Potus Self-Love?

Why the Right Thinks Obama’s a Narcissist—and Why They’re Wrong

Now some on the right think Obama says ‘I’ too much. In fact, he doesn’t. But what does it mean that they can’t stand to hear him say it?


Charles Krauthammer has told Fox News that President Obama is a narcissist. And he should know, because once he was a psychologist.

His evidence? Obama apparently says “I” too much. He’s all into himself instead of the country he’s supposed to be running. “Count the number of times he uses ‘I’ in any speech, and compare that to any other president,” limns Doctor Krauthammer. “Remember when he announced the killing of Bin Laden? That speech I believe had 29 references to ‘I’—on my command, I ordered, as Commander-in-Chief I was then told, I this.”

But as linguist Mark Liberman notes at Language Log, the president used the word “I” exactly 10 times in that speech. Meanwhile, when Ronald Reagan made a speech in an analogous situation about Lebanon and Grenada, he used “I” exactly, um, 29 times. Yet to Krauthammer, who coined the term “Reagan Doctrine,” the Gipper was what a president is supposed to be. Why can’t Obama refer to himself as much as Reagan?

Kruathammer isn’t alone in bridling at our president’s referring to himself in public addresses. George Will has complained about this too, and yet the whole notion is complete BS. A useful example: Conservative writer Howard Portnoy claimed Obama was “I”-ing up the place ungraciously during his debates with Mitt Romney. In fact, in the first debate, Romney said “I” 227 times to Obama’s 122; in the second, 260 to Obama’s 176; and in the third, 198 times to Obama’s 108.

Clearly, it isn’t that Obama refers to himself to any notable degree. It’s that these pundits rankle inwardly when they hear the man saying “I”—because they deeply dislike him. Their innards seethe to see him expressing confidence, or otherwise reminding them that he, and not Mitt Romney, is the leader of the country. They want him down. They wish he’d go away. It’s ugly.

But no. I’m not going to go where one would expect at this point.

You know: I am to intone that these pundits think of Obama as an “uppity Negro.” And there’d be a gut-level appeal in taking that tack, especially since here and there someone like me has felt subject to that same evaluation. But self-gratification is not analysis. To give in to it too easily here would be sloppy.

After all, I’m usually the one saying people cry racism too easily, and I mean it. I have often written that people who glibly call opposition to Obama race-based forget how bitterly opposed much of the same crowd was to Bill Clinton. They also need to think about whether there really wouldn’t be a Tea Party if John Edwards—showy, a little brittle, and populist—was president. What’s the slam-dunk argument that Republicans wouldn’t deeply despise a President Edwards?

So, to check myself, I will propose that maybe these same pundits would be equally irritated to hear a President Edwards coolly making frequent references to his big bad self in speeches. Maybe Edwards’ politics and policies would make them bristle at his confidence as well.

I’m open to the possibility that their bias against Obama isn’t racial. I’m even open to the possibility that race isn’t even meaningfully “a part of it,” especially since what most people really mean by “it plays a part” is that it is the main part and the only one worth discussing. That’s smug and hasty. I will refrain from going there—although, I must say, I am fighting a powerful gut feeling.

One thing I know is that these pundits’ revulsion at the president’s confidence is, itself, revolting. It is not a sign of a healthy political discourse when smart, influential people feel vomitous to see someone with different views on policy than theirs expressing themselves with confidence and honesty.

Put it this way: the data are in and have been for years now, courtesy especially of my pals at Language Log. Scientific analysis demonstrates not a whit of linguistic narcissism in Barack Obama. Anybody who listens to our president and thinks he’s saying “I” too much is, quite simply, deeply biased against the man.

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I’ll leave it to others to parse out the degree to which you-know-what “plays a part” in that bias (those put off by my not understanding that it “must” be racial please review my points about Clinton and Edwards).

A basic fact will remain: The bias, whatever its components, is nauseating.