Politics

09.09.12

Obama Shrugged: The President Out–Ayn Rands Paul Ryan

Despite his ‘just like you’ campaign, the president is exceptional in every way. Judith Grey on how Obama—whether consciously or not—out-Rands Paul Ryan.

When Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, audaciously running against the Democratic Party’s heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, he was heard saying, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

Actually, I lie. 

Obama didn’t say that. Ayn Rand did.

While most associate the polarizing writer and philosopher with vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, in many ways, it’s Barack Obama—whether consciously or not—who seems to embody the causes she advocated.

Of course, Obama outrightly rejects Rand’s unwavering belief in laissez faire capitalism, but her commitment to hyperrationality, self-determination, and the pursuit of self-actualization have clearly been thematic in the president’s life.

Ryan, a self-proclaimed Rand disciple, on the other hand, embraces the philosopher’s economic principles yet less profoundly incarnates other aspects of her ideology. In 2005 he explained that the reason he “got involved in public service—if [he] had to credit one thinker, one person—it would be Ayn Rand.”

Since being tapped as vice-presidential candidate, however, Ryan has distanced himself from the controversial and—most relevantly—atheist philosopher in order to prevent alienating himself from the religious right.

Rand, if she were alive today, would have balked at Ryan’s blatant pandering.

In her bestselling book The Fountainhead, Rand expresses her disdain for those who compromise their values in an effort to appeal to others. She delivers the sentiment through the book’s hero, Howard Roark, an architect and aesthetic purist: “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.”

Thank goodness, Rand didn’t live to read Ryan Lizza’s recent portrait of Ryan in The New Yorker. Lizza reports that during his senior year at high school, Ryan was elected biggest brown-noser. She would have been appalled.

Obama also expresses concern about the forsaking of one’s ideals. In the speech he delivered after winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, he opines in a perhaps more temperate manner: “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.”

Much of the focus of both Obama’s and Rand’s literary works speak of fulfilling one’s potential, being true to one’s convictions, embracing one’s individuality, and singularity of vision.

In her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, the author implores her readers to pursue their dreams, realize their ambitions. “Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach,” she writes. “The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

Rand, if she were alive today, would have balked at Ryan’s blatant pandering.

This sentiment is echoed in a rally cry with which we are all very familiar: “Change will not come if we wait for some person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Obama reprised the refrain in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last week: “It was about you. My fellow citizens, you were the change.”

Both Obama and the heroes in Rand’s novels aim to live by example, pursue their vision with little to no compromise. In some ways, Barack Obama could be considered the Howard Roark of presidential politics.

When I contacted the Ayn Rand Institute to discuss this idea, Kurt Kramer, the organization’s media-relations representative, promptly replied to my inquiry: “I don’t think you’d be willing to print anything we would say about that. We believe that Rand would not view Obama as heroic in any way.”

When I assured him that The Daily Beast was nonpartisan, he directed me to Don Watkins, a fellow at the institute and coauthor of the forthcoming book Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government.

Watkins didn’t equivocate. “President Obama, unfortunately, has sought political power in order to interfere with individuals producing and profiting. He has denounced and mocked individualism for supposedly creating an ‘on your own’ economy. That’s not consistent with the person who is ambitious in the way an Ayn Rand hero is.”

When I asked about Paul Ryan’s Rand credentials, Watkins was equally as dismissive. “I don’t think there’s any politician today who is seeking to create a free society in a way that Ayn Rand advocated,” he said.

OK, maybe the case can’t be made that Obama would have made a great character for a Rand novel called something like The Changemaker, but that’s really not the point.

The point is that Obama has had an extraordinary life, accomplishing a broad range of achievements—in both the public and, yes, private sector alike. And, like Rand, he’s made millions in royalties from his writing.

He isn’t an average guy. He’s not like ordinary Americans. How many ordinary Americans do you know are biracial, were raised in two profoundly different cultures, have degrees from Columbia and Harvard, made president of the Harvard Law Review, taught constitutional law, have published two bestselling memoirs, have served three terms as a state senator and one as a U.S. senator, beat Hillary in a Democratic primary, became president at 46, have won the Nobel Peace Prize, and are loving husbands, fathers, and dog owners to boot?

Obama is exceptional in every sense. There’s no two ways about it.

And the question that lingers is why hasn’t his campaign embraced the fact? It could be that a “just like you” president plays better in the swing states. Or that they want to exaggerate the contrast between him and Mitt Romney.

Or maybe they’re afraid that if they emphasize the more extraordinary aspects of Obama’s biography, he won’t be remembered as the president who had the audacity to hope, he’ll just be known as a guy who had audacity.

If that were the case, Ayn Rand probably would have admired him for it. And perhaps even voted for him. As might have the people who buy the 800,000 books of hers sold in the U.S. every year.

It’s too bad. The way the Dems are playing it, those votes will most likely be going to his less worthy opponent, Rand-lite Ryan.