Oh vanity, O’s vanity shows

Published 12:48 am Sunday, September 19, 2010

If Carly Simon were a conservative, she might be writing, “You’re so vain, you probably think this White House is below you,” to accompany the next big tea party rally.

Some of those who try to make some sense — or science — of politics for a living have been scratching their heads about President Obama lately. There was the ostentatious vacation, followed by the apparent boredom with the Iraq address that he didn’t even have to give, and certainly not in the way that he did — as a formal, primetime, Oval Office event. There was the wading (botched and incoherent) into the Ground Zero mosque debate. There is the constant belittling of his Republican critics, lowering the office of the president to attack the largely unknown House minority leader, John Boehner.

If you were a White House political strategist, you might be bewildered and dismayed, never mind stressed. If you are a Democrat in the unfortunate position of running for re-election, you’re running far away from wherever the commander in chief is, to the best of your ability — and your integrity, if that’s of concern to you. In short, none of this has proven to be smart politics, certainly not in the short term, at a time when the Democrats are sinking and could use a leader to lift them up — or at least not make it worse.

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Some of what Obama does can be attributed to a fondness for socialism. He has a very different understanding of the role of the federal government than some of us (who follow the Founding Fathers and the Constitution) do, on a number of issues. But matters of ideology aren’t sufficient for an attempt to understand Obama lately. He doesn’t seem to be an ideologue in the purest sense. He’s also not a long-term thinker in any kind of strategic, political or ideological way. He made a lot of Democrats fall on their swords for a healthcare plan that could conceivably be dismantled before it’s even close to fully implemented.

The answer for all the analysts may be just a bad, old-fashioned case of vainglory, one that the man just can’t keep in check. Thus the snippy Slurpee comments, about Republicans standing on the sidelines (drinking them). Besides the issues of truth — Boehner has been making concrete bipartisan proposals, so he can’t legitimately be attacked for standing on the sidelines — more Americans today could probably relate to 7-Eleven than to Martha’s Vineyard.

From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has not been fond of critics, real or imagined. And make no mistake: some of the critics he talks about are 100 percent straw men — the critics he broad-brushes without naming names, and the ones he names only to add the most manipulative mischaracterizations of their views. From early on, he reportedly had the audacity to ask elected officials, directly, not to take him on publicly. His version of bipartisanship requires the opposing side to abandon everything it stands for.

Obama is mired in the midst of a vainglorious fluster right now, and he seems to lack any self-awareness about it. In a classic campaign move, he appeared on daytime talk show “The View” this summer. On that a.m. gabfest, he said: “We shouldn’t be campaigning all the time.” He would go on to sound almost biblical about it: “There is a time to campaign and then there is a time to govern.”

There’s good news, though. His poll ratings are falling and the intensity of the rallies against his policies is mounting. Opposition-party candidates this year seem to have drive and backbone: They are not as ready to surrender their country to its remaking as Obama would like them to be; they want to have something to show for their time in Washington, and don’t simply want to lord their victory over others. They can see beyond themselves and their next election.

Only time will tell how this all shakes out, in November and thereafter. But there are warning signs. Boehner — and America — might just benefit from the summer bonfire of the presidential vanity. Politics works in mysterious ways.

(Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com). She can be contacted at klopez@nationalreview.com.)