Obama’s language is the temperamental equivalent of Tiger Woods’ libido. Both the president’s rhetoric and the golfer’s id want everything.
No, I’m not talking about some “black thing.” I’m talking about an “us” thing—about an American thing. When Obama gives a speech now, you think of people with no credit who want to buy a house with nothing down; of consumers of the news who want their information instant, accurate, and free; of the anonymous Internet hustler who promises different things to different people; of already wealthy investors who defraud their clients in order to become giddily wealthy; of champion athletes who take steroids to attain superhero status; of fame-hounds who want to hoax their way into a celebrity-life; of a certain rich and famous golfer, with a beautiful and by all accounts substantial wife, who seems to want to have sex with every woman he sees.
The president is like the character Chance in the novel and movie Being There, whose every fatuous utterance was celebrated for its profundity.
Obama got elected the way people used to rush out to get cortisone from their doctors once that miraculous-seeming drug became available. He was elevated by hope for an antidote to what felt like a toxic, degenerative condition. But rather than a cure for what ailed us, he more and more resembles the chronic condition itself—the contemporary American condition of wanting it all, right now, no matter the contradictions, and without having to give up anything in exchange.
Obama tells us that we can have quality, universal health care without increasing the deficit. He tells us that he intends to have the 9/11 detainees given a fair trial in a civilian court but assures us that the trials will end in convictions. He declares that he will wage war in Afghanistan, but pledges to start bringing the troops home in 18 months. And everybody nevertheless takes these contradictory, irreconcilable statements seriously, as they parse, analyze, scrutinize Obama’s every word for some kind of coherent meaning. The president is like the character Chance in the novel and movie Being There, whose every fatuous utterance was celebrated for its profundity.
Some of Obama’s defenders chastise his exasperated listeners for their inability to detect the president’s “complexity.” But a fantasy of universal popularity that panders to every conflicting interest simultaneously is not the same thing as “complexity.” It is complexity if I tell my wife that I have to move to another state where I know I can find work, but that I realize the strain it will put on our marriage, and that I know the effect it will have on our child, and that I am aware of the consequences of such an attempt if I don’t find a job, having spent so much money on moving and establishing myself in a new place. It is not complexity if I tell my wife that I have to move to another state where I know I can find work, but that I will be back next week, and with lots of money.
Women know guys like Obama, who say they’ll leave their wife for you, and then go home and swear through tears to an outraged wife that the affair is over, and return to you and say they’re going to leave their wife. All the while, they are playing a round of golf, religiously, every Sunday.
It’s often their status as powerful men in their realm that keeps them honorable in their own eyes. “I am all this, and no contradiction will stand in my way.” In Obama’s case, he is still being enabled by starry-eyed hope-addicts who at the same time don’t want to give up on their investment in his historical uniqueness. His constituents have become co-dependents.
The floridly equivocating Mario Cuomo was labeled “Hamlet on the Hudson” and dismissed from public life. Obama, on the other hand, keeps being defended as combining the wisdom of Socrates and the toughness of Joe Louis.
It is almost comical to see people take a passage in a speech by Johnson and put it alongside one from Obama’s West Point speech in order to contrast Obama favorably with LBJ. Johnson said: “This nation is mighty enough, its society is healthy enough, its people are strong enough, to pursue our goals in the rest of the world while still building a Great Society here at home.” Obama said: “In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our friends and neighbors are out of work and struggle to pay the bills, and too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children… So we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars.” The vapid conclusion? Obama is “complicatedly” treating us as adults by telling us that we cannot simultaneously wage war and take care of our injured economy. But he is still… simultaneously doing just that, no less than Johnson did. And to the tune of $30 billion, a sum which no one questions. (It will be three times that before we get out of there.)
Words, words, words. Perhaps because our grasp of language is slowly being eroded by screen culture and the compressions of textspeak, we are smitten with anyone who still knows how to speak correctly and, as the vocational coaches say, “effectively.”
Maybe one day, we will have a president who does not merely reflect who we are, but rises above us. Until then, we will have to suffer through another three years of a frivolous man who knows how to perform seriousness the way his weak and irresolute predecessor knew how to perform resolve. Either way, as the golfers put it, the country is in the rough.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.