Don't Romanticize Obama

A gushing Esquire essay reminds us that the president's boosters make it harder to hold him accountable to his promises

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Can we just enjoy Barack Obama for a few months?

That's the question Stephen Marche poses in an Esquire essay about the president. "Before the policy choices have to be weighed and the hard decisions have to be made, can we just take a month or two to contemplate him the way we might contemplate a painting by Vermeer or a guitar lick by the early-seventies Rolling Stones or a Peyton Manning pass or any other astounding, ecstatic human achievement?" he writes. "Because twenty years from now, we're going to look back on this time as a glorious idyll in American politics, with a confident, intelligent, fascinating president riding the surge of his prodigious talents from triumph to triumph."

What to make of this fawning description? Upon reading it, I could think of nothing but "A Stroke of Genius?" That short, memorable essay was published at the blog Powerline in 2005. "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice," John Hinderaker wrote. "He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile." Conservatives spent a couple more years enjoying Bush, rather that subjecting him to overdue scrutiny. In hindsight, everyone regrets that.

Recent history has taught us the folly of romanticizing all presidents. Whether during the Bay of Pigs, The Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran Contra, Waco, or Abu Ghraib, or numerous other missteps and scandals besides, we've been shown that smart men err, that power corrupts, and that the executive branch often cannot be trusted to do the right thing. There is no upside to casting the president as some sort of hero.  

But here we go again.

"The turning point came that glorious week in the spring when, in the space of a few days, he released his long-form birth certificate, humiliated Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and assassinated Osama bin Laden," Marche writes. "The effortlessness of that political triptych -- three linked masterpieces demonstrating his total command over intellectual argument, low comedy, and the spectacle of political violence -- was so overwhelmingly impressive that it made political geniuses of the recent past like Reagan and Clinton seem ham-fisted."

Did you gloss over that passage?

Read it again. This is how little we now expect of our leaders. A man showed his birth certificate to scattered kooks, and the release of that bureaucratic form is deemed "a masterpiece." As is humiliating Donald Trump -- a man who is perhaps the easiest to mock of all the reality TV stars!

And then a bit later, we're shown the essay's core: "In 2011, it is possible to be a levelheaded, warmhearted, cold-blooded killer who can crack a joke and write a book for his daughters. It is possible to be many things at once. And even more miraculous, it is possible for that man to be the president of the United States. Barack Obama is developing into what Hegel called a 'world-historical soul,' an embodiment of the spirit of the times. He is what we hope we can be."

Do we really want to be assassins?

But leave that aside. The irony here is that Obama campaigned and won precisely by appealing to our better selves. Were I to run for president (God forbid), I hope I'd give this one minute speech:

If I campaigned thusly, I'd then hope for the fortitude to uphold the ideals I professed. And what I'd most hate to be is a man who unapologetically betrayed my most idealistic supporters. Isn't that what Obama has done?

Consider his speech line by line.

"I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools the need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom," Obama said. "That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens." Go read Cato's Julian Sanchez, the ACLU's blog, or Tech Dirt to see how quickly that promise was broken. "No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime," Obama promised. Once in office, he endeavored to expand their use.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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