Today, President Barack Obama hosted a town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, where, after being welcomed with what the AP calls “thunderous cheers,” the first question from the audience asked him what he thought would be his legacy in office.
It gave the man, 47 years old and a mere 71 days into his presidency, an opportunity to discuss what he would like to be remembered for. Of course, he has nearly four more years to build that legacy, and perhaps eight. But if the historians, the makers of myth and legend, were to examine the first few months of President Obama’s term in office as guidance for their history, a jarring image would emerge – one notable for how much it has in common with the failings of his predecessor.
In electing President Obama, many American voters expressed a great degree of satisfaction in having a president who would no longer embarrass them on the world stage. Look at the crowds he drew in Germany, the affection of the people of Europe, they said. Fake newsman Jon Stewart admitted that so much of his personal love for Obama came not from the words he used (which have a great deal in common with some of George W. Bush’s more evangelical speeches), but from the sound of his voice, untouched by Texas twang. Here, finally, was a man we could have confidence in, who could wine and dine the world’s leaders, joke with celebrities, and hobnob with the global economic elite without making a complete ass of himself.
But this has not been the case. Again this week in Britain, the President displayed not one but two significant gaffes (three if you include FLOTUS’s minor protocol breach) of failures of diplomatic courtesy. The reports of the gift of the iPod were so startling in the wake of the President’s earlier failures with Gordon Brown’s DVDgate (the worst aspect of which being that they were the wrong region – and they’d just made popcorn at No. 10) and the First Lady’s White House toy-giving that some of the Administration’s most sycophantic supporters assumed they must be an April Fools joke of some kind.
These are minor things, of course — it is hardly an indictment of character to struggle with a locked door or mistake a window at your new house for one — but on the whole, this string of social failings on the part of the residents of New Camelot cuts at a deeper problem affecting this president and his administration.
Americans love confidence almost as much as they dislike complexity. Regardless of political stripe, and throughout most of our national history, Americans have shown appreciation political leadership that has a certain degree of country swagger – after all, how can you have confidence in a leader who does not project confidence in himself and in the country he represents?
Of the worst sins of the modern presidency, few are more egregious than the lack of confidence, in self or in America. Compare Jimmy Carter’s “We can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems,” to “Yes we can,” and you begin to see the difference. In Carter’s nadir of confidence — his infamous malaise speech of 1979 — the man who ran for office promising “a government as good as the people” ended his term in office by saying that “the people were no good,” in the words of Steve Hayward.
President Obama has already fallen prey to the temptation of expressing this lack of confidence, particularly in the marketplace. The oratorical line of descent from “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” to “The economy may fall into a state from which we may not recover” is a steep one, indeed. But he gives the continued appearance of absolute confidence in himself and his own abilities. Accused on 60 Minutes of being “punch drunk” as he laughed about economic worries, the President was in reality just expressing his own confidence that he can make things better through a combination of policies and force of personality. We shall see if he’s right on that.
Yet for the moment, it’s this sort of confidence — the bad kind — that leads to gaffes that aren’t just fodder for late night comedians, but actually have long-term ramifications for the American people. The nod toward open government that has turned into an $84 million useless website — this is a gaffe. The AIG bonus mismanagement, the pork-laden budget, the lack of a clear economic solution that strengthens both Wall Street and Main Street — this is a gaffe. The ludicrous number of withdrawn nominations to cabinet offices — these are far more serious gaffes, ones that point to a replacement of confidence, founded in experience, with hubris, founded in arrogance. It could be the sort of hubris that views diplomatic gift-giving as something unimportant, that does not require training or advance preparation — or worse, it could be the sort that ignores the opinions outside your circle of academic friends on economic matters, despite having not a single strong voice for American business in the room.
A final point: President Obama is unique among the recent chief executives of the United States in that his professional life has experienced almost no setbacks for his entire professional career. With the exception of his primary loss in 2000 to four-term incumbent Bobby Rush (a race which itself was a profound act of hubris), President Obama has succeeded at almost everything he has tried. This unbroken run of victories would inspire anyone to greater confidence in their ability to succeed — but in the case of the President, it may also have given him the unfortunate misconception that he cannot fail.