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The callow president

Posted: August 10, 2014 - 5:18pm

“Stop just hatin’ all the time.” If you haven’t been following the news, you might not know whether this bon mot was uttered by a character on the ABC Family show “Pretty Little Liars” or by the president of the United States.

Of course, it was the leader of the free world at a Kansas City, Mo., rally last week, imploring congressional Republicans to start cooperating with him. The line struck a characteristically — and tellingly — juvenile and plaintive note.

How many books and articles have been written by conservatives seeking to divine the philosophical beliefs and psychological motivations lurking beneath the president’s smooth exterior?

It’s certainly true that the president is much further left than he’d ever admit, but the deepest truth about Obama is that there is no depth. He’s smart without being wise. He’s glib without being eloquent. He’s a celebrity without being interesting. He’s callow.

It’s a trope on the right to say that Obama has quit, that he’s not interested in the job anymore. It isn’t true. If you are smug and unwilling to bend from your (erroneous) presumptions of how the world works, this is what presidential leadership looks like.

Obama is incapable of the unexpected gesture or surprising departure. He evidently has no conception of the national interest larger than his ideology or immediate political interests. In terms of his sensibility, he’s about what you’d get if you took the average writer for The New Yorker and made him president of the United States.

The notion that Obama might be a grand historical figure was always an illusion, although at the beginning his rousing words lent it some superficial support. Once the magic wore off, it became clear he’s not really an orator. His greatest rhetorical skill turns out to be mockery.

The man who once promised to transcend political divisions is an expert at the stinging partisan jab. What Winston Churchill was to thundering statements of resolve, he is to snotty put-downs.

During the 2012 campaign, he hit Republican nominee Mitt Romney with relish over his promise to cut funding for public television: “Elmo, you better make a run for it.” He has called the Ryan budget a “meanwich.” He has made the Republican reaction to his lawlessness an ongoing joke.

His natural venue is the fundraiser or campaign rally, any gathering of adoring partisans who don’t need convincing that he’s the greatest wit since Oscar Wilde. They soak up his faux folksy, g-droppin’ assurances that he’s working for ordinary “folks,” and laugh at anything they suspect might be one of his brilliant barbs. Not since Thomas Jefferson took snide swipes at the Federalists ...

The president’s constant complaints about everyone else in Washington playing politics while he high-mindedly devotes himself to substance have all the maturity of Holden Caulfield’s plaints about “phonies.” Please, grow up.

Ever since he lost the House in 2010 and could no longer operate on the basis of sheer brute force, the president has relied almost entirely on tactical cleverness. It has been impressive on its own terms, whether it involves the invention of the “war on women” in 2012 or the double-dog dare to Republicans to impeach him now.

But this is basically all he’s got -- besides his infamous “pen and phone.” He has already expanded the powers of the office beyond their legitimate bounds and may well take another quantum leap with an executive amnesty. But rarely has the presidency felt so small, at the same time discontents at home and chaos abroad loom so large.

Chris Cillizza wrote a post for The Washington Post the other day titled, “It’s virtually impossible to be a successful modern president.” This echoes analysis from the late 1970s that America had become ungovernable. It hadn’t. It just had puny presidents not up to the challenges of the day.

It’s not “hatin’” to expect something better -- or at the very least a little less pettiness.

Rich can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com

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