The First Offender

Obama Has a Mean Streak and He Turned It on Romney This Week

When he feels cornered, the president knows how to fight dirty, writes Lloyd Grove.

Nati Harnik / AP Photo

Never mind “cow pie of distortion”—President Obama’s earthy attack on Mitt Romney that dominated the headlines Thursday night from his barn-burner at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

The psychological heart of Obama’s campaign speech was “prairie fire of debt,” the phrase that set up his scatological punch line.

“I know Gov. Romney came to Des Moines last week,” the shirt-sleeved, sweating Obama told a crowd of fervent supporters. “Warned about a ‘prairie fire of debt.’ That’s what he said. ‘Prairie fire.’ But he left out some facts. You know, his speech was more like a cow pie of distortion.”

Taken at face value, the president was simply quoting his Republican opponent to buttress his argument that Romney’s economic proposals were nothing but a throwback to George W. Bush’s disastrous policies that produced financial meltdown and a near-depression.

But there was something darker and sharper lurking just below the surface, in Obama’s facial expressions, body language, and mocking tone of voice: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the president has a mean streak.

“He does have a very biting side to him, which he inherited from his mother,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Maraniss, whose much-anticipated Barack Obama: The Story will be published next month. The late Ann Dunham “could be very sarcastic, but she never addressed it to people who were vulnerable,” Maraniss continued. “Obama has got that style that comes out when he’s in combat or competitive.”

Let’s return to the “prairie fire” moment, around 28 minutes into the videotape of Obama’s speech. The president’s tone drips with sarcasm, especially when he shouts the phrase “prairie fire!,” raising his left arm in mock-alarm, and punctuates the gesture with a suppressed giggle.

It’s not difficult to interpret the thrust of Obama’s non-verbal communication: Romney, Obama would have us believe, is not only awkward and uncool but a comically clumsy panderer who uses crudely calculated rhetoric to appeal to whomever he imagines he’s trying to woo.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said it reminded him of the Saturday Night Live skit during the 1988 presidential campaign, in which Jon Lovitz—playing a smoothly articulate Michael Dukakis in a debate with Dana Carvey’s panicked, tongue-tied George H.W. Bush—sighs in exasperation, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

In Iowa, Obama “was on an eye-roll—which is what the cool kids always do,” Sabato went on. He jokingly added: “They eye-rolled at me a lot when I was in Catholic school and it still hurts after all these decades.”

There was a similar moment earlier in the fairgrounds speech, around 15 minutes in, when Obama quoted Romney’s notorious observation that “corporations are people.” “‘Human beings, my friends’—that’s what he said,” Obama added, doing a naughty Romney impression.

This was a case where imitation was decidedly not the sincerest form of flattery.

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Washington psychiatrist Justin A. Frank, the author of book-length psychological studies of the 43rd and 44th presidents—the most recent being last year’s Obama on the Couch—recalled how Obama similarly bared his fangs during a debate with rival candidate Hillary Clinton in January 2008.

When Sen. Clinton was asked to account for polls that suggested New Hampshire voters personally liked Obama better, Clinton offered, “That hurts my feelings…I don’t think I’m that bad,” and Obama smugly chimed in, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

“It’s his use of mockery,” Frank said. “He has a way of putting people down that is somewhat reminiscent—I hate to say this—of George Bush.” Frank recalled a presidential press conference in October 2003, when Bush famously insulted Associated Press radio correspondent Mark Smith by saying that he had “a face for radio.” When Smith replied, “I wish I could say that was the first time you told me that, sir,” noting that Bush had said it once before in front of Smith’s wife, Bush gloated, “The first time I did it to a national audience, though!”

Frank explained: “Everybody has sadistic impulses, and usually they come out when people are feeling cornered. Bush had no filters on his sadism. He just attacked. Obama processes his sadism to the point where he gets somewhat more acceptable. It’s actually mocking a person, like Romney, but it’s also mocking his ideas … The eye-rolling is something his mother did. It’s a way of putting someone else down without ever being directly confrontational.”

Increasingly in the past few weeks, especially since Obama formally declared his candidacy for reelection and the former Massachusetts governor has begun pulling even with him in public opinion surveys, the president is embracing full-frontal combat. Frank theorized that Obama is simply “annoyed,” much like Jon Lovitz’s Dukakis, that a man he considers his political inferior is suddenly in a position to beat him. “He has an edge to him, and the edge comes out when he’s feeling pressed,” Frank said.

“There are two kinds of fighting—narcissistic fighting and Oedipal fighting,” Frank went on. “Oedipal fighting is father and son rolling up their sleeves and duking it out. Narcissistic fighting is putting yourself above the opponent by putting him down. I think Obama does both. He knows how to be a narcissistic fighter and an Oedipal fighter. He knows how to argue about policy and argue with people. Be he also has this other part of him—and I don’t know where it comes from—that’s like this pocket of nastiness.”