The Only Mad Hatter in the Room
One symptom of madness is the tendency to view oneself as superhuman. Superheroes believe that they should not have to run for re-election; after all, they are entitled to it. They don't hold press conferences at which unvetted journalists are allowed to ask real questions. Unlike truly great presidents who believe the American people have a rendez-vous with destiny, superheroes believe they have one. They are so above it all that they don't have to prep for debates. They expect to win by default.
The 20th century was replete with murderous leaders suffering from delusions of grandeur. Mao: The Unknown Story (2005) by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday is an excellent account of one of these mad tyrants. As the authors show, the Chinese people were merely pawns in Mao's schemes to gain power and enlarge it with the ultimate goal of world domination. During the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, in which an estimated 45 million Chinese perished of starvation, murder, and illness, Chairman Mao insisted that the Chinese economy was doing "just fine." The crucial thing was to keep Mao in power, and when his power begin to flag again in the 1960s, he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in which another million Chinese lost their lives.
One does not have to be a mass murderer, of course, to display signs of megalomania. One can simply run an economy into the ground for four years and then claim that the private sector is "doing just fine."
One of the symptoms of schizophrenia, according to NIH, is the belief that one is "someone else, such as a famous historical figure." Delusions of grandeur are disturbing wherever they crop up, but in Walter Mitty types, they may not beall that destructive. In important public figures, however, they can be catastrophic.
So far as I know, there is just one prominent figure in America who, in the past four years, has likened himself to Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, with a bit of Jesus Christ thrown in. If we haven't heard that kind of talk lately, it's only because Obama has become convinced that he is so much greater than any of these figures.
At one point last year, when Congress was at odds over the budget, the president referred to himself as "the adult in the room." By referring to himself as the adult, Obama implied that he was the only adult and that all others, representatives of both parties, were children. That way of thinking, I submit, is entirely consistent with a delusional disorder.
Next it was "partisan bickering," with the suggestion that only the president was above such childishness. Again, the language is revealing. Bickering is characteristic of uncontrolled, irrational children or of adults who are acting like children. In the president's mind, only he is reasonable and composed -- a giant of intellect among the squabbling Lilliputians. Just in terms of practical politics, that characterization of everyone else as small-minded and out of control was not a very effective form of leadership. But my sense is that the president just can't help himself. Leadership is not this president's strong suit because it involves earning the respect of others. Obama does not believe he has to earn anything. He is compelled by some inner demon to pretend that he is superior to everyone else on earth. Why should he have to work for it?
Next it was "balanced." Obama let it be known that he was following a "balanced approach," while all who opposed him were "extremists." Only a madman could believe that an immediate increase of one trillion in new taxes accompanied by phantom spending cuts is actually a balanced proposal. But that is what the president demanded in his budget talks with Speaker Boehner last year: immediate tax hikes "balanced" by cuts scheduled years in the future and of such a nature that no future Congress would authorize them.
While all of this may seem to be just the usual political rhetoric, it is not. There is compelling evidence that Obama really believes he is the only adult in the room, including Obama's odd demeanor during the first presidential debate. At one point, when he exceeded the time limit, the president became visibly hostile when blocked by Jim Lehrer. In a petulant tone of voice, Obama accused Lehrer of "stealing" his "five seconds." For most debaters, the moderator's time call is a routine occurrence that's easily accepted. For Obama, whose delusional behavior is accompanied by symptoms of paranoia, any sort of correction or questioning is perceived as a conspiracy to unseat him. As Elias Canetti pointed out, for the paranoiac, "there is always an exalted position to defend and make secure" (Crowds and Power, 1984, p. 436).
Obama truly believes that his faculties are godlike and thus not subject to the rules of debate. By what right does a lowly debate moderator cut him off?
Defending his "exalter position" is really what this election comes down to for Obama. Visit Mitt Romney's website, and you will read about believing in America -- visit Obama's, and you get a photo of Barack, Nuremberg style, addressing the exalted masses. Does the president really think we want to be down there so far beneath him, hanging on his every word? Well, yes, he does.
Seeking an excuse for his poor performance, the media reported that Obama's tone of voice was that of a bored professor, tired of explaining everything one more time. That was not quite it. Obama was not the weary professor explaining what was obvious to him. He was a man who lives in an alternative universe who cannot quite admit that fact to a national audience.
Obama doesn't like it when reality intrudes, as it did in his first debate. Maybe that's why the only public appearances he makes these days are on university campuses. There he can find adoring masses, no matter how great his failures in office. The 12,000 who showed up in Madison didn't come to hear about creating jobs or gaining respect for America in the Middle East -- they came to see Barack. They came to share the moment with a leader who, for them, is more rock star and guru than chief executive. Governance has nothing to do with Obama's appeal to the young. It is Barack!
Obama is poor at governance for the same reason he is poor at debate: he refuses to think in terms of discussion, collaboration, and negotiation. And the reason he refuses to do so is because he believes all the hype about his "historic" presidency. As he informed Sen. Reid back in 2008, he has "a gift," or so he believes -- a gift of such magnitude that it's really not necessary to make an effort to govern.
But those who walk around believing they have "a gift" are dangerous figures in politics. At a moment when the country faces new terrorist attacks abroad, approaches the fiscal cliff, and slouches toward insolvency, that sort of thinking is not helpful. It portends four more years of national decline, should Obama be re-elected. Those four years would embolden our enemies, dragging us into larger conflicts; they would lead us back into recession; and they would raise the national debt from $16 trillion to more than $20 trillion.
"Forward," after all, is not a term that suggests an attitude of collaboration. It sounds more like a command. It sounds like the delusional thinking of a leader who believes he is leading the masses on a long march and just needs "a little bit more time," as he put it in Charlotte, to complete the journey. If the American people are foolish enough to re-elect him, that journey will not end well.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).