The Commonness of Barack Obama
Both admirers and detractors of Barack Obama have commented on what a unique historical character he is. In a narrow sense, and particularly within the context of American history, we may grant that Obama is different.
For the first time, Americans elected a president whose formative years were spent far away from the American mainland -- a man who (along with his mentor, wife, minister, and others who have been closest to him) has an intense, deep-seated dislike for the country that elected him. Obama was dead serious when he said he wanted to "remake" America -- just as his mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, wasn't fooling when he sided with Stalin against Truman's America; just as Michelle wasn't fooling when she said in 2008 that it was the first time she was proud of her country; just as Rev. Jeremiah Wright wasn't fooling when he raged, "God damn America!"
So, yes, the president is unique among American presidents. However, against the backdrop of human history, and compared to other heads of state, Barack Obama is drearily common.
I was struck by Obama's commonness while recently rereading Frédéric Bastiat's timeless essay, "The Law," with my public policy class. (As a teacher, I find it helpful to review some of the classic thinking on the purpose of government and law before delving into specific governmental policies.) Although Bastiat died in 1850, he "knew" Barack Obama as well as most people living today, because he understood Obama's type so well.
So Obama has repeatedly shown by word and deed that he wants to remake America, to change our country from what it has been into the country that Obama envisions. In having this goal, Obama is like countless political leaders -- socialists, fascists, emperors, dictators, caudillos, welfare statists, etc. -- who have shared the egomaniacal belief that the world would be a much better place if everyone would simply do what the "enlightened planner" wanted them to do.
According to Bastiat, politicians like Obama "look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist [planner] whimsically shape human beings into groups [etc.]. ... And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does [the political planner] need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings."
Elsewhere, Bastiat likens the relationship that Obama seeks to have with the mass of Americans to "the relationship between the clay and the potter."
Another long-departed thinker who understood the Obama-type of leader was Adam Smith. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published over a quarter of a millennium ago, Smith used the term "the man of system" for what we today would call progressives, socialists, political planners, or social engineers -- the type of leader who, like Obama, desires to remake society.
According to Smith, this type of person "is apt to be very wise in his own conceit. ... He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the [planner] might choose to impress upon it."
Smith then offers this comment on Obama's modus operandi: for him "to insist upon establishing ... in spite of all opposition, every thing which [his agenda] may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the common-wealth, and that his fellow citizens should accommodate themselves to him, and not he to them. ... When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the Constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will."
When reading about the would-be social engineer's disdain of constitutional government, how can one help but think of Obama, who has explicitly stated his dissatisfaction with the Constitution's limits on the exercise of executive power?
No, Barack Obama is nothing new. The human race has seen his type in countless guises and forms throughout history.
He is the cheap demagogue, seeking to divide and conquer by vilifying targeted minorities (e.g., "the rich" and "big oil corporations").
He is the cynical manipulator, playing upon citizens' fear and ignorance.
He is the clever corruptor, appealing to people's baser impulses, such as envy.
He is the sociopath, who, due to some combination of hatred and disrespect for others and inflated love of self, suffers from the delusion that he is morally and intellectually qualified to remake society as if his fellow man were (to use Bastiat's terms) "clay," "sand," "manure."
Through most of American history, a man like this never would have gotten close to the presidency; however, we have arrived at that stage of democratic degeneration in which huge numbers of citizens believe in the myth of the political "superman" who will use the power of the state to save them from life's problems and relieve them of the tasks of thinking and providing for themselves.
If we have reached the point where a majority of Americans are willing to trade the sometimes daunting responsibilities of independence for the illusive security of dependence on the state, then we will have more leaders -- no, rulers -- like Barack Obama, liberty will be lost, and we will have followed the democratic Roman Empire down the path to economic ruin and political disintegration.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.