Jokes reveal truths, which is why the best way to appreciate the real Obama, not the fabled character of hope and change, is how he tells jokes. He’s good at, no, great at telling jokes. He kills at comedic performances, and his sense of timing is magnificent. Jokes, though, show how someone really sees the world, and the joke I’m thinking of is one he made during a speech in March 2009, when the revelations of AIG’s massive retention bonuses became public. It had been less than two months since Obama’s inauguration, but the major policy framework of the administration – the bailouts – had been laid down. The AIG bonus scandal was outrageous to the public, a symbol of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars being funneled to an arrogant corporation that had helped destroy the economy.
Barack Obama had stepped up to the lectern to deliver a stern rebuke to AIG executives who had taken bonuses with taxpayer money. Obama talked of the outrage of an irresponsible company, and how his administration would do everything within its power to get the money back. But a few minutes in, he coughed, slightly, choking a bit, as his mouth was a bit dry. But after he coughed, he stopped, and reflected on the gesture with a joke. ”I’m choked, choked with anger”, he said. Obama chuckled. Reporters laughed. And it was funny, really funny. Because everyone in the room knew that Obama wasn’t actually angry about the AIG bonuses, and never intended to do anything about it. No one there was angry about the bonuses, and everyone knew nothing would happen to AIG executives. The House would pass bills, which would die in the Senate. The only people angry were Americans at large, who could not believe that their government worked for Wall Street. So the joke was funny, ironic, cool. But the moment wasn’t right for it, because this was a serious time for outrage – so Obama quickly reverted to form, and the teleprompter took over.
Pundits didn’t reflect on this “joke”. No one really noted it. It was very much like George Bush’s comment to reporters that was only later highlighted by Michael Moore, when Bush was on a golf course and perfunctorily said “we must find these terrorist killers….” and then turned to swing a golf club. ”Now watch this drive.” Obama had risen to that level of duplicity, not a lie in the conventional sense of saying something that wasn’t true, but an entirely constructed false persona. He had polished the tools of the Presidency – the utter banality of PR, the constipated talking points, the routine abuse of power – and taken them to a new level with a self-aware sense of irony about his own narcissistic dishonesty. His challenge was so outrageous – I dare you to call me on what a liar I am as I joke about how much I am lying to you right now – that he turned an obnoxious bluff into art.
Obama had shown this breathtaking tendency to con people as they knew they were being conned before, the most public time during the campaign being his cynical answer when he was asked about his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He had said, when fighting for union votes with Clinton, “I will make sure we renegotiate (NAFTA).” Even as he said this, it turns out that campaign advisor Austan Goolsbee had gone to Canada to assure them this was a lie (sure enough, Obama’s trade policies are identical to Bush’s, or worse). And once the election ended, and Obama was asked about his broken promise by a reporter, he gave the following answer.
“This is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign,” President Obama said during his Transition in early December, when a reporter asked him about criticisms he and now-Secretary of State Clinton had made about each other’s foreign policy views.
“They’re your quotes, sir,” said the reporter, Peter Baker of the New York Times.
“No, I understand. And you’re having fun,” Obama continued. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not faulting it.”
This is cynicism as art. It’s literally a Presidential candidate running on hope and change saying that campaign promises are a joke and a ruse. His comments on AIG were similarly dishonest. When Barack Obama spoke about the AIG money, he gave a well-constructed speech in which he discussed how his administration would do everything legally possible to block the payment of those bonuses. Of course, those bonuses had been paid out days before he made the statement, so the idea that he’d “block” the bonuses was already something of deception. His promises to do everything legal to claw back the money were also misleading – Obama didn’t get the money back, and never intended to. In fact, the administration had weeks earlier asked Chris Dodd to insert a provision into law ensuring the AIG bonuses would be paid – and then blamed Dodd for the fiasco.
Politicians play hardball all the time. They lie on a regular basis, it’s one of the tricks of the trade. But Obama’s politics, and his career, are built on an exquisitely and brilliantly constructed narrative of integrity and progress. He is the outsider become the insider, the multi-racial meritocrat whose black and white heritage came together into the ultimate conciliator and political leader. His is the story of America, that of a brilliant Harvard Law school educated striver with roots in community organizing, who became a powerful orator, and then America’s first black President. Progressive in spirit, cautious in temperament, he first and foremost understands the challenges facing the nation, the powerful injustice of slavery’s heritage, even though he ultimately finds solace in his belief in America, in American institutions, and in the ultimate goodness of the American way of life.
But there is another narrative, a real narrative about Barack Obama and his administration. Obama is the ultimate cynic, a dishonest, highly reactionary social and corporate ladder climbing con artist. Obama is the guy who calls a female reporter “sweety”, who plays poker with the guys, and who thinks that his senior advisor’s decision to cash out after making a “modest” salary of $172,000 at the White House is just natural. He’s the guy who used the rationale that he’s a father of two girls as to why he doesn’t want young women to have access to Plan B. He was in favor of gay marriage in 1996, flip flopped for political reasons, and then pretended to change his mind as a matter of conscience. He runs on populism with a worse record than George W. Bush on income inequality. His narcissism, and the post-modern ironic sense of self-awareness of how his narrative is put together and tended, is his defining character trait. It’s not just that he’s a liar. Lyndon Johnson was a liar, but LBJ lied us into a war in Vietnam as well as a war on poverty. FDR lied all the time, for good and ill. Obama’s entire edifice is based on lying almost entirely to help sustain his image, with almost no interest in sound policy-making. Obama understands the threat of climate change, but like the exceptional con artist he is, what happens to others he does not know, or what happens in the future, is irrelevant to him. He understands banking, and war, and women’s issues, and corruption and Citizens United. Like a great con artist, he has studied his mark, the American voter, and specifically the Democratic voter, and he undersands which buttons to push.
Many criticize Obama, with the idea that he doesn’t understand, and if only he understood, he would change his mind. This is part of his false narrative of hope and change. But Obama reads Paul Krugman – he studied the left intensely and spent years as a community organizer. He understands his opposition, those crying out for justice against the powerful, and finds them laughable, finds in them weakness at best, a punchline at worst. He reads his left-wing opponents so he can absorb the talking points, and rebut them. Some think that Obama can be appealed to around the better angels of nature, that he’s naturally with “the left” but must be gently praised. But again, this is more of the false hope and change narrative. Obama understands Saul Alinsky. He gets left-wing ideas. But he hates the left, with the passion of any bully towards his victims. To him, they are chumps, weak, pathetic, losers. They are such pathetic losers, in fact, that they will believe anything he tells them. And Obama has no better nature, he is what he’s done in office, someone who murders children with drone strikes and then jokes about it to his rich friends.
Yves wrote about this narrative a few weeks ago, when she pointed out his career in the Illinois state Senate was based on working for billionaire developers to destroy poor neighborhoods. Few really gets who he is, at his core, and almost no one is willing to publicly point it out. There are some who went to law school with him, who saw his enormous grasping social climbing tendencies, his eager corporate good old boy persona, his narcissistic calculations. But they are drowned out by the institutional left-wing voices, the fanboy reporters, the sycophantic labor leaders, the slavishly worshipful foundations, and the voters who cannot hear any alternative to the hope and change they know and love. The only mainstream narrative challenging hope and change is the stupid right-wing storyline that he’s a Kenyan Muslim socialist. That’s just racist idiocy. But there are those on the right who understand Obama’s narcissism, and they may just make that their electoral narrative.
Think about this problem in a slightly different way. It’s been three years. Why hasn’t been there a great iconic impersonator of Barack Obama, like Tina Fey and Sarah Palin or Will Ferrell (or James Adomian) and George W. Bush? A comic impersonator reveals something about the core of an individual. The people imitating Obama seem to think that he’s far more left-wing and principled beneath the surface, that if he let out who he really was, how really angry he is at the Republicans, that’s the parody they hit. It falls flat, because it’s not true to who he is. The truth is that he’s a narcissistic sociopath dressed up as a cool corporate brand. The real Obama parody is an Obama who wears an Air Force One fleece over an Obama t-shirt, who says to a reporter “Now hang on, let me finish, speaking slowly and avoiding your question, which is, by the way excellent.” He’s President, and if you’re upset with him, don’t worry, look at that beautiful photo of Obama smiling and pointing.
This alternative narrative is a hard truth to hear, because it carries with it an implicit rejection of American exceptionalism. Yes, American institutions are no better, and in many ways are more malignant, than those of many other countries. Yes, our political leaders, our press, our military leadership, operate in service to sociopathic aims. Yes, our freedoms are often an illusion, unless you fit a very narrow criteria. Yes, our banks are run to rob us, yes, our CIA spies on us, and yes, our government is fundamentally anti-democratic. Yes, our President is a con artist, and yes, nearly every reporter who writes about him participates in this set of lies, because of careerism, social financial reasons, or a simple lack of competence or imagination.
But, the idea that the king is always good, which is where the hope and change narrative draws its deep strength, is something we do not have to accept. We as people can break this spell, and speak to our own dignity, as citizens. We can learn our own power, if in no other manner than in saying at the voting booth and in public, “I do not accept your lies, and though you might take it by force, I will not grant you my consent willingly.” We can choose not to address our political officials by their titles. We can work to organize ourselves, and our lives, with those of us who understand that power is something that must be taken, with money, organization, but most of all, with moral courage. It is not something that politicians have except through our consent, consent we have been giving for decades, to a rotten political class. This is what they truly fear. This is why they spend tens of billions on propaganda, on advertising, on symbols and personalities and celebrity. This is why they hide the workings of our government and banks and institutions of power in the language of boring bureaucrat-ese. This is ultimately why they are weak. Because in order for them to do their work quietly, we must go about our day, and believe either the hope and change narrative, or the Kenyan socialist narrative, scoffing at the opposing “team” who thinks what we do not. Instead, we can choose an alternative narrative, that power and consent come from us, come from the choices that we make, as people, and as citizens. And we will no longer believe that Barack Obama, that cool, brilliant, self-aware con artist is anything but what he has revealed himself to be.