Wreck-It Barack

Column: Unscripted Moments Damage Obama’s Carefully Built Image

July 27, 2012

One cannot help noticing the struggle between Barack Obama’s natural instincts and the serene and benevolent persona he projects to the world. Beneath the visage of a cosmetically populist, post-racial, post-partisan reformer who wants to "perfect" America and to have "millionaires and billionaires" "pay their fair share" is just another condescending, self-important, sarcastic, academic liberal Democrat, who believes in false consciousness and in scholastic theories that success in life can be attributed to birth or luck or community but not to individual effort and grit. Obama may be talented at self-fashioning, but he cannot maintain his public face constantly. The mask sometimes slips.

The real Obama emerges. He lets loose in the self-consciously ironic and pretentiously omniscient argot of the American ruling class, lecturing audiences in what he, Elizabeth Warren, and the segment producers at MSNBC treat as the new catechism. The reaction to these gaffes is always the same. His remarks spark justified criticism. There is a frenetic effort to paper over his comments and restore the impression that he is just another dad who wants to take care of one big American family. He and his lieutenants and other members of the "truth" posse indulge in mock outrage. They say the president’s words have been distorted, that he did not really say what he said, that he meant something else entirely. The activity is convulsive and furious because David Axelrod and David Plouffe understand that an unplugged Obama will damage his brand. He is not actually likable at all. And he is liable to wreck years of hard work and mythmaking the moment he goes off script.

That is the "context" behind the president’s July 13 outburst in Roanoke, Virginia:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.)

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The focus has been on Obama’s words in the second paragraph: "If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen." But this misses the point. Whether or not "you didn’t build that" refers to the "roads and bridges" of the previous sentence is irrelevant.

The truly revealing and disturbing idea is in the first paragraph, in which the president of the United States of America, the richest nation in the world, says he is "always struck" by "people who think" that individual smarts and hard work are responsible for success. The fools! Don’t they know achievement is a function of lavish government contracts to education and construction unions? Can’t they comprehend that innovation results from taxpayer-financed loan guarantees to companies owned by Democratic Party donors?

If the sentiments expressed in Roanoke really were as innocent and commonplace and "pro-business" as the Obama campaign and its apologists would have us believe, there would have been no need for the president to release an advertisement saying his words had been taken "out of context"; for his deputy campaign manager to record a three-minute video gushing over small business; for some peon on Jim Messina’s 700-person staff to design a shoddy website rebutting "Mitt Romney’s Misleading Attack Ads." The media would have continued to engage in Jesuitical reading and interpretation of Romney’s contract with Bain Capital, and in gnostic speculation about the contents of the former Massachusetts governor’s tax returns. The plan to negatively define, and thus destroy, Romney would be proceeding apace. Obama ruined the story—and not for the first time.

"Obama’s biggest blunder yet" is how the incumbent’s most devoted Internet advocate described the moment when the first gay president spoke his mind to the raucous Virginia crowd. And indeed, there have been plenty of other blunders, stretching back many years. One could write a history of the Obamian Slip, telling the story of those instances when the president inadvertently disclosed his inner self, and diverted from the Axelrod message of hope and change and unity.

A rough timeline might look something like this. On July 23, 2007, at the CNN-YouTube Democratic primary debate, then-senator Obama made his ludicrous and unrehearsed pledge to meet personally with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in the first year of his administration. There was the stunning January 5, 2008, debate before the New Hampshire Primary, when Obama insulted the former First Lady and two-term New York senator Hillary Clinton by sneering she was "likable enough." On April 6, 2008, he told a rather cartoonish audience at a San Francisco fundraiser that "it’s not surprising" he wasn’t winning the votes of working-class whites in the Democratic Party, because years of betrayal by the political class had made them "get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or ... uh, anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The blunders do not stop. Obama’s August 22, 2009, remark at a press conference that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" by arresting a disorderly Harvard professor created such controversy that the president hurriedly convened a slapdash "beer summit" that seemed like a parody of racial comity. The next January, while campaigning for Massachusetts’ attorney general Martha Coakley to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, Obama seemed obsessed with Republican state senator (and eventual victor) Scott Brown’s pickup truck, poking fun at it repeatedly during a last-minute campaign rally. A month later, at the health-care summit, Obama could not hide his contempt as John McCain explained why his constituents and a national majority opposed the president’s proposal for a health-care overhaul. When McCain finished, Obama dismissed him by sniping that "The election’s over," as though the four-term senator had no legitimate grounds for opposition.

Obama’s impromptu rhetoric is laced with the arch, dry, and bitter humor of the liberal bourgeois who write our newspapers and magazines and books and Comedy Central "news" shows. This is the cynical and snarky voice that informs comments such as "You’re likeable enough" and "the election’s over" and, at the June 13, 2011, meeting of the president’s jobs council, "Shovel ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected."

The critical detachment with which the president sees himself, his office, and his country is also apparent. He thought he could confide to Dmitri Medvedev that a second term would give him "more flexibility" to negotiate away America’s missile defenses, nuclear arsenal, and interest in democracy and human rights within the Russian near-abroad. A "hot mic" spoiled it for him. Obama thought he was stating the obvious when he said "The private sector is doing fine" in his June 8 press conference. Anemic private sector job creation, minimal GDP growth, stagnant wages and incomes, weakening manufacturing, record-low yields on U.S. Treasuries, and the longest sustained period of over 8 percent unemployment since the Great Depression all suggest otherwise.

Since 2007, Obama has been able to maintain a façade of positivity, nationalism, and mainstream goodwill, even as he harbors ideas, attitudes, and reflexes peculiar to a highly educated and overly compensated legal, corporate, and cultural elite. But the foundation of his appeal is eroding. The negative campaign against Romney accelerated the process. Obama’s favorability ratings are down. Democratic enthusiasm is down. The Roanoke speech—"You didn’t get there on your own"; "There are a lot of smart people out there"; "You didn’t build that"; "Somebody else made that happen"—may come to be seen as the juncture when the president sundered the connection he forged with America in the summer of 2004.

Who will be blamed for demolishing such a dazzling countenance? Obama alone. Nobody else made that happen.