In the Arena


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Before September 11, Fouad Ajami was a well-regarded Middle East scholar. Since September 11, he’s had the distinction of coming from the region–he’s Lebanese–and being relentlessly wrong about it, especially the war in Iraq. More recently, since the arrival of Barack Obama, Ajami has expanded his area of inexpertise to include American domestic politics. And today, he hammers away at the President in very personal way on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page:

Mr. Obama’s self-regard, and his reading of his mandate, overwhelmed all restraint…

And later:

And then there was the hubris of the man at the helm: He was everywhere, and pronounced on matters large and small. This was political death by the teleprompter.

Americans don’t deify their leaders or hang on their utterances, but Mr. Obama succumbed to what the devotees said of him: He was the Awaited One. A measure of reticence could have served him. But the flight had been heady, and in the manner of Icarus, Mr. Obama flew too close to the sun.

The Icarus business has become a standard right-wing trope…although you’d think conservatives would be well-versed in Ronald Reagan’s first term, which featured a power dive in the polls as a result of a bum economy, a wholesale abandonment of conservative principles (three massive tax hikes in a row), then, finally, resurrection and a landslide reelection. Obama’s slight tack to the center in his State of the Union Address, on issues ranging from nuclear power to free trade, is presidential business as usual–distinctive only in the fanatic nature of the Republican opposition, which seems intent on opposing things it has always favored. (Including the health reform plan, which was based on a Heritage Foundation idea and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.)

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.”

Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Is it because Obama proposed a stimulus package (which helped to prevent a Depression)  or universal health care (which might have relieved untold misery)? You can question the politics of both initiatives, especially health care. You can question the execution. You can question the trust Obama placed in the sorry leaders of the Democratic Congress….although, wait, wouldn’t a President besotted with self-regard insisted on handling health care reform himself?

He gives speeches. Very solid ones, crammed with strong policy arguments. He reads them off a teleprompter…which leads some Republicans to wonder if, maybe, someone is feeding him these lines. But wouldn’t that be the opposite of self-regard? Indeed, the Republicans are tripping all over themselves with contradictory arguments–the President is egomaniacal…and yet weak. He’s an elitist intellectual…and yet too stupid to ad lib his speeches.

Yes, the President is a bit of a loner…and that can be a political liability, as I wrote last week. But I’ve never noticed in him the presence of overweening self-regard. Quite the opposite, in fact: he lacks the overt self-centeredness I’ve seen in other Presidents. He actually likes having conversations about policy with people who don’t agree with him. He has no time for sycophants.  (Hate to say this, Pete, but Obama’s lack of pretense reminds me quite a bit of George W.)

And I think this lack of neediness is driving conservatives nuts. Obama doesn’t have the personal problems that people like Wehner thought were so devastating and debilitating about Clinton–problems that Newt Gingrich once famously associated with liberalism (somewhere between his second and third marriages). Obama is, unfortunately for Republicans, uxurious. He is not quick to anger; he is unflappable. He is a small-c conservative, not very demonstrative.  He has obviously made mistakes–political mistakes, not personal ones–and he is moving to correct them now. I don’t know if he’ll succeed.

I suspect that these quiverings about Obama’s self-regard reveal more about the pathologies of his accusers than about the President. And I’m sure, if he notices this phenomenon at all, he will see it for the psychobabbly trash it is.

And Furthermore: Perhaps the last word on Obama’s alleged self-regard should be his “question time” performance with House Republicans last Friday. He was modest, civil and accurate. He admitted mistakes, but called out the Repubs when they were retailing baloney…I can’t remember another President with the confidence to go into the lion’s den like this–that’s self-regard you can believe in! (And I hope he continues to do it.)