Barack Obama was never the enigma some thought him to be. His radical associations, his status as the Senate’s most liberal member, and the relentless ambition he had exhibited at every turn told us most of what we needed to know about what the substance of his presidency would look like.
Yet we had reason to hope for better when it comes to certain personality traits Obama has exhibited throughout his 15 months in office, some of which have been on particular display during the past few days. Consider first Obama’s lack of grace during his turn as a stand-up comedian at the White House Correspondent’s dinner on Saturday night. The event itself — and especially the spectacle of the U.S. president seeking yuks from media types through material written by others — is nausea-inducing. If Obama had refused to play that game, the departure from tradition would have been refreshing and praiseworthy.
But Obama chose instead (as he did last year) to depart from only that part of the tradition that involves self-deprecating humor. As the Washington Post reports, “except for a mild joke pegged to his falling approval ratings, Obama mostly spared Obama during his 14-minute stand-up routine.” By contrast, “Obama went all Don Rickles on a broad range of topics and individuals: Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presidential advisers David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, the news media, Jay Leno, and Republicans Michael Steele, Scott Brown, John McCain and Sarah Palin.”
As has often been the case, Obama’s ungracious approach on Saturday stands in marked contrast to that of his predecessors. At the height of the Whitewater scandal, President Clinton told the corresponding audience: “I am delighted to be here tonight, and if you believe that, I have some land in northwest Arkansas I’d like to sell you.” And President George W. Bush poked fun at himself in various ways over the years: by explaining what he really wanted to say on those occasions when he mangled his words; by using a Bush look-alike to exchange banter with him; and by having Laura Bush interrupt his remarks to offer her a comic take on her husband.
Obama’s stand-up act seems particularly unfortunate when juxtaposed with his commencement speech at the University of Michigan. There, Obama argued for a more civil, less bitter national discourse. That’s a fine sentiment, and the fact that in a vibrant democracy the U.S. president will always be subject to harsh criticism does not necessarily deprive him of standing to make the case for civility. But a president who uses the White House Correspondent’s dinner to zing his adversaries, yet is unwilling to follow the tradition of making fun of himself, can hardly expect us to take him seriously on the subject of civility.
Beyond Obama the ungracious and Obama the hypocrite lies Obama the naïf, a fellow who stays mostly in the shadows but emerges like clockwork when it’s time to deal with our foreign adversaries. Today, he emerged to tell the world how many nuclear weapons the U.S. has – 5,113 for those keeping score at home. In the past, the number has been a secret. According to the Washington Post, however, Obama believes that his “dramatic announcement [of the number] will further enhance [the administration’s] nuclear credentials as it tries to shore up the fraying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
It’s tempting to conclude that Obama doesn’t really think telling the world how many nukes we have will discourage our adversaries from building their own. It’s tempting to believe that Obama made the announcement to cast Israel – which has no intention of talking about its status when it comes nukes – in a bad light.
But drawing that conclusion would ignore Obama’s penchant for similar gestures designed to establish his bona fides with our enemies. It would ignore the bad-mouthing of his country on foreign soil, his willingness to negotiate with Iran in the absence of pre-conditions for the stated purpose of proving that the U.S. is no longer “arrogant,” and his betrayal of Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense in an attempt to curry favor with Russia.
If Obama is an enigma today, it’s because of the contrast between his remarkably open disdain for his domestic rivals and opponents on the one hand and his obsequious approach to the nation’s foreign adversaries on the other. As enigmas go, however, this one is more troubling than puzzling.
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