Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Confidence game

Making speeches and spreading blame are tools of choice in an adolescent White House

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

When things get as seriously out of joint as they have recently for the Obama administration, it's appropriate to ask, in all good faith: Did these folks deliberately make all these bad decisions-or did they just blunder into them?

Even more bluntly: Is the Obama presidency dumb by design, or is it more a victim, as its top man insists repeatedly, of a run of bad luck?

Another possibility, from which it's clearly too late to learn this time around but which should be instructive for all future presidential elections, is this: That in 2008 we optimistically picked a child to do a man-sized job.

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The evidence for such a conclusion grows inexorably. Most recent and most compelling are the dozens of vignettes included in the new book by Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. Suskind draws a picture of a president regularly stunned by the enormity and complexity of the task he is charged with.

The Suskind book is not made of long-distance scattershot from suspect sources. The administration trusted him enough to give the author a 50-minute, one-on-one interview with the president, similar time with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and access to a number of other Obama aides. Obviously, they expected kind treatment.

Instead, they got a quote in the Suskind book from the president's economics adviser Larry Summers, who charged, "There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

Recent mistakes of adolescence include the decision to pick a fight with congressional Republicans over the timing of a speech the president wanted to make. You'd think in such a case that he'd at least follow up with a memorable speech-but nobody two or three weeks later even remembers the topic, much less Obama's take on things. Instead, he's speeched us into utter detachment.

All that because, for most of his life, Obama's friends have flattered him into thinking he's a man-when in fact he's still been emerging from boyhood. "You're the best speech maker the presidency has ever known," colleagues and media sycophants told him repeatedly during and following the 2008 campaign. Now those same friends admit that the Obama inclination to talk his way out of his problems has become a trite and tedious dodge. It was Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign-not some Republican-who challenged Obama, with foresight: We've had enough speeches, she said. What about some action?

Or try the scathing response of the liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote: "Obama is still suffering from the Speech Illusion, the idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words, and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed."

The Obama speech-making has turned off the electorate partly because of another child-like habit. The speeches are filled with excuses, as the president constantly blames others for the problems he hasn't been able to solve. For his first couple of years in office, it was standard Obama fare to make George Bush his whipping boy. More recently, it's all the rich people-the people who fly jet airplanes and who waste their money on tax-deductible charitable gifts.

And, true to form now, the Obama team has been quick to deny several of the most embarrassing tidbits reported in the Suskind book. Instead of dealing with the issues themselves, Obama loyalists are more like a group of kids belligerently saying: "Did not!"

The result is embarrassing because the office of the presidency has been so demeaned. So inconsequential was the president's September address to a joint session of Congress that one Democratic representative was televised-with merciful brevity-reading a newspaper while the president spoke. Little kids might think little of such rudeness. But something important in the fiber of a nation is lost when grown-ups-too often led by their president-act like little kids.

Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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