So now Bowe Bergdahl is back in the U.S. And the five Al-Qaeda terrorists we released for him are in Qatar—doubtless on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan. The prospect of an American defeat in both countries makes the exchange look more than usually stupid, and we’re entitled to ask just what’s going on in the Obama administration. We remember the Fall of Saigon and nervously await the possible evacuation of the Embassy in Baghdad, as Obama plays golf.
We’ve seen crazy rulers before. There was a time, during the Napoleonic Wars, when most of Europe’s crowned heads were barking mad. But then they were hereditary monarchs, and that’s what happens in families. Many of us have a crazy uncle or two, a Joe Biden we bring out only after the visitors are gone.
That’s not supposed to happen to elected presidents, however. The voters should be too smart for that. But then consider the kinds of people who seek higher office in a presidential regime. In parliamentary systems, leaders rise slowly from the backbenches and must prove themselves in numberless slanging matches in the House of Commons. By contrast, presidential regimes welcome the outsider who runs for the highest office “against Washington.” He must begin the hero’s journey at least three years before the election, against seemingly impossible odds, devoting all his energies to campaigning and fund raising, and the hypomanic candidate has an edge in the competition. The process winnows out those who lack the royal jelly of inflated self-regard and belief in their special “gift,” and leaves voters with charismatic candidates who are superbly qualified to run for office but less able to govern once elected.
Consider next what happens when such a person finds himself in the Oval Office. Obama said he didn’t need speechwriters. He was the best speechwriter around. Nor did he need policy advisers. If they were any good, they’d simply agree with him. And so he surrounded himself with a bubble of admirers charged with conveying a sense of his greatness to the public. That wasn’t especially difficult, since the cult of Obama became something like a religion for the media.
Should we surprised, then, if Obama’s presidency has begun to remind us of George III on an off day? It’s one thing to make a bad decision, like the Bowe Bergdahl trade. It’s another thing to spike the football as though he were proud of it, to disregard a statute he signed, to send out Susan Rice to lie for him, to ignore those who had died trying to rescue a seeming deserter, to accuse Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers of “swift boating,” and finally to suggest that anyone who objected to the trade was simply an Obama-hater. That takes moral and political obtuseness to an entirely new level.
We’re starting to see psychiatrists, amateur and professional, question Obama’s grip on reality, his emotional stability. He’s been called irrational and erratic, and diagnosed as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. Maybe that’s not such a stretch. The person who said “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” seems just a bit disconnected from reality. And when he said “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” it’s not hard to see a glimmer of a Messianic Complex. If we elect such a person, should we then be surprised if he demonizes his critics and treats legislation like a piece of soiled Kleenex?
Presidential stability matters much more today than it did in the past. Until recently, presidents were checked by the constraints imposed on them by Congress. Today, however, the rise of presidential power has transformed the American Constitution, as I argue in The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Obama can makes laws by diktat and refuse to enforce laws he doesn’t like. Of the Constitution the Framers gave us, little is left of the first two articles save the requirement that the president be elected every four years.
That’s why we have to ask about the kinds of candidates who appeal to voters in a presidential election. There was a time when the extreme egoist was seen as repellant, when the rhetoric of tyrants and presidents-for-life was hateful, when we didn’t think we needed to see our lives redeemed by a mythic hero. But that was then. The question for us today is whether this is the shape of things to come. Is he the one we have been waiting for?