Obama – Guilty of Hemingway Grandiosity?

Maurine Dowd of The New York Times, one of Barack Obama’s most relentless critics from the left, is quoting David Maraniss’s new book and using Hemingway and Walker Percy’s Moviegoer to critique the president.

As Dowd sees it, Obama has a grandiose vision but can’t sell his bold initiatives (the stimulus, Obamacare) to the American public because of a sense of detachment and a penchant for self reflection. As a result, he has let his opponents define the narrative.

Here’s Dowd quoting Maraniss and connecting it with something a former Obama girlfriend said about him:

As Maraniss recounts, Obama said he liked reading Hemingway because of Papa’s “integrity of grasping for those times, those visions, that are ones of true magnificence and profundity.”

[Former girlfriend Genevieve] Cook told Maraniss that she thought Obama’s desire to “play out a superhero life” was “a very strong archetype in his personality.”

But superheroes and mythic figures must boldly lead. Obama’s caution — ingrained from a life of being deserted by his father and sometimes his mother, and of being, as he wrote to another girlfriend, “caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me” — has restrained him at times.

Dowd also fastens on an observation by an Obama roommate that he was like Moviegoer protagonist Binx Bolling, “an observer of his life, one step removed.” Dowd writes,

On CNBC on Friday, Romney complained that Obama has “been more focused on his perspective of his historic legislative achievements than he has been focused on getting people back to work.”

A president focused on historic achievements? Imagine that. But in his lame way, Romney got at Obama’s problem: The Moviegoer prefers to float above, at a reserve, in grandiose mists.

Dowd, who has been described by Andrew Sullivan (approvingly) as an Irish brawler, would prefer to see Obama mix it up with the Republican opposition rather than attempt to be conciliatory. In her column she quotes one of Obama’s former colleagues remembering his community organizer days and analyzing them through the lens of activist Saul Alinsky:

He [Obama] was not unwilling to take risks, but was just this strange combination of someone who would have to weigh everything to death, and then take a dramatic risk at the end. He was reluctant to do confrontation, to push the other side because it might blow up — and it might. But one thing Alinsky did understand was that within reason, once something blows up, to a certain degree it doesn’t hurt, it helps.

Would pushing confrontation from the beginning have made a difference? We now know, from Robert Draper’s new book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, that Republican leaders were holding a meeting on the night of the inauguration preparing to oppose Obama with a multipronged attack that would hit him in every way possible. Whatever he was for, they would be against it, including opposing Keynesian solutions to the recession that they themselves had supported while in office. As Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein reports,

For several hours in the Caucus Room (a high-end D.C. establishment), the book says they plotted out ways to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Draper quotes [House Minority Whip Kevin] McCarthy as saying. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

It’s why the attacks happened almost immediately. What Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell would say later in the year—that the top Republican agenda item was to make Obama a one-term president—was being said before he entered the White House. (Another possible agenda would have been saving the economy.) Obama’s leftist critics have faulted him for taking so long to recognize what was going on and for believing that compromise was possible.

I’ve wondered in the past whether Obama was like Queen Wealtheow in Beowulf. Queen Wealtheow is a symbol of political naivete in that she thinks that, if her husband Hrothgar were to die while their sons are still young, Hrothgar’s nephew Hrothulf would be a trustworthy prince regent. Her husband is worried about Hrothulf, which is why he wants to name Beowulf his heir, even though it would mean disinheriting their sons. Wealtheow, however, thinks that she can rely on Hrothulf’s sense of honor and can placate him by reminding him of past favors.

Hrothulf does indeed become regent and immediately kills one of Wealtheow’s sons and goes after the other. Wealtheow proves to have been clueless, perhaps criminally so–although to do her some justice, she’s in an impossible position: her sons get disinherited either way.

So should Obama have known that, from the first, he should have been playing LBJ-style hardball? Should he have acted like Beowulf with Grendel, which is to extend a hand but catch him in an iron grip? Was he suffering from a gauzy delusion of himself as grand compromiser while his enemies ran circles around him?

And let’s not just blame Obama. If he was naïve, were we who enthusiastically supported him equally naïve, thinking that there could be general good will and a resulting bipartisanship that would address the nation’s problems? We wanted someone who was above politics, but that was not how George W. Bush and Dick Cheney operated and they managed to get momentous things done (including the Bush tax cuts and two wars). Do we all need to be more hardboiled about politics? Or  putting it negatively, do we need to acknowledge that there are political animals out there and one must be a junkyard dog to hold one’s own. That seems to be the kind of person that Dowd would like to see as president.

We elected an intellectual dreamer, and now that dreamer is running against someone who appears willing to say anything and associate with anyone (including Donald Trump with his birther ravings and Rush Limbaugh with his misogynist slurs) to get elected. In my Wealtheow post I quote James Fallows as saying that no one has ever been ready for the presidency and the question is how fast can he or she learn on the job. Dowd appears to think that Obama is so caught up in Moviegoer detachment that he can’t learn. I’m more optimistic but we’ll see. The stakes are huge.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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