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How Obama Became a Publicist for His Presidency

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Posted on Mar 10, 2014

Photo by Igor Klisov (CC BY 2.0)

By David Bromwich, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said,  Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself.  “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers—a surprisingly wide range of them—have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant”  of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch—a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%.  But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office—or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

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What could have given Obama such a strange perspective on how the American political system was meant to work? Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate. At Harvard Law School, Obama had been admired by his professors and liked by his fellow students with one reservation: in an institution notorious for displays of youthful pomposity, Obama stood out for the self-importance of his “interventions” in class. His singularity showed in a different light when he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review—the first law student ever to hold that position without having published an article in a law journal. He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be “all of the above.”

This pattern—the ascent to become presider-in-chief over large projects without any encumbering record of commitments—followed Obama into a short and uneventful legal career, from which no remarkable brief has ever been cited. In an adjacent career as a professor of constitutional law, he was well liked again, though his views on the most important constitutional questions were never clear to his students. The same was true of his service as a four-term Illinois state senator, during which he cast a remarkable number of votes in the noncommittal category of “present” rather than “yea” or “nay.” Finally, the same pattern held during his service in the U.S. Senate, where, from his first days on the floor, he was observed to be restless for a kind of distinction and power normally denied to a junior senator.

Extreme caution marked all of Obama’s early actions in public life. Rare departures from this progress-without-a-trail—such as his pledge to filibuster granting immunity to the giants of the telecommunications industry in order to expose them to possible prosecution for warrantless surveillance—appear in retrospect wholly tactical. The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the U.S. senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.

The Man Without a Record

Many of these facts were rehearsed in the 2008 primaries by Hillary Clinton. More was said by the Republicans in the general election. Yet the accusations were thrown onto a combustible pile of so much rubbish—so much that was violent, racist, and untrue, and spoken by persons manifestly compromised or unbalanced—that the likely inference was tempting to ignore. One could hope that, whatever the gaps in his record, they would not matter greatly once Obama reached the presidency.

His performance in the campaign indicated that he had a coherent mind, did not appeal to the baser passions, and was a fluent synthesizer of other people’s facts and opinions. He commanded a mellow baritone whose effects he enjoyed watching only a little too much, and he addressed Americans in just the way a dignified and yet passionate president might address us. The contrast with George W. Bush could not have been sharper. And the decisiveness of that contrast was the largest false clue to the political character of Obama.


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