The vanity of Barack Obama
But Obama’s vanity is overwhelming. It defines him, his politics, and his presidency.
It’s revealed in lots of little stories. There was the time he bragged about how one of his campaign volunteers, who had tragically died of breast cancer, “insisted she’s going to be buried in an Obama T-shirt.” There was the Nobel acceptance speech where he conceded, “I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war” (the emphasis is mine). There was the moment during the 2008 campaign when Obama appeared with a seal that was a mash-up of the Great Seal of the United States and his own campaign logo (with its motto Vero Possumus, “Yes we Can” in Latin). Just a few weeks ago, Obama was giving a speech when the actual presidential seal fell from the rostrum. “That’s all right,” he quipped. “All of you know who I am.” Oh yes, Mr. President, we certainly do.
My favorite is this line from page 160 of The Audacity of Hope:
I find comfort in the fact that the longer I’m in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes, that a striving for power and rank and fame seems to betray a poverty of ambition, and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience.
So popularity and fame once nourished him, but now his ambition is richer and he’s answerable not, like some presidents, to the Almighty, but to the gaze of his personal conscience. Which is steady. The fact that this sentence appears in the second memoir of a man not yet 50 years old—and who had been in national politics for all of two years—is merely icing.
There are lots of times when you get the sense that Obama views the powers of the presidency as little more than a shadow of his own person. When he journeyed to Copenhagen in October 2009 to pitch Chicago’s bid for the Olympics, his speech to the IOC was about—you guessed it: “Nearly one year ago, on a clear November night,” he told the committee, “people from every corner of the world gathered in the city of Chicago or in front of their televisions to watch the results of …” and away he went. A short while later he was back in Copenhagen for the climate change summit. When things looked darkest, he personally commandeered the meeting to broker a “deal.” Which turned out to be worthless. In January 2010, Obama met with nervous Democratic congressmen to assure them that he wasn’t driving the party off a cliff. Confronted with worries that 2010 could be a worse off-year election than 1994, Obama explained to the professional politicians, “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.”
In the midst of the BP oil spill last summer, Obama explained, “My job right now is just to make sure that everybody in the Gulf understands this is what I wake up to in the morning and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about: the spill.” Read that again: The president thinks that the job of the president is to make certain the citizens correctly understand what’s on the president’s mind.