Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Presidential Narcissism

 I started reading Ron Suskind's latest book last night, anxious as the next reader to get to the juicy parts about interpersonal strife within the administration and Obama’s not being up to his job. Maybe I’ll have a little something to say on those topics when I get to them, but I was struck in the early going by Suskind’s recitation of a story that David Axelrod told him. I’m not sure how credible Suskind is in general, but I credit this story because other sources have reported substantially the same thing.

Here’s the story: Obama had convened a meeting of his most trusted aides in Axelrod’s Chicago office in December of 2006 to decide, once and for all, whether he’d run for president in 2008. The discussion had mostly been about scheduling, fundraising and campaign logistics until Michelle Obama memorably elevated its plane:
“[I]t was Michelle, Axelrod remembered, who stopped the show.

“‘You need to ask yourself why you want to do this,’ she said. ‘What are you hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?’ Obama sat quietly for a moment, while everyone waited to hear what he would say.

“‘This I know,’ Obama said. ‘When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.’”
This is the part of the book in which Suskind is telling us what a magnificent intellectual and moral specimen Obama is, better, I gather, to dramatize his fall from grace down the road. So the story wouldn’t be in the book’s early chapters, and Axelrod wouldn’t have shared it with Suskind in the first place, if they weren’t both bowled over by Obama’s answer. If you have any doubts on that score, here’s Suskind laying it on thick about what those words tell us about the man:
“This battered and downcast nation, [Obama] believed, was ready—eager, even—to prove the truth of its sacred oaths and, in so doing, prove itself once again to the broader world: liberty and justice for all. If through his own ambitions he could offer the country a chance to step forward, the country just might rise to the occasion and step with him into a brighter future.”
Let’s be generous enough not to hold Suskind’s grandiosity against Obama and empathetic enough to appreciate why Obama would be contemplating what his presidency would mean to millions of non-white American kids. That leaves us with the bit about Obama’s aspiration to make “the world . . . look at us differently.” I confess that I’m bowled over by Suskind and Axelrod being bowled over by that part of Obama’s answer.

Try imagining what other people who’ve either recently been, or gotten close to being, president might have said if they were asked the question Michelle Obama put to her husband. Here’s what I come up with when I do: Bill Clinton would have spoken of his determination to see the middle class get a fair shake and modernize liberalism as a governing philosophy; Al Gore would have said something about saving the planet; when he was contemplating running for reelection, George W. Bush would have talked straightforwardly about winning the War on Terror; Hillary Clinton’s answer probably would have been an up-dated version of her husband’s; and John McCain’s probably would have involved seeing to it that the nation lives up to the challenges of being a great power.

Maybe you think that, when they sought or captured the presidency, these people had different overriding objectives than the ones I’ve attributed to them. But I’ll bet we can all agree that they all aspired to get a few big things done that answered to their own standards of presidential leadership. Presumably, they'd have cared more about that than the approval of people subscribing to incompatible standards.  Not that they were indifferent to whether they, and the country they proposed to lead, were esteemed. But we'd have expected them to regard securing such esteem as the gratifying byproduct of their doing genuinely estimable things, not the primary objective of their presidencies.

If you take Obama at his word (or, more precisely, take Axelrod and Suskind at their word about Obama's words), with him it was the other way around.  Upon reflection, he was more interested in being esteemed, rather than doing estimable things. In his mind, his offering himself as object of general appreciation would foment an orgy of esteem; people across the world appreciating Obama would think more highly of us all for duly appreciating him as well, thereby enabling us to repair the damage Bush had done to our self-esteem.  In this enterprise, I can't see why it would be very important for Obama to develop, and measure up to, his own standards of presidential performance as long as he was measuring up to the standards of the people wearing themselves out appreciating him and each other.

I'm trying to figure out what I find more remarkable: the fact that Obama wasn’t embarrassed to put his narcissism on display before a room full of high-powered advisers, or the fact that Axelrod and Suskind expect us to be inspired knowing that he did.


Anonymous said...

I wasn't planning on reading Suskind's book, and now for sure I won't.

But I can't help being shocked by all of this.

This is who we elected? This is our president? I'm astonished by this display of narcissism. Frankly, it disgusts me.

Please, please, please -- can we have a primary challenge?

Anonymous said...

Give the guy a break. Obama wasn't the only one who thought electing a black man president was a big deal. He was just saying something on everyone's mind.