Thursday, April 14, 2011

Admit it, Obama’s Boring

Joe Biden’s congenital incapacity to follow protocol is endearing because he so often reminds us of things we think but are usually careful not to say out loud. His dozing off in the middle of a major Obama speech yesterday is a case in point. Most of us in his shoes would have used our handkerchiefs to conceal the fact that we were bored to tears, but we wouldn’t have been any less bored than Joe was. That calls to mind a remarkable, but largely unremarked, thing about Obama: he manages to sustain a reputation for being extraordinarily eloquent despite the fact that his major speeches are consistently boring.

Not that it’s unusual for a president to bore us. George Bush did it regularly, but for an entirely different reason. A couple of years into his presidency there was so little mystery about what his priorities were and how he’d apply them to the situation at hand that you could usually predict exactly what’d he say before he said it. Conservatives were reassured by Bush's moral clarity and liberals were appalled by his dogmatism, before they both dozed off while he was speaking, confident that they wouldn't be missing anything important.

By now we all know that, when Obama speaks, you’re going to hear a lot of tried and true rhetorical formulas. You know them as well as I do: some would say minus-x, others would say plus-X, I say zero; I reject the false choice between X and Y because we can have our X and Y it too; let me be absolutely clear, I will not permit X to happen (where X is something nobody wants or expects to happen); and etc.

The trouble is that, while it’s hard not to start nodding your head to Obama’s thoughtful-sounding cadences, it’s often harder still to identify the thought behind them. You can assure yourself that yesterday’s speech was no exception by submitting to this pop quiz: what is there to Obama’s “plan” to cut the deficit besides raising rich people’s taxes and not touching entitlements? Even those wonks who can remember the specifics can only be guessing about what they meant. So can you really blame Biden for using Obama’s address on the budget as an occasion for dreaming about fast cars and faster women?

As far as I can see, the explanation of the boredom Obama’s big speeches inspires has to take one of two forms. Either: (1) Obama’s head is chock full of well-articulated political principles that generate an orderly schedule of priorities but he’s not being forthright about what they are; or (2) ideologically speaking, there’s not much upstairs.  On the left-wing variant of (1), Obama’s boring because he lacks the fortitude to stand up for his principles in the heat of political battle. On the conservative variant of (1), Obama’s boring because he’s a closet Bolshevik too cunning to reveal his real ideology to gullible voters.

Explanation (2) is a lot less popular because it seems to fly in the face of the widespread perception that Obama’s a very smart and reasonably conscientious guy. Roger Simon (the one who runs PajamasMedia not the guy from Politico) is the only person I’ve heard forthrightly defend the proposition that Obama is boring because he’s empty-headed:
“What is it about Obama that makes him so boring? I submit it is something quite simple — he has nothing to say. He is a boring person, the quintessential ‘hollow man’ in the T.S. Eliot sense. He is kind of a socialist, kind of a liberal, kind of a multi-culturalist, kind of an environmentalist, kind of globalist, kind of a budget cutter — but none of them with any real commitment. Basically, he’s a vague and uncommitted person pretending to be otherwise. He is the man that voted 'present,' now in the presidency. The fact that he never specified the targets of 'hope' and 'change' during his election was far from a campaign ploy and more typical than we ever dreamed. There never was a there there. And now, I strongly suspect, there never will be.”
Before you dismiss that as an ideologically inspired caricature, try restating the essentials of Simon’s explanation in less disparaging terms. Suppose we say that Obama doesn’t have a well-defined and easily identified ideology because, having thought long and hard about it, he has decided that it isn’t a president’s job to have one. Suppose he thinks that the idea that a president should execute an ideological blueprint is an expression of hubris that’s likely to be self-defeating in the real world in which presidents have to operate. Suppose Obama’s pragmatism isn’t some sort of timid compromise with, or tactical accommodation to, the real world, but his best idea of how a real-world president should conduct himself.

The idea that it’s not the job of political leader to pilot the ship of state to any ideologically selected port (because it’s hard enough just keeping it afloat) has a long and distinguished intellectual pedigree. We usually don’t attribute it to center-left politicians because it’s associated historically with center-right thinkers like Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. But it’s a straightforward interpretation of what Obama has been telling us about himself all along.  Maybe that's what he means when he insists that he’s no ideologue, that he's not imprisoned by the “tired arguments of the past," etc.

If you’re a guy like me, who likes to think of politics as a battle of grand ideas, a president’s repudiation of ideology on these grounds makes his presidency morally unsatisfying and, yes, a little boring. You could call it “empty-headedness” if you want to be unkind. But it’s not something about himself that Obama has ever tried to conceal.  Maybe we should take him at his word.

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