There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich:
…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.
Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:
…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.
As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
The Problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up. For now, take a look at Bromwich’s essay. It is your weekend read.