Leave it to my wife to come up with a jewelry metaphor for Barack Obama. Obama is, according to my bride, the political equivalent of cubic zirconia. Usually sold to people who love the look of diamonds but can't afford a real one or are fooled into buying an imposter, cubic zirconia is superficially pretty and appealing. But when subjected to the scrutiny of an expert or when placed under great pressure, the falseness and weakness compared to the real thing become apparent.
The pressure analogy is particularly appropriate given that the source of Barack Obama's troubles lie a mile under the ocean's surface, where pressures are about one ton per square inch. The pressure of the situation is causing Obama's vaunted reputation as "competent" to crack like the false promise it always was.
Unlike the ring that accidentally falls into the garbage disposal and gets crushed, the destruction of Barack Obama's perceived competency is almost entirely self-inflicted. On May 28, he aggressively placed his own reputation under that literal ton of pressure down at the oil-spewing well-head by saying "I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis…I am the president and the buck stops with me." He was reinforcing his words of a day earlier: "The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort… In case you're wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility."
What kind of CEO would stake his reputation, his power, and perhaps more importantly the reputation of the organization he runs -- in Obama's case, the federal government of the United States -- on something over which he has absolutely no control? Would the president of your company "take responsibility" for the Cubs not winning the World Series? (Assuming your company doesn't own the Cubs, of course.)
As I'm writing this, I'm watching a television ad by BP CEO Tony Hayward who is taking "full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the gulf." That makes sense; BP has the technology and the know-how to at least attempt to clean up the mess they created. They're the players on the team, even if it is a team as historically hapless or mismanaged as the Cubs or BP. They, not Obama, are the ones who can and should be on the field.
Meanwhile, as we know, Obama has decided that his own taking of responsibility means he needs to figure out "whose ass to kick." Obama's message changes daily, from anger to frustration to ass-kicking, as it must when someone takes existential risk with his political capital in a situation which a college freshman in a political science class would recognize as posing far more risk than reward, far more opportunity to look bad than to be the hero. It's remarkable that Obama has so quickly forgotten the political peril demonstrated by the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. But having taken responsibility, Obama feels he must be seen as "doing something," perhaps the most dangerous mode of operation for a politician -- especially a wounded one.
So, back to the question: What kind of CEO would take responsibility for something entirely out of his control? The same kind who would say, as Barack Obama did two years ago, that "generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children" that his ascendency to power "was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow." God-complex much, Barack?
Some discussion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder from Psychology Today seems à propos: "People with narcissistic personality disorder are frequently perfectionists and need to be the center of attention, receiving affection and admiration, and controlling the situation."
And further: "Deep desire to be at the center of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming. Buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates -- protected by the armor of positive self-regard -- someone with a mild-to-moderate case of narcissism can float through life feeling pretty good about himself. Since they feel entitled to special treatment, they are easily offended, and readily harbor grudges. Yet narcissists are often very popular -- at least in the short term."
A president who was not a narcissist might have taken a very different tack on the Deepwater Horizon spill: Rather than risking his political capital and popularity by taking responsibility for the clean-up, he would emphasize that government's capacities in the situation were limited but that government was doing what it could. He would inform Gulf Coast residents whose lives and businesses have been disrupted what federal resources are available to help them rather than looking for people to fire or asses to kick. In short, a wise and non-narcissistic president would not have made the issue about himself.
The wise approach, however, has an additional problem for President Obama beyond his deeply self-absorbed personality: As a Progressive, Obama believes that government should be able to do almost anything…and should do everything it can. Obama is part of a presidential Progressive lineage going back through FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who believed that technocrats should be in charge of most aspects of American life, that private citizens are too stupid to manage their own lives so we need Progressives to do so for us. One might say that Progressivism is an inherently narcissistic philosophy.
For Obama to admit, much less aggressively argue, that government's capability to plug an oil well is limited leads down a dangerous road for those who want government to appear omnipotent. After all, it's hard for even a Progressive to argue explicitly that government should do things in which it has no competence. (The fact that they do precisely that on such a large scale is a topic for another day.) Progressive politicians must therefore aggrandize themselves and the abilities of government in order to maintain the public's sadly resilient self-destructive belief in the power of politicians to fix things. Progressives' governing philosophy and psychology thus prevent Obama from doing anything other than what he's doing. Indeed, rather than saying "I can't fix this,", Obama has suggested that the federal government should acquire the technological capability to fix future deep-water oil well leaks. Again, his personality and Progressivism allow him no other path.
One Obama apologist suggests that people are "blaming Obama for not being a god." She forgets that Obama is the one who took responsibility for stopping the oil (and explicitly claimed that his "stimulus" would keep unemployment below 8%.) The end of his façade of competency is entirely self-inflicted. With luck, Obama has weakened people's blind faith in the competency of politicians generally and presidents specifically.
I can only hope that once discovered to be what it is, the recipient of that cubic zirconia -- or its political equivalent who resides today at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- will never again look at the semi-precious gem (once thought to be precious) with the same approval, satisfaction, or gratitude.
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