Lack of self-awareness is an occupational hazard of politicians. They receive flattery and unearned praise from supporters and favor-seekers. They listen to the applause of crowds. The importance of their office easily transmutes into self-importance. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a politician as completely out of touch with his own behavior and so mistaken about his own abilities as this president.
It is easy to see how this came about. Barack Obama was heralded all his life for showing up and being articulate. He was not required to publish much of anything as head of the law review or as a law school instructor or champion of important legislation as a state or U.S. senator. His great talent is in speaking and writing about himself (often inaccurately). And yet few politicians were ever glorified by elites to the degree this president was when he ran in 2008. They gave him a Nobel Prize for doing nothing, for heaven’s sake. It is hardly surprising then that Obama’s self-imagine bears little relationship to his behavior and that his self-conception radically departs from reality.
Take his praise for Nelson Mandela. It is largely about him! He wouldn’t be Obama without Mandela. Mandela influenced him. Mandela was an inspiration to him. But enough about him, what did Mandela think of him? Seriously, this president has a knack, whether speaking about the Holocaust or a 20th-century giant, to focus on himself rather than the subject at hand. Moreover, so many of the qualities he praises in Mandela — his large spirit and commitment to human rights, to name two — are entirely foreign to Obama. This is not a man, however, to cringe at the comparison; in his mind he is Mandela’s current incarnation.
He plainly considers himself expert in (and therefore directs personally) foreign policy. He knows more than anyone else, you see. But he really doesn’t. (Interestingly, unlike many presidents including Harry Truman and George W. Bush, Obama is not a reader of history; his taste tends toward trendy fiction. I’ll go out on a limb and say if given a test on important historical events and issues he’d match up poorly against most of his predecessors.) He told us he understood the “Muslim world” (itself a misnomer) because he lived among Muslims as a child, but rarely (never?) have we had a president who understood less about the dynamic among and within Muslim countries.
His utter cluelessness about himself comes out when he announces that the Obamacare rollout doesn’t reflect on his own management style. (You can’t make this stuff up.) He routinely berates his political opponents in highly partisan terms, which to men of lesser ego might suggest he’s among the most partisan presidents. His constant blame shifting (to the media, to his predecessor, to “business as usual in Washington”) routinely overlooks his own role in making or worsening problems. He often speaks almost as if he hasn’t been president for five years. Now that is a lack of self-awareness.
You can see it in the humor Obama employs. George W. Bush and to an extent Ronald Reagan were self-deprecating. Obama rarely is. He can’t bring himself to tease himself in public. His favorite rhetorical device is the straw man (what my colleague Ruth Marcus aptly described as the “false choice“), which allows him to distort his opponents’ arguments and elevate himself as the only reasonable man around.
Lack of self-awareness in this president also causes him, especially in the second term, to surround himself with compliant yes-men and political flunkies who don’t challenge him or deliver bad news. It prevents, I think, others from warning him that what he is saying isn’t true (whether it is the phony Iranian fatwa or the promise you can keep your doctor) and/or him from realizing he can’t get away with bald-faced falsehoods.
This, I suppose, is the curse of electing an unaccomplished president who runs as a cult figure. It’s the consequence of far too much fawning media treatment for way too long. This phenomenon has been evident to conservatives from the get-go, but as his presidency sinks under the weight of his own incompetence, the gap between his self-image and his performance has become cringe-worthy. Someone with a great deal of nerve should pull him aside and tell him so.