Has Obama Been a Naïve Wealtheow?

Queen Wealtheow

I’ve applied Beowulf to Barack Obama’s presidency several times over the past three years in an attempt to assess his performance. Currently there is a debate that, seen in terms of the poem, is over whether he is a Beowulf or a Queen Wealtheow.

Wealtheow is in a tough situation. Rumor has it that her husband, King Hrothgar, wants to name Beowulf his heir in place of their two sons. Hrothgar would probably want to do this because he doesn’t trust his nephew Hrothulf, who would become regent if the king were to die early. He knows that Hrothulf is a violent and ambitious man so better to have Beowulf, even if its means dispossessing his sons.

Wealtheow doesn’t trust Hrothulf either but she wants her eldest to succeed his father. She therefore persuades Hrothgar to trust Hrothulf:

. . . now the word is that you want to adopt
this warrior [Beowulf] as a son. So, while you may,
bask in your fortune, and then bequeath
kingdom and nation to your kith and kin,
before your decease. I am certain of Hrothulf.
He is noble and willl use the young ones well.
He will not let you down. Should you die before him,
he will treat our children truly and fairly.
He will honor, I am sure, our two sons,
repay them in kind, when he recollects
all the good things we gave him once,
the favor of respect he found in his childhood.

Her words appear to be directed as Hrothulf as well at Hrothgar, reminding him of the loyalty and gratitude he owes his king.

Wealtheow’s certainty doesn’t work out very well.  Hrothgar does indeed die while his sons are still children, and when he does, the new regent seizes the throne, kills one and goes after the other. Wealtheow, in other words, appears stunningly naïve.

(In her defense, one could argue that she doesn’t have very strong cards to play. Her sons get dispossessed either way.)

Now to Obama.  Last summer, many Democrats believe he got rolled by the Republicans as he strove for a “grand bargain” on the deficit. (This was in the face of the House Republicans threatening to default on the U.S. debt.)  Although he was prepared to offer a 4-1 tradeoff of spending cuts to tax increases, he was “left at the altar” when House Speaker John Boehner, facing a House rebellion, backed out of their private agreement.

Since then, Obama has begun calling out Republicans for their “obstructionism.” He has also stood up to the Senate by making recess appointments. As a result, approval of his leadership has started to rise, and he recently got an extension of the payroll tax suspension that he wanted.  Many on the left are arguing that he should have been doing this all along.

In other words, they believe he should have been behaving like Beowulf, who takes a firm handgrip on his problems, rather than like Wealtheow, who argues for trust and conciliation.

Of course, there are as many versions of the president as there are pundits.  Those on the right see Obama as either stupid (which means that he can get rolled) or Machiavellian (which means that he can’t) or sometimes both at the same time (which doesn’t make any sense). Maureen Dowd of The New York Times thinks that Obama is timid (in domestic politics, not in foreign).  Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, on the other hand, thinks that Obama is very shrewd—that by reaching out and being rebuffed, he has been able to establish himself as the adult in the room while the Republicans self-destruct.

In one of the most thoughtful articles on the subject, James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly thinks that Obama started off unprepared and naïve, either because he was drawing on his days as a community organizer (when he often sought to rise above the fray) or because he was looking at Clinton’s strategy of triangulation.  But Fallows adds that all presidents start off flawed and unprepared, and the major question is how fast they can learn on the job.  In that regard, he sees Obama as very promising.  He believes, however, that it will take a second term for Obama to really step into his own.

So weighing all of these opinions together, I would have to say that Obama started off as a somewhat naïve and inexperienced Wealtheow but is now getting a grip.  Should he have gotten it earlier? Perhaps. But three years is not a lot of time, and I’m willing to believe Fallows when he says that Obama is learning fast.

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  • Sue

    I agree with your assessment, Robin. My one concern with Obama when he began to run for the presidency was his youthful naivete. In this, he actually reminds me of Bush, who was also a naive president. However, I think Obama is smarter than Bush, who failed because he didn’t have the stomach or intelligence to ditch his administration after he got into office for a second term despite the fact that Cheney and Rumsfeld, to name a few, were not helping the presidency or the country at all. I hope that Obama is re-elected, and will be able to use the experiences of his first term to forge a strong second and leave a legacy that will truly lead the country in a new direction.

  • Robin Bates

    Good for you for your concern about the “youthful,” Sue. Although Ryan Lizza in a fine article in The New Yorker thinks that a President Hillary might have made some of the same mistakes since she would have been drawing from the same 1990’s playbook (and would probably have had some of the same advisors). In one way, the two situations seemed comparable–intransigent opposition threatening to shut down the government (the 1995 Republicans actually doing so) but then negotiating. The difference, however, is that the Tea Party Republicans, unlike Newt Gingrich (!), don’t seem to be interested in dealing, which Obama just couldn’t imagine. The current House makes Gingrich seem like a moderate.

  • I enjoyed your comparison with Beowulf, as always. Here’s hoping you’re right about a second term. I’m not enough of a presidential scholar to speak with certainty, but from I know most presidents who make major impacts through legistlation have done it in their first term. Think FDR, LBJ, even Bush with his tax cuts and NCLB. Their second (and third in FDR’s case) terms didn’t come close to matching the accomplishments of the first.

  • Sue

    I think that politics is being held hostage by anger and mimetic desire. When I think of the rage Clinton inspired (by his sexual shenanigans) and the vitriole that fell on Bush because of the decision to invade Iraq, I understand that we are just cycling back as the Republicans try to slay Obama.
    The only problem with all this, of course, is that the job of Congress is to make wise laws for the country, not to joust for the presidency. One wonders what will break the cycle…

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