If Barack Obama loses the presidency this November, it won’t be because of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, or “Bitter-gate,” or sundry other vulnerabilities. Instead, it’ll be because the public — and the pundits who tell them what to think about politics — has decided that Obama is a bit too big for his britches.
Yeah, that’s a strange assessment of someone who’s running for president. (“Why . . . he’s acting like he could be the leader of the free world!”) But in recent weeks, it’s become accepted political dogma. On July 18, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer outlined the Obama-as-narcissist case in a piece titled “The Audacity of Vanity.” Obama is a man of profoundly limited achievement, Krauthammer claimed. Yet he wants to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, put a faux presidential seal on his lectern, told Americans to learn a second language, and speaks of himself, using the royal “we,” as a harbinger of great change. “Who does he think he is?”, Krauthammer asked. “We are getting to know. Redeemer of our uninvolved, uninformed lives. Lord of the seas. And more.”
Leaving aside the obvious problems with Krauthammer’s argument — e.g., Obama’s use of “we” is a rhetorical device aimed at making his supporters feel like they’re part of a movement, not just a campaign — the fact that he made it hardly came as a surprise. Sneering conservative partisanship is, after all, Krauthammer’s whole shtick. And Krauthammer was merely following the lead that his candidate, John McCain, offered in February 2008 after the “Potomac Primary.” (McCain’s line: “I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need.”)
The avidity with which the rest of the press has embraced this line of reasoning, however, is a bit more unexpected. Two days after Krauthammer’s column ran, for example, Joan Vennochi, the fine Boston Globe columnist, cited (among other things) Obama’s trip to Europe, his upcoming nomination-acceptance speech in the Denver Broncos’ 75,000-seat stadium, and Michelle Obama’s purported affinity for Jackie Kennedy–esque dress as proof that “Obama has a crush on Obama.” (Pity the women whose husbands run for president. Judith Steinberg Dean was too shy and dumpy; Michelle Obama is so stylish and attractive that she’s proof of Obama’s Kennedy complex.)
The July 23 Globe, meanwhile, featured a news brief that mentioned Republican attempts to paint Obama as arrogant, hooked to the GOP’s dissemination of a Politico story on Obama’s appearance in Germany. But as media critic (and Phoenix alum) Dan Kennedy promptly noted on his Media Nation blog, instead of quoting fully from the Politico piece, the Globe quoted the GOP’s truncated press release — thereby doing the Republicans’ dirty work for them.
That same day, writing at time.com’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein had this to say about Obama’s failure, thus far, to reap any political benefit from his overseas trip: “The emerging conventional wisdom seems to be that the trip is a bit too grand, too . . . presumptuous and voters are wary of that.” After noting, parenthetically, that this characterization had a “subterranean tinge of racism,” Klein pressed on anyway: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama is paying a price for vamping about overseas [emphasis added] while banks are cratering, gas prices soar, and people are getting really, really nervous about their futures.”
The McCain campaign and the Republican Party have every reason to push the Obama-as-narcissist theme. For one thing, it jibes with a long-standing desire to pathologize liberalism. It’s also ingeniously suited to this particular campaign, since it turns Obama’s strengths into weaknesses and does the reverse with McCain’s liabilities. (Credit the GOP, yet again, for turning stylistic criticism into a major campaign theme.) Finally, it’s a crafty way of playing the race card — of essentially calling Obama an uppity black man without actually using those words.
But that’s exactly why the press should be very careful about joining the GOP chorus. To tilt the election by rehashing vague accusations about political style would be bad enough. Throw in the race-baiting component, and the narcissism/egotism/arrogance trope could end up making the press’s shameful slander of Al Gore in 2000 look, in retrospect, like Pulitzer bait.
If you’re a liberal, in the broadest contemporary sense of the term, the notion that your political philosophy is predicated on self-love may seem counterintuitive. After all, your conservative co-worker is the one who’s always bitching about taxes. You, on the other hand, are (relatively) happy to part with more of your own money so that government can help your fellow citizens. You worry about the poor, and the uninsured, and how many Iraqis have died since the US invaded in 2003, and the fate of the Earth. Your conservative co-worker worries about putting up a fence to keep out the “illegals.”