Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Journey from Arrogance to Incompetence

Published in Commentary Magazine on March 4, 2014



In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama.

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate.

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.” A convention speech wasn’t enough for Mr. Obama; Greek columns needed to be added. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” Obama said, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln.” (The use of the word “possible” is priceless.) Mr. Obama has compared himself to LeBron James; his aides compared him to Michael Jordan. He clearly conceived of himself as a world-historical figure. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond his power. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d urge you to watch this 30-second clip from an Obama speech in 2008.)

In foreign policy, Obama would wage a successful war in Afghanistan. He would convince dictators and adversaries why they should bow to his wishes. He would solve decades-long conflicts. American prestige would rise in all corners of the globe. “Instead of retreating from the world,” Obama said, “I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.” There would be the “reset” with Russia, the “new beginning” in the Middle East, the end of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and so much more. Mr. Obama would practice “smart diplomacy.” After all, he understood things the rest of us did not. And if you didn’t accept his view of the world, you weren’t simply mistaken; you were an ideologue, a hyper-partisan, a dullard, perhaps a fool, and/or someone whose thinking belonged to bygone era. Watch the contemptuous way the president dismissed Mitt Romney in a presidential debate on the topic of Russia — despite the fact that events have proven Romney right and Obama wrong.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Our relations with nation after nation – from Afghanistan and Iraq to Russia and China, from Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to India and Australia, from Honduras to Brazil, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Germany, Great Britain, Canada and more – are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. I’m not asking people to measure Mr. Obama against a standard of perfection; I’m asking them to measure him against his own promises, his own speeches, his own words.

Having been president for more than five years, we can now render some reasonable and informed judgments about Mr. Obama, including this one: he is an amateur on par with Jimmy Carter. And to see the crude and brutish Putin run circles around Obama—on negotiations over nuclear weapons, on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, on convincing Obama to undercut our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, on establishing ties with Egypt, on strengthening the murderous Syrian regime, and now invading Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine—is painful for any American to witness. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers put it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.”

Governing is harder than Barack Obama ever imagined. But it isn’t that much harder.

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