Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama, the Thin-Skinned President

Published in Politics Daily on May 28, 2010



In their book “The Battle for America 2008,” Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz wrote this:

[Chief political aide David] Axelrod also warned that Obama's confessions of youthful drug use, described in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, would be used against him. “This is more than an unpleasant inconvenience,” he wrote. “It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate opponent.

I thought of this memo after reading the comment by Sen. Pat Roberts after he and other Senate Republicans had a contentious 80-minute meeting with the president on Tuesday. “He needs to take a Valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans,” Roberts said. “He's pretty thin-skinned.”

Sen. Roberts is being too generous. Obama is among the most thin-skinned presidents we have had, and we see evidence of it in every possible venue imaginable, from one-on-one interviews to press conferences, from extemporaneous remarks to set speeches.

The president is constantly complaining about what others are saying about him. He is upset at Fox News, and conservative talk radio, and Republicans, and people carrying unflattering posters of him. He gets upset when his avalanche of faulty facts are challenged, like on health care. He gets upset when he is called on his hypocrisy, on everything from breaking his promise not to hire lobbyists in the White House to broadcasting health care meetings on C-SPAN to not curtailing earmarks to failing in his promises of transparency and bipartisanship.

In Obama's eyes, he is always the aggrieved, always the violated, always the victim of some injustice. He is America's virtuous and valorous hero, a man of unusually pure motives and uncommon wisdom, under assault by the forces of darkness.

It is all so darn unfair.

Not surprisingly, Obama's thin skin leads to self pity. As Daniel Halper of The Weekly Standard pointed out, in a fundraising event for Sen. Barbara Boxer, Obama said,

Let's face it: this has been the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s.

Really, now? Worse than the period surrounding December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001? Worse than what Gerald Ford faced after the resignation of Richard Nixon and Watergate, which constituted the worse constitutional scandal in our history and tore the country apart? Worse than what Ronald Reagan faced after Jimmy Carter (when interest rates were 22 percent, inflation was more than 13 percent, and Reagan faced something entirely new under the sun, “stagflation”)? Worse than 1968, when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and there was rioting in our streets? Worse than what LBJ faced during Vietnam — a war which eventually claimed more than 58,000 lives? Worse than what John Kennedy faced in the Bay of Pigs and in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we and the Soviet Union edged up to the brink of nuclear war? Worse than what Franklin Roosevelt faced on the eve of the Normandy invasion? Worse than what Bush faced in Iraq in 2006, when that nation was on the edge of civil war, or when the financial system collapsed in the last months of his presidency? Worse than what Truman faced in defeating imperial Japan, in reconstructing post-war Europe, and in responding to North Korea's invasion of South Korea?

In his autobiography “Present at the Creation,” Dean Acheson wrote about the immensity of the task the Truman administration faced after war ended in 1945, which “only slowly revealed itself. As it did so, it began to appear as just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.”

For Obama to complain that the problems he faces are so much worse than any other president in the last 80 years is stunningly self-indulgent, to say nothing of ahistorical.

With Obama there is also the compulsive need to admonish others, to point fingers, to say that the problems he faces are not of his doing. Oh, sure; on occasions there are the grudging concessions, like in Thursday's press conference devoted to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where Obama says, “In case you're wondering who's responsible, I take responsibility” to ensure that “everything is done to shut this down.” But those words are always pro forma, done reluctantly and for tactical political reasons, a rhetorical trick that is meant to get him off the hook. As recently as last week, Obama, in the Rose Garden, was implicitly blaming the previous occupant of the White House for the explosion of the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon [Obama remarks linked here].

The president's instincts are by now obvious to all: deflect blame, point fingers, and lash out at others, most especially his predecessor. We know from press reports (see here and here) that the strategy for the Democrats in 2010, two years after Obama was elected president, is to — you guessed it — blame George W. Bush.

What explains all this is hard to know. But it's clear he has adopted an image of himself as something rare and remarkable, a historic figure of almost super-human abilities. “I am absolutely certain that generations from now,” Obama said during the summer of his presidential run, “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

“We are the ones we have been waiting for,” Obama and his aides said constantly during the campaign.

President Obama's more unattractive personal qualities probably won't wear well with the electorate. Americans tend to tire of those who are look back rather than ahead and are always blaming others for the problems they face.

Barack Obama — a man who was as unprepared to be president as any man in our lifetime — has over the last 16 months shown that he is overmatched by events. His poll numbers continue to drop, his health care proposal is becoming less rather than more popular, the oil spill in the Gulf is badly eroding his image for leadership and competence, and his party has been battered in election after election since November. We have now reached the point where Democrats are running against Obama and his agenda in order to survive (witness Mark Critz in Pennsylvania).

We can hope that Obama, an intelligent man, learns from the errors of his ways. But the great danger in al
l of this is that in the face of his troubles Obama and his aides become increasingly defensive, display a greater sense of entitlement and even a touch of paranoia. When arrogant men lose control of events it can easily lead to feelings of isolation, to striking out at critics, to bullying opponents, and to straying across lines that should not be crossed.

And so the president needs to surround himself with people who can tamp down on the uglier impulses within his administration, who are willing to tell Obama that the lore created by him, Axelrod, Plouffe, and Gibbs during the campaign has given way to reality, that cockiness is not the same as wisdom, and that spin is no substitute for substantive achievements. And Obama needs someone who has standing in his life to tell him that the presidency is a revered institution that should not be treated as if it were a ward in Chicago.

The ingredients are in place for some serious problems down the road. Those who care for the president need to recognize the warning signs now, sooner rather later, before it becomes too late, for him and for the nation.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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