The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House

In an age of political messianism The Amateur may represent the last man standing.
Denyse O'Leary | 6 July 2012
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In The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, Edward Klein hopes to convince his readership that Obama should have only one term there. As former foreign editor of Newsweek and former editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine, he is someone whose views should be carefully considered. And that is why I found the book disturbing on a number of levels, and not perhaps for the reasons the author intends me to.

Up front: As a Canadian, I do not have a vote or a direct stake in the outcome of the 2012 American election. That said, I do not admire Obama’s style of leadership nor sympathize with most of his policies. More significantly, I believe the “messianic moment” that saw him elected is culturally repugnant to most Canadians.

Culturally repugnant? Well, it matters little to us if we don’t know the name of our prime minister, let alone of his wife. However, we shall never allow you to forget the name of our head of state: Her Canadian Majesty, Elizabeth II. All the rest is shrouded in the northern mist and obscured by the calls of the water birds.

Now, to business: Klein informs us that, in his book

We discover a man who blames all his problems on those with whom he disagrees (“Washington,” “Republicans,” “the media”), who discards old friends and supporters when they are no longer useful (Democrats, African-Americans, Jews), and who is so thin-skinned that he constantly complains about what people say and write about him. (p. 2)

Fine. But the first question a responsible American voter should ask is: Has that hurt Obama? And if not, why not?

Not only is Obama running ahead of his Republican challenger Mitt Romney (depending which goat’s entrails are being read at any given time), but in a key group vulnerable to the current high unemployment statistics -- young four-year college graduates -- he is way ahead. So if he is, as Klein insists (citing Bill Clinton), an “amateur” he is surely a gifted one.

I have no reason to doubt that the unflattering things that Klein writes about Barack and Michelle Obama are true, because they would likely be true of anyone who made it to the top in an age of imperial presidency. The Obamas dissed the Kennedys and the Clintons, as Klein says, but does anyone doubt that those power families would have done the same to the Obamas, given a chance? They all know the rules by which they play, live, and govern lavishly.

What are we to make, however, of Klein’s complaint that Obama did nothing for Jews ( pp. 155-81)? Or blacks (pp. 187-90)? Nothing, really, if they will not vote for his opponent in consequence. Presumably, Klein’s book went to press before the failed Governor Walker recall election in Wisconsin. There, Obama did not intervene to help the public employee unions. But why should he? Would the unions have threatened to support a Republican nominee if he didn’t intervene? If not, the unions must be content with a serious famine of crumbs from the presidential table, jostling all the others who have nowhere else to go.

That is simply what the politics of an imperial presidency is like. The President’s supporters are his serfs, not his free electors. Multiple, and mostly unbreakable, ties bind them to him, with whatever outcome for them.

It is distressing to learn that the Obamas dissed Oprah Winfrey, after she sacrificed so much to help them (in Klein’s version, at any rate (pp 137-46). But that is what you get when you lose your own social power in order to help others to imperial greatness. If Oprah didn’t know that, whatever was she thinking?

It’s the same with the Chicago African-American business professor, Steven Rogers (p. 32), to whose students Obama made grand promises. Welching on them later, Obama said to him, “Come on man, you should know better when politicians make promises.” Well, shouldn’t Rogers have known better? Knowing Obama’s ambition and narcissism, shouldn’t he have made sure he had something “on him” before he risked his local reputation to extend his support to him?

The best argument for African-American equality today is that the Obamas -- products of the new wealthy African-American class -- can behave just like the Clintons did (they also were famous for road kill).

And do the people who oppose Obama’s re-election know any reason that Mitt Romney might not behave the same? Do they know that the American public even ultimately cares? If so, Klein’s book will provide them with plenty of ammunition. But the book itself makes no such clear case.

There is a good reason for that. Much of Obama’s support today comes from the approximately half of Americans who do not pay income taxes, and receive considerable government benefits. Loss of the moral authority to judge the government that deposits the money into their bank accounts is the price they pay.

To see what this means, let’s take the heat off Obama. Consider, for example, Bill Clinton’s widely publicized bimbo eruptions. An American businesswoman who owned her own beauty parlour back when Clinton was threatened with impeachment could take any position on his sexual misdemeanours, on a scale ranging from moral outrage through hypocritical outrage, boredom and indifference, right up to sympathy and support due to his pro-choice stance. It was entirely her decision because her prosperity or otherwise was not much affected by goings-on in the Oval Office.

But what of the millions of Americans added to the food stamps program in recent years? How can they not sing for their supper before whatever candidate protects their much-needed entitlements?

And Mitt Romney, should he win, will face the same new order. Even if he does not wish to grow the numbers of dependents in order to create a new set of clients loyal to him, he must not create a panic against him among existing clients of the federal government.

The challenge any reformer faces is as great as the Civil War. Even a “successful” transition back to less dependence (and correspondingly more right to sit in judgment on government) would involve mass social disruption. Most of the world’s peoples who find themselves in this fix have opted for messianism, which Klein excoriates without seeming to understand it (see pp. 62-64).

Put simply, the dependent subjects need the President to have near-divine status. His rainbow halo is their only hope for continued sustenance. They will grant such a man vast powers and overlook vast failings or future threats, as long as they continue to feel personally secure under his rule. And despite the current US balance sheet, they do still feel secure.

That is well for Obama. The wrath against failed messiahs is historically legendary. The messianism of the Obama presidency is quite alien to the vision of America’s founders. The critical question is whether that matters any more. Obama detractor Klein does not do a very good job of convincing us that it does.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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