Obama's Great Man Delusion
Amid the Ukraine crisis last week, President Obama spoke several times by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to reports, the “conversation” soon devolved into accusations. Now U.S.- Russia relations are the worst they’ve been since the Cold War; not only are the two nations at odds on policy, but their leaders seem to harbor deep personal animosity toward each other. What else could you expect when one self-anointed Great Man faces off with another who thinks he is also Great?
Those who suppose themselves Great Men are capable of doing great harm. That has been the case with President Obama’s health care takeover, green energy fiascos, and failed jobs initiatives. Now the effects of his mishandling of foreign affairs are coming to light not just in the Ukraine, but also in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Instead of doing the job he was elected to do, Obama seems to have spent the last five years posing as the greatest leader since Napoleon.
There’s some indication that Obama actually believes he is the greatest leader since Napoleon. He is “historic”; he is transformational; he is changing the fabric of American society. He’s a lot like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Ronald Reagan combined, only better. And we’re stuck with him for another three years.
For Obama, the Great Man is the man who refuses to negotiate, the one who advances but never retreats, the one who presents himself as “above” partisanship while pursuing his own ends, the “only adult” in the room. That all sounds like another disastrous Great Man: when Lenin’s collectivization of Soviet agriculture resulted in mass famine of 1921-1922, that Great Man refused to admit he was wrong and continued to enforce his mistaken policy. Six million died.
In reality, Great Men like Lenin are only fearful little men, but their megalomania always causes harm. With his nose raised higher in the air than anyone else in the room, Obama appears to be one of these little men.
Reportedly, Obama’s first words after being sworn in for a second term were “I did it.” Not “I’m looking forward to serving the American people for a second term.” Not “I hope we can patch up our differences and work together.” Not even “The American people have spoken.” Just “I did it,” with the emphasis on “I.”
The media should have jumped on those three words, but they were too swept up in the celebration of their candidate’s victory to notice. Their candidate had “done it,” twice. Now they plan to hand out passes for next three years, then come up with something to call the Obama Legacy. Maybe it will comprise revised food labeling.
The Great Man complex is this president’s fatal flaw. Megalomania cuts one off from others so that discussion, negotiation, and compromise become impossible, and without such interaction, nothing gets done. It’s hard to govern when you’re taking selfies.
Obama’s second term is turning into a disaster largely because the president won’t talk. His recent budget proposal was DOA, as usual. Not a single Democrat spoke seriously about passing it. Even the New York Times called it a “populist wish list.” Now, a week after it was delivered to Congress, can anyone remember a single new idea in Obama’s 2015 budget proposal?
It seems that Obama absolutely hates negotiating with Congress. That’s one reason he talks so often about “going around” it. Just because he has “a pen and a phone,” he thinks he doesn’t have to work with Congress. Maybe that’s why none of his initiatives since 2010 has passed, and what did pass earlier – including ObamaCare – has been scaled back or reversed in the courts.
In his great book, Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti has a great deal to say about rulers who imagine themselves to be Great Men. That is because Canetti wrote this important book during the period when Hitler and Stalin rose to power. Canetti observed these delusional, paranoid, megalomaniacal leaders carefully, and he compared them to so-called Great Men of the past, including Caesar and Napoleon.
According to Canetti, these men’s sense of greatness, especially their instinct to command and survive a great mass of others, is “a dangerous and insatiable passion” (p. 230). It’s not enough to be president. One must be emperor, with a pen and a phone. And what could be more imperial than nationalizing the health care system so as to place the lives of millions at risk? What could be more Caesar-like than to throw the world into chaos – the Arab Spring, Syria, the Ukraine, and whatever else is coming – and issue threats from on high that there will be “consequences” and “costs”?
And yet, the more Obama postures as the Great Man, the worse things get for America and for his “legacy.” In the end, those who imagine themselves Great Men always fall from on high. That is because they have mistaken command for governance. Just because the president wants open borders and amnesty for illegals doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Just because he nationalizes health care doesn’t mean it will work. Just because he warns Putin of Grave Consequences doesn’t mean Putin’s not laughing.
Obama seems to think he can snap his fingers and everyone, including the hard-nosed Russian ruler, will come running. Maybe he really doesn’t understand that that the prestige and power of the United States have sunk to a postwar low, and that he – President Obama – is largely to blame. Or maybe he does see it but thinks he can forfeit the Crimea, lose eastern Ukraine, watch the bloody civil war in Syria drag on, and continue to play the Great Man for another three years. Who can tell?
As Canetti put it, “[n]obody knows what Napoleon’s real feelings were during the retreat from Moscow.”
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).