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October 25, 2013 4:00 AM
Obama the Avatar
He is all things to all people, and concerned about all of it.
By Charles C. W. Cooke
Discussing the Obamacare disaster in the Rose Garden on Monday, President Obama led with a phrase to which we have become accustomed: “Nobody,” the president emoted, “is madder than me” about this mess.
Along with “let me be clear” and “make no mistake,” this is a favorite construction. Obama, you see, is more concerned for and correct about everything than everybody else at all times. “Nobody shares the frustrations of the American people more than I do,” he told WABC earlier this month; “nobody is more frustrated” than he about the IRS scandal; “no person,” the president affirmed during the election, “is more interested” in “seeing this economy growing strong.”
The line is contagious. In January, while trying pathetically to sell gun control, “Shotgun” Joe Biden informed the press that “nobody” was “more committed to acting on this moral obligation we have than the president of the United States.” “Nobody is more interested,” either, “in finding out exactly what happened” in Benghazi,” “more upset” about “the oil spill in the Gulf, or “more offended about the anti-gay and -lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”
Even when he’s not interested he’s interested. “The bottom line,” Obama instructed NASA after cancelling the Constellation program, “is that nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space, than I am.”
The president is not just more concerned than you, but he’s smarter than you are as well. “I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I’ll hire to do it,” he told his campaign staff back in 2006. Per Jodi Kantor’s book on the president, he delivered the same message to Patrick Gaspard during an interview:
“I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Obama told him. “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.”
In 2011, Mrs. Obama told a Democratic fundraiser in California that her husband “ . . . reads every word, every memo, so he is better prepared than the people briefing him. This man doesn’t take a day off.”
Ugly as they are to my eyes, such professions of concern, of omnipotence, and of expertise appear to sell. If you were on the Obama campaign’s mailing list, you will remember a set of creepy e-mails from the First Lady — e-mails in which she cast her husband as a veritable superhuman who, when he wasn’t being more interested in everything than you, was clearing the snow from the driveway with his bare hands and toiling into the night to the light of candles and the sound of despair. Mitt Romney’s stonewall refusal to advertise his many good deeds may have been politically frustrating in contrast, but it was almost certainly preferable to this crass spousal rodomontade.
Alas, long gone are the noble days in which politicians were expected pretend that they had neither interest in ascending to a position of power nor confidence that they would be up the task if selected. In the age of “Mission Accomplished,” Greek columns, and “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” the games that the Founders played — including, it must be said, ostensibly “reluctant” George Washington — look distant and quaint. That self-promotion would trump faux-humility was almost certainly inevitable — neither reluctance nor reticence are likely springboards to political success in our Look At Me culture — but it would nevertheless be nice if at least some bashfulness remained.
Instead, we have constructed a cult. Certainly, the American presidency was trending toward Caesaropapism before Barack Obama was elected, but the explosion of technology and the president’s inexhaustible attempt to turn himself into a brand have made things considerably worse. Much of our electorate now lives part-time in a social-media netherworld that makes hero worship not just easy but casual, and the temptation towards recruiting distant figures in locum parentis has proven too much for some. Arguing for more gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, the comedian Chris Rock horrified those of us who cling bitterly to notions of limited government by suggesting that Obama was “our boss” and “the dad of the country.” “When your Dad says something,” Rock added. “You listen.”
As perverse as Rock’s transmutation of public service into parental guidance is, he’s actually slightly off in his estimation of what the commander-in-chief has become in 2013. That is to say that Obama is less Julius Caesar than he is a tribune of the plebs — an Oprahfied avatar that has been custom-designed both to indulge and guide the public sentiment like so many Bill Clintons feeling your pain. Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere can credibly complain this week that Obama’s behavior means he “risks looking like a bystander to his own presidency,” and the lament that both this president and the wider Left cannot get themselves out of “outsider” mode is without question a fair one. But Dovere misses the point: Obama doesn’t want to be on the inside. He is better off swimming down the middle stream of the culture.
The peculiar truth is that there are a host of Barack Obamas. Once upon a time, an American president was limited by reality. He could make one speech at a time, lobby Congress one issue at a time, and tour the country locality by locality. Now, there is Barack Obama the human being; Barack Obama the Twitter avatar, whose words are written by a team; Barack Obama the website; Barack Obama the 501(c)3. It’s exhausting. The “Big Brother!” character in George Orwell’s 1984, remember, was not insidious solely because the government he represented was all-powerful and all-seeing, but because he probably didn’t exist. Big Brother was just a construct — a human face and unitary focal point onto which an entire movement and power structure could project itself.
On this point, and as regards the wider problem of executive power, conservatives indulge a certain cognitive dissonance, preferring to critique the man and not the trend. I have, by way of example, always failed to understand the obsession that self-described defenders of liberty have with the president’s playing golf. As far as I am concerned, he can’t play enough golf. Bluntly, it is inconsistent to covet limited government, the reduction of state intrusion in private life, and a weaker executive branch and also to gripe that the executive doesn’t spend enough time working. The Texas legislature meets only every other year, which is great. Right? Pick your poison, guys.
William Gibson’s second novel, Idoru, tells the tale of Rei Toei, a Japanese pop singer who becomes a national idol. Rei Toie is not in fact a real person, but instead an artificial intelligence that adapts to her interactions and adjusts herself to become whatever her viewers want her to be. She is, in other words, all things to all people. This president is too fond of slamming his opponents to be able to become an effective Rei Toei, but he nevertheless exhibits some of the traits that one would expect from an adaptive avatar. Every country, we learned in 2012, is Obama’s closest ally; every issue provokes his concern; all the talents are belong to him.
This model, one suspects, might be diminished slightly with a less celebrated president. But technology and the human tendency toward monarchy are likely to ensure that it will be here in essence for the long term. That is, unless Americans actively resist it. Looking forward, those who prefer their presidents quiet and their republics modest might consider focusing their attentions not on replacing Rei Toei’s software and spinning up a new personality to replace the old one, but instead upon pulling the plug completely, and reminding the head of the executive branch that he is not the roaming repository of the country’s hopes and fears, but instead a servant there to do a particular job — no more, and no less.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.