Obama’s Historians’ Dinner – Edward KleinNovember 3, 2012
On the evening of Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Barack Obama invited nine like-minded liberal historians to have dinner with him in the Family Quarters of the White House. Rahm Emanuel delivered the invitations along with a word of caution: the dinner was to remain private and off-the-record. Eventually someone did blab – to Vanity Fair writer Edward Klein – he the recorder of political and social elite opinion. A compelling view of the 44th President emerges…
He spent his evenings writing decision papers on foreign affairs when, instead, he should have delegated that chore to experts and devoted his time to befriending members of Congress in order to get his bills passed. He still loved making speeches to large, adoring crowds, but he complained to foreign leaders on the QT that he had to waste precious hours talking with “congressmen from Palookaville.”
In meetings with his Cabinet and national security team, he acted as though he was the smartest person in the room, which didn’t encourage people to speak their minds. He rarely bothered to pick up the phone and seek the advice of outside experts, and he never called the people who had brought him to the dance — those who backed his presidential bid with their money, time, and organizational skills. The Kennedys didn’t hear from him. Oprah Winfrey didn’t hear from him. Wealthy Jewish donors in Chicago, who had helped fund his 2008 campaign, didn’t hear from him. The “First-Day People” — African-American leaders in Chicago who had paved the way for his political ascent — never heard from him, either.
The senior people in his administration proved to be just as inexperienced and inept as Obama when it came to the business of running the government. Members of his inner circle — David Axelrod, campaign manager David Plouffe, press secretary Robert Gibbs, and éminence grise Valerie Jarrett — had proven their mettle in the dark arts of political campaigning, but they had no serious experience in dealing with public policy issues. If they could be said to have any policy exposure at all, it was their ideological enthusiasms for the Left.
What’s more, the members of Obama’s inner circle didn’t treat him as the most important politician in America, which he was by virtue of occupying the Oval Office. After all, politician was a dirty word in ObamaWorld. Instead, they treated Obama as though he was a movie star or the heavyweight champion of the world, a political Muhammad Ali who never tired of hearing that he was the greatest.. “He is the living, breathing apotheosis of the American melting pot,” enthused David Axelrod, who privately coined a nickname for his boss: “Black Jesus….”
Over the two-hour dinner, Obama and the historians discussed several past presidents. It wasn’t clear from Obama’s responses which of those presidents he identified with. At one point, Obama seemed to channel the charismatic John F. Kennedy. At another moment, he extolled the virtues of the “transformative” Ronald Reagan. Then again, it was the saintly Lincoln… or the New Deal’s “Happy Warrior,” Franklin Roosevelt… or…
In the words of Victor Davis Hanson, who, like other conservative historians, had not been invited to attend the dinner, the new president seemed to be looking for “a presidential identity not his own…. endlessly trying on new presidential masks.”
Obama told the historians at the table that he had come up with a slogan for his administration. “I’m thinking of calling it `A New Foundation,” he said.
Doris Kearns Goodwin suggested that “A New Foundation” might not be the wisest choice for a motto.
“Why not?” the president asked.
“It sounds,” said Goodwin, “like a woman’s girdle.”
If the meeting proved anything, it was that Barack Obama didn’t have the faintest idea 1) who he was; 2) why he had been elected president; and 3) how to be the commander in chief and chief executive of the United States of America.
In short, he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
He believed, wrongly, that his so-called “personal narrative” had gotten him elected. Even as president, he never tired of telling the same old stories — more myth than reality — about his idealistic white mother and brilliant African father; his American-as-apple-pie white grandparents, Gramps and Toot; his cockeyed Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro; and his transformation from a confused young man of mixed race named Barry to a proud African-American adult named Barack Hussein Obama.
He further believed, wrongly, that he was not only a different kind of leader by virtue of his race, strange name, and exotic upbringing, but that he was a child of destiny, a special person who had been singled out for great things. In his mind, he had been elected to be a transformational president and to save America from itself.
None of this was true. Barack Obama wasn’t elected because of his charisma and biography. And he certainly wasn’t elected to turn America into a European-style quasi-socialist country in which the state controls economic and social matters. The political stars had aligned for him in the election year of 2008 because the American people were scared to death about the economy, fed up with George W. Bush and the spendthrift Republicans, disillusioned by the seemingly endless war in Iraq, and sick at heart over the decline of their society’s values.
But Obama couldn’t see any of that.
He was blind to reality because he suffered from what could only be described as a messianic complex — meaning that he believed he was destined to become America’s savior. “My attitude is that you don’t want to just be the president,” Obama told an interviewer for Men’s Vogue. “You want to change the country.”
For a long time, people didn’t understand that there was a method in his madness. As Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, pointed out, “Among today’s liberal elite, bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness. More importantly, it is the perfect formula for political and government power. It rationalizes power in the name of intervening against evil — I will use the government to intervene against the evil tendencies of American life (economic inequality, structural racism and sexism, corporate greed, neglect of the environment and so on)….”
Obama’s acolytes in academia, the media, the churches, and the world of entertainment encouraged this dangerous delusion. Micah Tillman, a lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of America, said: “Barack Obama is the Platonic philosopher king we’ve been looking for for the past 2,400 years.” At a campaign rally in South Carolina, Oprah Winfrey had referred to Obama as “The One,” a reference to both Jesus Christ and Neo from the movie The Matrix. The New York Times called his election “a national catharsis.” His hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, “The first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review has a movie-star smile and more than a little mystique. Also, we just like to say his name. We are considering taking it as a mantra.”
Obama’s political apostles never seemed to tire of coming up with fresh examples of his divinity. Some examples:
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament.”
Newsweek editor Evan Thomas: “In a way Obama is standing above the country, above the world. He’s sort of God. He’s going to bring all the different sides together.”
Film director Spike Lee: “You’ll have to measure time by `Before Obama’ and `After Obama’…. Everything’s going to be affected by this seismic change in the universe.”
Jonathan Alter in his book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
Rabbi David Saperstein, reading from Psalms in English and Hebrew, noticed from the altar that the good men and women of the congregation that day, including the Bidens and other dignitaries, had not yet stood. Finally Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Church asked that everyone rise. At that moment Saperstein saw something from his angle of vision:
“If I had seen it in a movie I would have groaned and said, `Give me a break. That’s so trite.” A beam of morning light shown [sic] through the stained-glass windows and illuminated the president-elect’s face. Several of the clergy and choir on the altar who also saw it marveled afterward about the presence of the Divine.
The absurd, not to say blasphemous comparison of Obama to the Almighty became so embarrassing that Vice President Joe Biden couldn’t resist the opportunity to tease the president about his messiah complex. Speaking at the 2009 white-tie Gridiron Club Dinner, Biden said. “[President Obama] can’t be here tonight because he’s busy getting ready for Easter. He thinks it’s about him.”
During his dinner with the historians, Obama indicated that he had a preference for a corporatist political system in which the economy would be collectively managed by big employers, big unions, and government officials through a formal mechanism at the national level. Also known as state capitalism, it is a system in which the government picks winners and promotes economic growth.
This corporatist approach was hardly a new idea. It had been around for more than one hundred and fifty years. It had been tried in the 1930s and 1940s by Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascists, and in Europe after World War II by democratic-socialist governments in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, among others. In America during the 1970s and 1980s, leftwing Democratic presidential candidates Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis revived the idea, arguing that America should replace free-market capitalism with what they called “a neo-corporatist state.”
Though the corporatist idea had an unbroken record of failure both in Europe and America, where voters had decisively rejected Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis, Obama was determined to embrace this discredited economic, political, and social philosophy. He planned to achieve his “transformational” presidency by vastly expanding the reach of Washington into the everyday life of American citizens.
In that regard, the American president whom Obama most closely resembled was not JFK, Reagan, Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt. It was Woodrow Wilson, whose conception of himself was aptly described by the noted conservative historian Forrest McDonald (also missing at the White House dinner) as “little short of messianic.” Indeed, McDonald wrote about Wilson:
… the day after his election, the Democratic national chairman called on him to confer about appointments, only to be rebuffed by Wilson’s statement, “Before we proceed, I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing. Remember that God ordained that I should be the next President of the United States.” He was a master of oratory who described every issue, no matter how trivial, in terms of a great moral crusade, always with himself as the nation’s (and later the world’s) moral leader — and he believed what he was saying. Given this attitude, it followed that people who opposed him were unenlightened or evil; it was therefore impossible to meet them halfway.
Forrest McDonald’s description of Woodrow Wilson captures Barack Obama to a T.
In the fall of 201 1 — shortly after Obama botched the budget-deficit negotiations with Congress, and the United States government lost its Triple-A credit rating for the first time in history — I met under hush-hush conditions with one of the historians who had dined at the White House with Obama during the infancy of his presidency. We met in a restaurant on the outskirts of a large American city, where we were unlikely to be seen. Our conversation, which lasted for nearly two hours, was conducted under the condition of anonymity.
I wanted to know how this historian, who had once drunk the Obama Kool-Aid, matched the president’s promise with his performance. By this time, most of Obama’s supporters were puzzled by a sense of disconnect between the strictly-on-message presidential candidate and the president who was adrift and elusive. The satirical TV show The Onion News Network broadcast a faux story that the real Barack Obama had been kidnapped just hours after the election and replaced by an imposter.
Disillusioned liberals viewed Obama as a failed messiah. But conservatives had never fallen for the messianic talk. To conservatives, Obama’s problems stemmed less from his inflated self-image than from his unmitigated incompetence. He was the community organizer who had never held a real job and had brought the country to the brink of ruin because of his callow understanding of the way the world worked.
I wondered if the historian I met at the deli agreed with this assessment.
“There’s no doubt that Obama has turned out to be a major enigma and disappointment,” the historian admitted. “He waged such a brilliant campaign, first against Hillary Clinton in the primaries, then against John McCain in the general election. For a long time, I found it hard to understand why he couldn’t translate his political savvy into effective governance.
“But I think I know the answer now,” the historian continued. “Since the beginning of his administration, Obama hasn’t been able to capture the public’s imagination and inspire people to follow him. Vision isn’t enough in a president. Great presidents not only have to enunciate their vision; they must lead by example and inspiration. Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the individual. He and Ronald Reagan had the ability to make each American feel that the president cared deeply and personally about them.
“That quality has been lacking in Obama. People don’t feel that he’s on their side. The irony is that he was supposed to be such a brilliant orator, but in fact he’s turned out to be a failure as a communicator. And his failure to connect with people has had nothing to do with the choice of his words or how well he delivers his speeches. It’s something much more fundamental than that.
“The American people have come to realize that, in Barack Obama, they elected a man as president who does not know how to lead. He lacks an executive sense. He doesn’t know how to run things. He’s not a manager. He hasn’t been able to bring together the best and brightest talents. Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s in over his head.”
Elsewhere in the book Klein repeats an historical judgment of FDR, namely that he had a second rate mind but a first rate temperament to be President of the United States. He reverses it for Obama: a first rate mind but lacking the temperament to be President. The wealth of off-the-record commentary in The Amateur confirms that observation.