Sunday, May 17, 2009

Barack Obama Is Still a Brilliant Political Leader and Thinker, But I Think He Might Be a Jerk

So I read an article on Slate the other day called "Notes Toward a Theory of Obama." It consists of Jacob Weisberg working through a series of observations of Barack Obama, trying to assemble a coherent picture of the man. I still admire him as a brilliant political thinker, and one of the few genuinely smart people who has the charisma and eye for opportunity put their complex philosophical ideas into practice. And there are signs that he might succeed to some reasonable degree in his plans to transform the American economy into a sustainable framework with a more comprehensive social safety net.

However, Weisberg makes some cutting observations that I've noticed about the man himself. Even though he's notoriously cool and continually depicts himself as a calm, tactful, caring man, there's a razor sharp edge to many of his off the cuff remarks, even to his friends and family. I first noticed this during his joke at a press conference during the transition. Regarding his consultation with past presidents, he mentioned that he wouldn't try to contact Nancy Reagan for a séance, and apologized the next day for his insensitivity. As he was boarding the train with his family to the inauguration ceremony, he told his daughter Sasha to mind the gap. "We wouldn't want you to fall underneath the train," he said. "That would really mess up our whole inauguration."

I first listened to those jokes, and felt quite amused. Finally, a politician with as black a sense of humour as mine. I was sure people wouldn't understand, but fortunately his critics are focussing on his actual policies instead of his knife-edge jokes. Then when I listened to his monologue at the Correspondents' Association Dinner, I observed what Weisberg would later write about in his piece.

All Obama's jokes about his cabinet and fellow politicians were insulting, sometimes cruelly personal. He never went as explicitly far as Wanda Sykes' jokes later, but he carried an implicit sting. The only one spared from his wit was himself, who he played up to be the most awesome human being alive.

His comments, his style of policy production, and his relations with political friends, opponents, and co-workers in cabinet has let me put together an even more nuanced picture of Obama than comes across in his two books. Dreams from My Father depicted Obama as an uncertain youth, adrift without a place in the world. The Audacity of Hope saw Obama in a stable place, articulating his vision for society.

Now that he has the validation of the presidential election and his high popularity throughout the country, he now sees himself as a Great Man of History. He makes the policy, forms the philosophies, and no one is above him. The problem is that he knows it, and acts like he knows it. An even bigger problem is what will happen if he makes a serious mistake. Men convinced of their own superiority can lose sight of their ability to stumble, and become unable to tell when they're falling. That denial can seriously exacerbate an error, compounding it into a disaster.

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