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Our Passive-Aggressive President

I’m not terribly impressed by the little cottage industry organized around the psychoanalysis of Barack Obama. Having made my way through several tiers of academia and cocktail circuits on both coasts, it’s difficult for me to buy the idea that our president is an alien, un-American being, and it’s even harder for me to get excited about giving him a good speculative probing.

So I don’t much know what kind of guy President Obama is, and I don’t much care. I do care quite a bit about what kind of president he is, however. Now, I admit, Obama’s puzzling leadership style has driven more than a few critics to plunge into labyrinthine investigations of his personality in the hopes of finding some explanatory key tucked away at its center.

Nonetheless, this is a fool’s errand. What matters is not whether the president is, for instance, a passive-aggressive guy, but whether he is a passive-aggressive president. The soap opera surrounding our Libyan engagement, and Obama’s halting and irregular efforts at managing it, have me convinced that the answer is yes.

A pattern has emerged. With the Wisconsin union drama, with the long, tormented passage and reversal of Obamacare, even with the Skip Gates scandal, the president has oscillated, one way or the other and sometimes both, between a mild-mannered non-interventionism and a terse, testy, yet attenuated variety of interventionism. So it is again with Libya. Neither the passivity nor the aggressiveness is without its bemused critics, right and left. And neither has proven very effective. Put together, they seem to deliver the worst of both worlds. His errors unforced, his support unreliable, his strategy inscrutable, Obama as president has time and again left allies and opponents in an uncanny perpetual lurch.

In 2008, it was John McCain who was lampooned and derided as the Erratic One. Three years later, Obama has shown a clear consistency only in his unwillingness to package his public policy conceptually for the American people. What could be more mysterious coming from a man whose presidential campaign was the most crisply and effectively delivered high-concept political pitch in American history?

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  1. Claire Berlinski
    C

    James, I hate to be the psychoanalysis nerd here, but ”passive-aggressive” doesn’t mean “inconsistent” or “passive one moment, aggressive the next.” It’s a clinical term referring to a consistent pattern of expressing hostility and aggression through passivity–by, for example, exhibiting chronic lateness or forgetfulness. Is that what you mean? 

  2. Trace

    Obama’s campaign was spectacular when it was in control and only lurched when confronted with the unexpected. I think this is the pattern of his presidency as well.

    The administration has been most effective (and quietly ruthless) in the administrative branch where it runs the show and must pay only lip service to critics. (It is spectacularly effective at writing regulations.) It runs into trouble where it must forge consensus or compromise. And it is downright incompetent when confronted with tasks or events that are not on the agenda. And it is in these moments as well that the president seems most peevish.

    Unlike you James, I find the psychoanalysis fascinating and what I see is what others have observed. This is a man who has never not gotten his way until, ironically, he got the thing he most wanted. Barack Obama would make a beneficent and gracious monarch; but makes a peevish and inconsistent public servant.

    I believe the correct term of art is not passive-aggressive but rather (incredibly) high-handed.

    P.S./ And where exactly are all these L.A. cocktail parties where people are standing around criticizing Barack Obama?  Have you joined the Bohemian Club?

  3. James Poulos
    C
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: James, I hate to be the psychoanalysis nerd here, but ”passive-aggressive” doesn’t mean “inconsistent” or “passive one moment, aggressive the next.” It’s a clinical term referring to a consistent pattern of expressing hostility and aggression through passivity–by, for example, exhibiting chronic lateness or forgetfulness. Is that what you mean?  · Mar 22 at 2:56pm

    I don’t want to get boxed in by psychoanalytical nerdery, but there is an element of the aggressive passivity present in the broader pattern, isn’t there?

  4. Jerry Carroll
    James Poulos: Having made my way through several tiers of academia and cocktail circuits on both coasts, it’s difficult for me to buy the idea that our president is an alien, un-American being, and it’s even harder for me to get excited about giving him a good speculative probing.

    Um, does that dispose of the matter? Prepared as I am to admire the high-level quality of faculty cocktail parties where bon mots vie with bon justes and lesser credentialed folk must fall back in dazzled swoons, I’m not so sure you can separate the man from the man in office. If he is a preening narcissist in private life, doesn’t that have some bearing on decisions made in his public role? Did Nixon’s paranoia play a role in Watergate? Many think so. Did LBJ’s grandiosity factor in his downfall? Ditto. And then there’s Bill Clinton.

  5. John Marzan

    Obama is most aggressive when battling those evil white republicans.

  6. Chris Johnson

     Humans bore me, really.  They mask their characters in clothing and speech.  I prefer the clarity of invertebrates.

    In that context, your query is amusing.  Who cares what that particular human donned during a campaign to fool the greatest number of the least informed?  He didn’t fool 48% of the population and I am sure that a healthy percentage beyond that gives more thought to their sock choice.

    Football analogy: Forget the psychoanalysis of a person like Albert Haynesworth, what may that have to do with his performance, on the field, as a football player?  Um, anybody that didn’t realize that in high school, Haynesworth was probably voted “Most Likely To Stomp On The Face” of a helpless player without a helmet, didn’t bother to give even a cursory look.  And he, too, was elevated to D.C.!

    Yes, the proof is now evident for some to see, but that does not excuse those people that are uninvolved or insufficiently discerning from having elected him.  What possible utility does the psychoanalytic aspect have, when it comes to mitigating the damage?  Oh, I get it; cover for for them to acknowledge the obvious.

  7. Brian Edward

    Being one myself, my nutshell analysis of Obama is that he is a lazy academic with all the self-absorbtion, self-aggrandizement, pettiness, and passive aggressivity that entails.  But then again, that might just be a case of me being all of those things…

    My backup analysis continues to be that he is just there for the perks

  8. Aaron Miller

    James, you’re searching for something solid where there is none. Obama is a lie. Anyone who lies as often, as brazenly and as casually as he does has no fixed personality or immutable frame of action. Whether your focus is the man or the President, the answer is the same: he’s a wave in the wind, moving one way only until nudged toward another.

    The President’s actions are inconsistent because the President himself is inconsistent.

  9. Roque Nuevo

    His errors unforced, his support unreliable, his strategy inscrutable, Obama as president has time and again left allies and opponents in an uncanny perpetual lurch.

    In 2008, it was John McCain who was lampooned and derided as the Erratic One. Three years later, Obama has shown a clear consistency only in his unwillingness to package his public policy conceptually for the American people. What could be more mysterious coming from a man whose presidential campaign was the most crisply and effectively delivered high-concept political pitch in American history?

    Stanley Kurtz has a handle on it:

    • “Unwillingness to package” is not so “mysterious” after all: “Obama has so far been reluctant to fully explain any of this to either Congress or the American public, perhaps because he realizes that the ideological basis of his actions would not be popular if openly admitted.”

    • His strategy inscrutable“: “What Samantha Power and her supporters want is to solidify the principle of “responsibility to protect” in international law. That requires a “pure” case of intervention on humanitarian grounds. Power’s agenda would explain why Obama acted when he acted, and why the public rationale for action has not included regime change.”

  10. Larry Koler
    James Poulos: a man whose presidential campaign was the most crisply and effectively delivered high-concept political pitch in American history? ·

    He didn’t deliver it — it was delivered to him. His was an affirmative action campaign. Never have we seen such a “slobbering love affair.” An anti-American Marxist elected to the presidency? How did we come to this?

    I think it’s very easy to see what’s going on with him: he has no executive experience. But, worse than that he doesn’t have the temperament for an executive. Voting present should have been a big clue but the slobbering got in the way. 

    It’s interesting how often people promote the intellectual capability of a candidate (which is important) over the decision making ability. Obama is simply an indecisive intellectual. This is common in the intellectual world. 

    When people say that a president should have executive experience they don’t realize that this doesn’t explain it well. Executives make 15 decisions before breakfast. This takes practice. You have to develop the intuitive side of the mind to work in concert with the intellect. A good president has to have a very flexible mind.

  11. Roque Nuevo

    I’m afraid Claire’s right. Using the term “passive-aggressive” is confusing here. You’re talking about being indecisive. You’re talking about being in over one’s head and spinning one’s wheels uselessly. “What, me worry?” is not passive-aggressive, although it may be both passive and aggressive, depending.

    It’s great that you don’t want to bat psychoanalytic terminology around when discussing politics. But then, why do you then go ahead and bat psychoanalytic terminology around when discussing politics? You then can’t tell people not to bother you with “nerdy” psychoanalytical terminology because you used it yourself in your own post. Get it?

    Just take it out and it’ll be fine. For example,

    Nonetheless, this is a fool’s errand. What matters is not whether the president is, for instance, a passive-aggressive guy, but who he is as president. The soap opera surrounding our Libyan engagement, and Obama’s halting and irregular efforts at managing it, have me convinced that he is [just in over his head and reacting to events, etc etc.—ed.] A pattern has emerged, and so forth