The President of Contempt
To Barack Obama, America is lovable in proportion to the love it gives him in return.
By BRET STEPHENS
Nixon was tricky. Ford was clumsy. Carter was dour. Reagan was sunny. Bush 41 was prudent. Clinton felt your pain. Bush 43 was stubborn. And Barack Obama is . . .
Early in America’s acquaintance with the man who would become the 44th president, the word that typically sprang from media lips to describe him was “cool.”
Cool as a matter of fashion sense—”Who does he think he is, George Clooney?” burbled the blogger Wonkette in April 2008. Cool as a matter of political temperament—”Maybe after eight years of George W. Bush stubbornness, on the heels of eight years of Clinton emotiveness, we need to send out for ice,” approved USA Today’s Ruben Navarrette that October. Cool as a matter of upbringing—Indonesia, apparently, is “where Barack learned to be cool,” according to a family friend quoted in a biography of his mother.
The Obama cool made for a reassuring contrast with his campaign’s warm-and-fuzzy appeals to hope, change and being the ones we’ve been waiting for. But as the American writer Minna Antrim observed long ago, “between flattery and admiration there often flows a river of contempt.” When it comes to Mr. Obama, boy does it ever.
We caught flashes of the contempt during the campaign. There were those small-town Midwesterners who, as he put it at a San Francisco fund-raiser, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them.” There were those racist Republicans who, as he put it at a Jacksonville fund-raiser, would campaign against him by asking, “Did I mention he’s black?” There was the “you’re likable enough, Hillary,” line during a New Hampshire debate. But these were unscripted digressions and could be written off as such.
Only after Mr. Obama came to office did it start to become clear that contempt would be both a style and method of his governance. Take the “mess we have inherited” line, which became the administration’s ring tone for its first two years.
“I have never seen anything like the mess we have inherited,” said the late Richard Holbrooke—a man with memories of what Nixon inherited in Vietnam from Johnson—about Afghanistan in February 2009. “We are cleaning up something that is—quite simply—a mess,” said the president the following month about Guantanamo. “Let’s face it, we inherited a mess,” said Valerie Jarrett about the economy in March 2010.
For presidential candidates to rail against incumbents from an opposing party is normal; for a president to rail for years against a predecessor of any party is crass—and something to which neither Reagan nor Lincoln, each of them inheritors of much bigger messes, stooped.
Then again, the contempt Mr. Obama felt for the Bush administration was merely of a piece with the broader ambit of his disdain. Examples? Here’s a quick list:
The gratuitous return of the Churchill bust to Britain. The slam of the Boston police officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates. The high-profile rebuke of the members of the Supreme Court at his 2010 State of the Union speech. The diplomatic snubs, petty as well as serious, of Gordon Brown, Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicolas Sarkozy. The verbal assaults on Wall Street “fat cats” who “caused the problem” of “10% unemployment.” The never-ending baiting of millionaires and billionaires and jet owners and everyone else who, as Black Entertainment Television’s Robert Johnson memorably put it on Sunday, “tried rich and tried poor and like rich better.”
Now we come to the last few days, in which Mr. Obama first admonished the Congressional Black Caucus to “stop complainin’, stop grumblin’, stop cryin’,” and later told a Florida TV station that America was losing its competitive edge because it “had gotten a little soft.” The first comment earned a rebuke from none other than Rep. Maxine Waters, while the second elicited instant comparisons to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech. They tell us something about the president’s political IQ. They tell us more about his world view.
What is it that Mr. Obama doesn’t like about the United States—a country that sent him hurtling like an American Idol contestant from the obscurity of an Illinois Senate seat to the presidency in a mere four years?
I suspect it’s the same thing that so many run-of-the-mill liberals dislike: Americans typically believe that happiness is an individual pursuit; we bridle at other people setting limits on what’s “enough”; we enjoy wealth and want to keep as much of it as we can; we don’t like trading in our own freedom for someone else’s idea of virtue, much less a fabricated concept of the collective good.
When a good history of anti-Americanism is someday written, it will note that it’s mainly a story of disenchantment—of the obdurate and sometimes vulgar reality of the country falling short of the lover’s ideal. Listening to Mr. Obama, especially now as the country turns against him, one senses in him a similar disenchantment: America is lovable exactly in proportion to the love it gives him in return.
Hence his increasingly ill-concealed expressions of contempt. Hence the increasingly widespread counter-contempt.
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