The Being There President

A key to understanding Barack Obama and his presidency may be found in a simple-minded character from a twenty-five year old movie. Truth can be stranger than fiction -- and less enjoyable to experience.

In March, 2007, I wrote this about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama:

Despite a meager record to run on, with virtually no executive experience, he may very well become President. His story is eerily similar in many ways to the story of Chance the Gardener, the main character in the book and movie, Being There. In that story by Jerzy Kosinski, a man literally comes from nowhere to become a Presidential candidate.
The key to his success: a freshness, a lack of record to run on, the constant repetition of simple feel-good platitudes that lull listeners into a sense of trust and induce in them a yearning to believe.

A year later, others began to employ the analogy.*

Being There was a satire about a gardener (mishearing led to him being called Chauncey Gardiner), whose exposure to the real world had been minimal. He spent a great deal of time, however, watching television (“I like to watch TV”).  The constant exposure to television had given him the gift of being able to relate on the lowest-common denominator level with Americans. 

His aphorisms were declared masterpieces of allegorical wisdom; they were simple enough to be capable of many meanings -- like a fortune cookie. He was a blank slate. The media swooned. Wealthy and powerful patrons had found the perfect political candidate to promote to the highest office in the land.  

There are remarkable similarities between Barack Obama and the simple-minded Chauncey Gardiner.

Both like to watch television. In Obama’s case, quite a lot. His knowledge of various television shows, many of them decidedly lowbrow, help gin up support for the first “pop culture president.”  While he avoids discussions with both Republicans and Democrats about policy (or can appear to be like a deer frozen in headlights when discussing health care, his signature policy), he can converse quite comfortably about Jersey Shore and Real Housewives. He watches television regularly.

Gardiner’s sayings included this one about the economy:

Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?

[Long pause]

Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

President "Bobby": In the garden.

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

Were Obama’s slogans (Hope and Change; Yes, We Can; We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For) any more profound? What did this gibberish even mean? Yet his simple TV-informed phrases were praised for their profundity.

If “tastes great, less filling” can sell beer, why can’t a presidency be sold that way as well?

In Obama’s second autobiography (more to follow, unfortunately), The Audacity of Hope, he tipped his hand when he described himself being a “"blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."  Indeed, Ted Kennedy encouraged him to run for the presidency precisely because he had no record.

Call it the Chauncey Gardiner school of politics. One can speculate that Obama, an avid movie watcher who once talked about his desire to go Bulworth (another movie about politics), might have gathered some tips about politics in America by watching Being There.

The movie ended before election night. It was a comedy. Viewers would never know how a President Gardiner would have served.

But I think we have a good idea now.

As Joseph Curl writes in “Obama, the unaccountable president,”

Has there ever been a president in the history of America who knew less than President Obama?

With each new crisis and scandal, Mr. Obama tells Americans that he just didn’t know.

He didn’t know the Veterans Administration was letting America’s veterans languish and die unattended — he learned about it in the newspaper.

He didn’t know the Justice Department was trolling phone records of members of the U.S. media. He didn’t know the ATF was running guns into Mexico; didn’t know the NSA was spying on the German chancellor; didn’t know the Obamacare website was a disaster; didn’t know the IRS was targeting conservative groups.

Bryan Preston piled on in “Barack Obama Seems to Learn a Lot from News Reports. Except, How to be President,”

For the VA scandal, Obama and his team couldn’t even bestir themselves to come up with a new excuse. They just trotted out the “he learned about it from watching the news” line that they have used and abused in past scandals.

· Associated Press: Obama Learned Of IRS Targeting From News Reports: Aide

· Real Clear Politics: Carney: Obama Didn’t Know About Fast & Furious Until He Saw It In Media

· USA Today: NSA Denies Obama Knew Of Spying On German Leader

· CNN: HHS Chief: President Didn’t Know Of Obamacare Website Woes Beforehand

· Business Insider: The White House Says It Had No Idea The DOJ Seized The AP’s Phone Records

After the Fast and Furious scandal broke, Obama responded to the national outrage by saying he was out of the loop until he turned on the television.

So the President of the United States, with hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars supporting Leviathan, only learns about problems and scandals by watching TV?

Hey, believe it or not, this is possible.

He is a notorious loner who does not like people, according to a former aide; he has a chronic work ethic problem; he is protected by bad news and problems by his small entourage of ego-protectors; he does the barest of minimum in terms of presidential duties -- that have been dumbed down for him to a check-the-box style of presidential leadership; he has a lot of fun  enjoying his luxe lifestyle; and, as previously noted, he does watch a lot of TV.

So we have a bumbling president whose administration lurches from one act of incompetence to another -- when it is not passive before America’s adversaries.

Television-watching induces passivity – ask any parent of a toddler; Gardiner was probably the most passive of leading characters of any move ever created. The world swirled around him as he remained vapid, disapassionate and un-empathetic, just like Barack Obama who has been widely criticized (including by fellow Democrats) for his detachment

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus commented on Obama’s presidency back in 2011:

For a man who won office talking about change we can believe in, Barack Obama can be a strangely passive president…

…there are a startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action -- unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issue of the moment. He is, too often, more reactive than inspirational, more cautious than forceful. The dots connect to form an unsettling portrait of a 'Where's Waldo?' presidency."

Where is Waldo? He is probably in front of the Boob Tube. And that would also answer the increasing number of critics, such as National Review’s Jim Geraghty who ask (rhetorically?) “So…just what is it that you do here, Mr. President”?

The scandals and self-inflicted man-made disasters (among them a wasted trillion-dollar stimulus, the wreckage of Obamacare) all reinforce the image that he may be a skilled speechmaker-if one likes messages the length of Tweets-but a lousy manager and terrible leader. Also, President Passive just doesn’t seem to care when people suffer.

Charles Krauthammer noted in 2009 another similarity between Obama and Gardiner. Obama sat passive during a 45-minute diatribe against America by Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua. His refusal to defend America was justified with the rationale that he was planting seeds for a new relationship. What was Krauthammer’s take?

The Obama people, after he criticizes America in Europe, and after he stands utterly silent when America's excoriated at this meeting in Trinidad, say well, he is planting the seeds for a new relationship.

Well, I'm watching for the flowers to bloom and the garden to grow. To me, it looks like a Chauncey gardener doctrine, that everything will happen in the future. Let's see. I'm not that sure.

 Of course, promises of good things to come can only go so far until people tire of waiting for the promises to be fulfilled. As we enter the sixth year of his presidency the promises have reached their expiration dates.

Jonah Goldberg also used the Gardiner analogy when commenting on Obama’s feel good rah-rah approach towards the ACA’s disastrous rollout:

Yeah, I thought it was a very strange decision to have essentially a campaign rally-style event for what has long ago already become the worst IT disaster in American history. I mean, that's a settled issue that even the defenders agree with now. And the sort of applause line stuff with the human props - half of whom either haven't even enrolled yet or just enrolled yesterday - and the almost Chauncey Gardner-esque sort of, “The product is good, the insurance is good” repetition.

And James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web column points out that the Gardineresque mode may have metastasized:

Life Imitates the Movies

Chance the Gardener: "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."--from "Being There," 1979

"We understand that there are a lot of questions swirling around not just our foreign policy but America's role in the world. People are seeing the trees, but we're not necessarily laying out the forest."--Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, quoted in the New York Times, May 25

Being There was a comedy. Reality under Obama is a tragedy. And it is running for two and a half more years.

* Charles Krauthammer wrote “the man comes from nowhere with a track record as thin as Chauncey Gardiner’s”