[The Obama administration]… is to a unique degree a presidency of inference.
Un homme est qu'il fait, pas qu'il dit.
In a column in the Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan suggested that Barack Obama’s Presidency was an unprecedented work of inference. One can hardly exaggerate the significance of this observation. Indeed. Somewhere in those dark, vast rhetorical regions bordered on one side by the soaring words, “there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America”, and, “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” on the other, the real political convictions of this man reside. What are they? What is he really about? As Ms. Noonan astutely concludes, even after three and a half years one can only infer what these might be. Making these inferences seems to be a full time occupation for the pundits.
The verb “to infer” has at least two basic meanings: (1) to derive conclusions from facts or premises, and, (2) to guess or surmise. It does not seem unreasonable at this juncture to surmise that “Hope and Change”, the campaign slogan of 2008 was a cynical but brilliantly crafted ruse calculated to make it possible for any voter in that broad middle spectrum of the electorate to infer that the young, fresh earnest candidate from Illinois was … The One, exactly the right person to replace the man everyone seemed to have grown tired of. The premise used to make this inference was completely and deliberately vacuous – inviting a blind leap of faith, so to speak – compensated for by the pastoral, inspirational tone of Barack Obama and a soothing personal imagery unfortunately with no connections to any empirical reality. Complicit also was the press corps who forsook their professionally mandated oversight and signed up with the self-proclaimed “genius” routinely demonstrating his modesty with tropes like: “we're going to change the country and change the world.” Overnight the so-called reporters turned into groupies, surrendering themselves to a man who was promising to “heal the planet” and proclaiming to his followers “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” In retrospect, how could this vapid effusion from such a bloated ego have been taken seriously by sober or grown up people, much less news people who are supposed to be critical and skeptical?
The unprecedented strategy by Obama’s fantasist-managers was not to expose him – his personal history, beliefs, or accomplishments – to the electorate but to conceal him. The concealment was aimed to put the voters in the position of guessing what the translation of Hope and Change into practical politics from a man with a meager political career might look like and what its enactor really believed and wanted to accomplish. A few of his detractors suggested that he might be, of all things, a “socialist,” a charge sneeringly dismissed by the camp following legions. What nonsense! This was only an inference based upon facts about the man’s many long and close associations with friends and mentors, in writing and in person, who actually were socialists, as well as his actual political record which was far to the left of most of his political colleagues.
Obama was as some have observed a Rorschach candidate. The absence of a lengthy and substantive political career meant for the aspirant and his handlers that he could be … whatever. From the vacuity of Hope and Change one could “infer” anything which was exactly how it was supposed to work, and did work.
However, the first definition above of “infer” – “to derive conclusions from facts or premises” is also highly germane in the contemplation of this “presidency of inference.” In 2008 whatever was actually known about Barack Obama that might be relevant to his fitness to be President was ignored or misrepresented as noted above. Specifically: his lack of executive experience, his questionable associations, his penchant for “going for the groin” with his political opposition. Never before was the manufactured image of a candidate – post partisan, post racial, moderate, transparent – such a glaring departure from the flesh and blood individual.
A highly relevant document from which conclusions about the President’s political beliefs, attitudes and personality might actually be derived is his autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Did anyone who voted for him actually read it? Consider this angry and bitterly tinged extract from it, an account of his gravitation toward Marxism during his undergraduate college years, how it was expressed and how in retrospect he considered it.
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students, the foreign students, the Chicanos, the Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets…. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz [sic] Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated." [From, Dreams from my Father, 100-101]
For those inclined to think of Mr. Obama as a pragmatist, a moderate, a seeker of bi-partisan compromise, what sort of inference should be made of this? By itself and without much context one should perhaps be generous and dismiss it as hyperbole and melodrama, unfortunate utterings of a spoiled and prolonged adolescence, transcended by eventual maturity – from Marx at twenty to Milton Friedman at forty. But this is not a confession. The last sentence gives it away – “We were alienated.” This is a vindication. Never in the book does the author show a change of heart or perspective in this regard nor give any evidence of having moved beyond this tortured perspective of being a victim in an unjust and rigged system. Nowhere in the book is there any indication that the future President ever came to believe that his “alienation” was in large part a product of his own immaturity and limited experience, that the “constraints of bourgeois society” were not “stifling”, and that, the America that nurtured him and eventually raised him to its highest legislative body was not, as his wife put it during the 2008 campaign, “just down right mean.”
One important personality feature that can be reasonably attributed to Obama after a reading of Dreams is that author (around 30 at the time of the writing) was a deeply alienated and resentful man. From his own writing it is quite clear that resentment was and is the driving force of his political career, and that his growing up was shaped by a lasting sense of anger and grievance. Also clear is that this resentment was played out in his choice of friends, associates and mentors, individuals also deeply alienated from American traditions and filled with grievance and hostility toward American traditions and customs.
The man in 2007 who told his audience, “I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be President of the United States of America,” is no longer around. The Audacity of Hope, lifted from one of Pastor Wright's sermons, became the audacity of bait-and-switch. Unfortunately, the real political convictions of Obama, the ones he has carried from his university days and artfully concealed, came out in his Univision radio interview in late 2010, “We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.” Hope and Change, whatever it was supposed to mean, has given way to condescension and condemnation and the pursuit and destruction of his enemies, the rich. His message for reelection, “fairness” now is built on the foundation of his primal motivation – resentment, converted with considerable demagogic skill into righteous indignation. Those who have more are to blame for those who have less. The resentful young man who “ground out his cigarette butts in the hallway carpet” never relinquished the anger and hostility that guided him to “chose [his] friends carefully.”
Early in his Presidency the smitten adulators in the media were comparing him with Lincoln, FDR, and JFK. He now looks and sounds more like Huey Long or Juan Perón. But perhaps the President might look to Oscar Benevides, President of Peru in the 1930s for his 2012 campaign slogan, one quite consistent with his words and deeds – “For my friends, anything: for my enemies, the law.”