Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fourth Best President?: The Unbearable Heaviness of Obama’s Ego

Barry Rubin

In his interview with “60 minutes,” President Barack Obama said he was the “fourth-best president.” This was cut from the program. Since it is such a compelling statement, I can only presume it was cut—like so many other things that were great in journalistic terms—to keep Obama from looking bad.

But those making fun of Obama for this statement have just skimmed the surface. Actually, there is a lot to be discovered from really examining what he said. And, before proceeding, I should note that my main professional training was in U.S. history—just to make clear that I’m treating this seriously and from a basis of study.

First, Obama showed how he takes the total support of the mass media for granted something inconceivable for any previous president. He begins:

"The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president….”

In other words, Obama is attributing the fact that he’s a great president to the interviewer, Steve Croft. According to Obama, Croft has already proclaimed him to be wonderful. Obama is just going along with what the media said. It has often been remarked that Obama is a narcissist but what we see here is actually dangerous, a man who really cannot take criticism into account. Any leader, except a dictator (and as a result they make lots of mistakes) needs to listen to criticism and adjust policies, not necessarily change them entirely but alter them to deal with facts and opinions.

Note in Obama’s case how his new “jobs bill” is merely a repeat of the failed stimulus. And similar things can be said about his foreign policy. He simply does not take in developments and criticism. This is parallel to a ship’s captain being warned that there’s a big ice berg ahead and continuing with his speech about how he has set the perfect course.

This theme is reinforced by his saying, “The issue here is not going be a list of accomplishments.” In other words, no one can even dispute that he has had great accomplishments. The science is settled; debate is closed. This also tells us that if Obama gets a second term he won’t do any better at all.

The end of the quote is also patronizing: But, you know, but when it comes to the economy, we've got a lot more work to do." Yes, that minor problem of the economy.

But in terms of history, what Obama says has been misinterpreted:

“I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president —with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln—just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history.”

In passing, let’s note that Obama is one of the most inarticulate of all presidents.
He finds it difficult to construct a proper sentence. Take away the hype and his level of expression is on the same level as that of George W. Bush. And that is not meant to be exaggerated. I think it is precisely accurate.

But to be fair to Obama, he was only referring to the first two years of previous presidents. Indeed, during their first two years in office, neither Roosevelt nor Lincoln had any great foreign policy accomplishments at all. And Johnson’s main “accomplishment,” tragically, was the Vietnam War.

So, starting with Lincoln, what presidents had great foreign policy accomplishments in their first two years? Between 1861, when Lincoln took office and 1941—with the exception that proves the rule of 1917-1920—the United States was pretty isolationist and not a great power.

I would say that the president with the greatest foreign policy record in his first two years was Harry Truman, who had to deal with the end of the war with Japan, get the armed forces home, and deal with the political end of World War Two, the transformation of America into a peacetime great power, and the acceptance of the need to fight the Cold War.

Other top presidents on foreign policy in the first two years would be—in chronological order-- Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and George Bush. I’d explain in detail but it would take too much space.

What has Obama accomplished? He can only claim one thing: to have made America more popular after George W. Bush. There is some truth to this but it is exaggerated. In fact, while at first there was a popularity effect but it has diminished and, anyway, popularity is not the most important thing in international affairs.

Obama has not accomplished anything in Africa, Asia, or South America. There has not been any major gain in relations with Russia either. U.S.-European relations are friendly but are this some great accomplishment? As for the Middle East, Obama has been disastrous. He singlehandedly sabotaged the peace process and has opened the door to anti-American radical regimes.

Can anyone seriously maintain that Obama has achieved a huge amount beyond “restoring” America’s popularity to—though he and his supporters never admit this—to the levels it enjoyed under Bill Clinton?

Then there’s domestic policy. And here we must point out an important Obama assumption. A great president is someone who can brag about “what we’ve gotten done” by getting new laws passed. I think Obama genuinely doesn’t understand that having new laws—more spending; more regulation—is not inevitably better.

Thus, a president can also be great for not messing up the non-governmental sector, for not passing new laws. From Grant to McKinley, along with Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, rapid economic progress and prosperity took place precisely because they didn’t get too much “done” in Obama’s sense of the word. That is vital to understand. America would be better off if Obama had done less.

As for activist presidents, though, I’d nominate for achievement in their first two years, Teddy Roosevelt brought needed regulation, one might also list Franklin Roosevelt, Truman (who for some reason Obama continues to ignore), and Johnson. Actually, I’m not sure Lincoln would qualify despite his greatness since the first two years of his term was spent fighting a largely losing Civil War.

You might well want to change that list of best presidents on foreign or domestic issues but the point is that Obama doesn’t belong on it. I won’t go into detail about the damage that he did to the United States, especially economically, because you know about that already.

Finally, note that Obama said “possible exceptions” of Lincoln and the other two. Obama is saying that maybe he is number one, the best president ever. I’m not surprised that many Americans can’t believe that they’ve elected such a zany (to use a word applied to Newt Gingrich) person to power.

At a time of extreme crisis, at home and abroad, the man at the steering wheel is visibly ideologically obsessed, psychologically unfit, and not competent. Many people would dismiss that sentence with scorn and insults. But isn’t it obvious once the hype is discarded?

What is especially frightening here is Obama’s combination of egomania and blindness. Without self-criticism there is no room for improvement. Without humility, errors will multiply.

Pete Seeger is a left-wing songwriter and his song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”--about a foolish captain who marches his men into an impassable swamp--was used to attack Nixon. Yet I think it applies even better to Obama:

“Well, I'm not going to point any moral;

I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on….

“Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man'll be over his head! We're
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!”

Professor Barry Rubin, Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
The Rubin Report blog
He is a featured columnist at PJM
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor Turkish Studies,

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