Contempt: The Defining Characteristic of the Obama Presidency

From the very beginning, many writers, scholars, and commentators have attempted to define the essence of Barack Obama's presidency.

It isn't easy to find a simple label for such a multifaceted individual.  On any given day, Obama may seem like a play-for-keeps Chicago pol who rubs elbows with some shady characters; a hardcore environmentalist wedded to a radical green agenda; a crony capitalist with surprisingly close ties to deep-pocketed corporate interest groups; a progressive wanting to sunder the chains of the constitution to hugely expand government à la Franklin Delano Roosevelt; a Jimmy Carter clone, whose foreign policy is marked by turning his back on America's allies while wooing, if not embracing, the leaders of unfriendly regimes; a Fabian socialist, too cagey to advocate outright socialism, but always in favor of more government economic planning and more redistribution of wealth; a hardcore radical with close personal and ideological ties to various militant revolutionaries (e.g., Bill Ayers), political revolutionaries (e.g., Saul Alinsky), and communists (e.g., Frank Marshall Davis, who is the subject of my colleague Paul Kengor's newest book, The Communist).

All these assessments ring true, but they are incomplete.  The ideological influences acting upon Barack Obama are multifarious.  There is, however, an attitudinal quality that seems to be the common denominator linking those ideological underpinnings.  The salient, definitive characteristic of the man and his presidency was crystalized for me when Congress cited his attorney general for contempt.

"That's it," I thought: contempt.  Never have we seen a president so full of naked contempt for any person or idea or policy that does not accord with his own vision, plans, and beliefs.  Obama doesn't just disagree with others; he holds them in contempt.

Obama has shown contempt for American friends and allies.  He insulted the Czechs and Poles when he unilaterally and without warning repudiated our missile defense agreements with them.  His contemptuous snubs and denigrations of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are notorious.  He recently showed contempt for the British by refusing to say he would recognize Britain's claim to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, even if the Falklands' residents voted for British sovereignty in a plebiscite.  And just as Jimmy Carter ensured the shah's departure by rejecting him, so Obama paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in Egypt by snubbing, ignoring, and abandoning a flawed ally rather than work with him to encourage reforms.

The president has shown his contempt for American voters in various ways, from whispering to Russian leader Medvedev that he will be able to concede more to Putin after he wins re-election to having the Justice Department fight state voter ID laws to decreeing that illegal immigrants be given work permits that will lead to driver's licenses that will lead to illegals being registered to vote under various "motor voter" statutes.

He has shown contempt for Republicans -- bluntly telling them "I won" (with the unspoken but clearly implied message, "Keep quiet in the back seat while I choose the country's policies") in one of his first negotiations with them; storming out of negotiations when Republicans try to represent their constituents, and even (so I have been told by a member of Congress) by looking out the window rather than engage politely with a GOP congressional leader on the rare occasion of being alone in the Oval Office with him.

Obama has contempt for our Constitution, as shown by his willful and blatantly unconstitutional non-recess "recess appointments."  Similarly, he shows contempt for the rule of law by arbitrarily deciding what laws he will enforce.  Early on, he ignored two centuries of settled bankruptcy law by shafting GM's and Chrysler's secured creditors and giving the loot to the UAW instead.  His Justice Department has refused to prosecute black violations of civil rights laws, disdained to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, and perennially declined to enforce federal immigration laws.  He also decided earlier this year that the No Child Left Behind Act would apply to some states, but not to others.

He has shown contempt for federalism and for leaders of state governments that exercise their Tenth Amendment rights.  When Texas refused to disburse federal Medicaid dollars for abortions, Obama had a fit and withdrew $30 million of Medicaid funding for many health programs geared toward poor women in Texas to show his pique.  More recently, when the Supreme Court said that Arizona could take some steps to deal with illegal immigrants, Obama immediately announced the suspension of existing agreements between federal and state officials and directed federal authorities to refuse to take official calls from Arizona that reported illegal immigrant activity.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, Obama has manifested a contemptuous attitude toward members of the Court by publicly scolding them for their Citizens United decision during a State of the Union address, and this year by waging a public campaign to influence the Court's decision on ObamaCare.

Obama has shown contempt for fellow Democrats, too.  While sitting in the balcony during his most recent State of the Union address, I was shocked when the president, superficially paying lip service to the practice of patching up differences and learning to work together, reminded the whole world that he had defeated Hillary Clinton, but now she was behaving like a good loser and working for him.

He has contempt for America and our place in the world, disavowing American exceptionalism and making exaggerated bows to foreign leaders.  Apparently, he gains some personal satisfaction in American abasement and apology and rather than showing his respect for the country he represents -- a country that, despite occasional missteps, has done more to free people from political and economic tyranny than any other republic in the history of the world.

He has shown contempt for our military personnel and traditions, such as by opting to endanger the lives of special forces by exposing their identities for political gain, by ordering the Navy to purchase taxpayer-subsidized (and far less efficient and reliable) renewable energy, and by proposing to increase health care costs for troops while holding those costs down for unionized civilian workers at the Pentagon.

Obama manifests a contempt for truth that is egregious even by the low standard of politicians.  He has fabricated parts of his life in his autobiographies and told multiple whoppers about his signature "achievement," ObamaCare, and his habitually contemptuous attitude itself has made a mockery of his promise to bridge gaps and unite Americans.

I feel sorry for the president.  Living and breathing contempt for others is a lousy way to live, and it must make him miserable.  The larger problem, though, is whether the government of a democratic republic can function effectively enough to address our country's mammoth problems with a president who discourages dialog by chronically oozing scorn, disrespect, and contempt.  Such an imperious, supercilious attitude seems more appropriate for a caesar than an American president.  Do we want four more years of such a toxic, divisive tone in Washington?