example, when asked at a recent town-hall gathering about double-digit rate-increases for health care, he sniffed, “The question is whether you guys are shopping effectively enough.” It’s your fault, not mine. So too when his handlers can’t control the questions, as in presidential debates. There he relies on juvenile snarkiness to defend his amour propre. Remember when he responded to Mitt Romney’s warning about Russia, which recent events have proven prescient? “The 80s called, they want their foreign policy back,” he jeered with the air of a junior-high witling.

Overestimating one’s abilities, however, is the most obvious indication of crippling self-regard. Way back in 2008 Obama sent us a very clear signal of what would make him a dangerous president: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” Such a preposterous statement, proven false by the events of the last 6 years, points us to the reasons for those failures––his unwillingness to listen to advice from anyone other than his servile courtiers. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta writes in his new book, Obama and his spaniel advisors refused to listen to Panetta and military commanders about the importance of leaving a residual force in Iraq. Instead, the administration gave up on securing an agreement it didn’t want in the first place, choosing the self-flattering political narrative about “ending the war” over the long-term strategic dangers of walking away from the still fragile political order in Baghdad.

But why should Obama question himself, when his closest and most trusted advisor, Valerie Jarrett, has gone on record with astonishing claims about the president’s brilliance? The following statement from 2010 is one of the most embarrassing displays of toadying I know of outside a Versailles fop or a Hollywood press agent:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is . . . He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy . . . He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

We know now that this whole encomium is false in every detail––except for the claim that Obama “knows” that all Jarrett’s claims are true. In a position as powerful as the presidency of the world’s greatest economic and military power, such self-delusion is lethal.

Obama’s claim to his own brilliance, reinforced by enablers like Jarrett, brings us to the issue of intelligence. With his typical hyperbolic sarcasm, Mencken uses the word “moron.” But the problem with Obama is not his level of intelligence, which I suspect is above average. Rather, Obama’s mind has never been properly trained. Like physical strength, intellectual development needs resistance. The novice needs to be regularly scolded that his callow opinions and interpretations are badly argued or uninformed, and then sent off to improve them. Does anyone think that an affirmative action admit like Obama was ever subjected to such ego-wounding criticism? I’ve been in the university for 40 years, and I’ve seen repeatedly the anxious cossetting, inflation of ability, tender solicitude for feelings, and unwillingness to apply rigorous standards when it comes to minority students, what George Bush has called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” All Obama has had to do is show up, and white people have done the rest.

Back in 2008 we had an example of this dynamic when esteemed presidential historian Michael Beschloss––a Harvard-trained holder of numerous prestigious fellowships and visiting scholar positions––claimed Obama had the highest I.Q. of any president ever, without having a clue about what his I.Q. actually is. For the rest of us, there is scant evidence of this brilliance. No college transcripts, no LSAT scores, no peer-reviewed articles, nothing other than a couple of books of uncertain authorship.

We do have, however, Obama’s astonishing blunders like “there are 57 states; Canada has a president; ‘Austrian’ is a language; America is ‘20 centuries’ old; Arabic is spoken in Afghanistan. He’s called the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) the Maldives, and declared it would be ‘unprecedented’ for the Supreme Court to invalidate a law passed by Congress,” as Jack Kelly has written. And let’s not forget the “intercontinental railroad” and the reference in the 2009 Cairo speech to Muslims in 15th century Córdoba decades after they had been driven away. Such mistakes bespeak not a stupid mind, but a lazy and untrained one completely lacking in Socratic self-awareness of how much it doesn’t know but only thinks it knows.

Obama will be history in 2 years, so the real question is whether Mencken was right when he said that such a president reflects the “inner soul” of a democratic people. Has narcissistic self-regard become a defining characteristic of the American people, as Christopher Lasch argued in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism? Is the electorate dominated by what Rush Limbaugh calls the “low-information voter,” as Ilya Somin documents inDemocracy and Political Ignorance, published last year? In short, is the antidemocratic charge that “Among the common people [is] the greatest ignorance,” as the Athenian called the Old Oligarch wrote around 450 B.C., really true?

The next 2 elections may give us an answer to that question. Perhaps the residual common sense of Americans, once awakened by increasing crises at home and abroad, will reassert itself, and prove Abe Lincoln correct: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Let’s hope the future proves Lincoln a better prophet than Mencken.