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The Audacity of Humility
Does Barack Obama have any? Does it matter?
28 October 2008

The late Tim Russert once described his role on the venerable Meet the Press thus: “I view it very much as a national treasure, and I am the temporary custodian and try to take care of it, and hopefully pass it off in good shape one day.” That might be a healthy credo for a United States president to apply to his office, too. Sure, “custodian” may belie the presidency’s potential to alter the course of history in ways that are terribly profound: imagine a post–Stephen Douglas nation. But the word “temporary” is apt. The Founding Fathers’ insistence on making the presidency a term-limited and duly checked office, no matter how wonderful the guy at the top was, wasn’t just a nifty way to stave off monarchy but a way to make clear that the power was truly with the people: “Hey, Mr. President, you’re out in eight years—maybe four—but we’ll keep voting for your replacement and your replacement’s replacement till we die.” (The Constitution did not limit presidents to two terms until 1951, when the 22nd Amendment was ratified. Until then, the limits were customary rather than constitutional.)

So a president who understands that the exclusive Leaders of the Free World Club is powerful yet ultimately limited, prestigious yet not of his own making, is a leader who understands that the majority of his countrymen placed confidence in him to “pass” America “off in good shape one day,” not to spend his time trying personally to mold it and ensure that his beautiful mug kicks Washington’s off the $1 bill. Call me a biased cynic, but candidate Barack Obama doesn’t seem to understand that; or if he does, he seems nevertheless to indulge in a disturbing amount of cult-of-personality marketing and self-celebration that far exceeds historical norms—even for an office that, by definition, demands a lot of ego. It’s as if he doesn’t need to campaign for your vote because he’s already president.

We had, of course, the aborted self-made presidential seal. We still have the “O-Force One” plane, with OBAMA ’08 embroidered on the candidate’s seat with the word PRESIDENT immediately beneath it. We also had the candidate’s nonpolitical—wink, wink—summertime stroll through Berlin. A senior foreign policy advisor of Obama’s told reporters at the time, “It is not going to be a political speech. . . . When the president of the United States goes and gives a speech, it is not a political speech or a political rally.” Indeed, the Berlin speech was hyped with campaign-produced hagiographic artwork, which looked like a Mao-sanctioned Kraftwerk concert poster with just a sprinkling of American patriotism—the red, white, and blue color scheme—on top. And let’s not forget that at the Democratic National Convention, Denver’s Pepsi Center was good enough for an actual former president, his wife, and the ailing lion of the Senate and Democratic Party, Ted Kennedy, but not for Obama. He demanded another stage, something bigger and better, with fireworks, Greek columns, and 80,000 adoring fans.

It’s Obama’s rhetoric that is most telling in this light, especially compared with that of his Republican opponents, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin. Palin is far and away the most humble candidate; she rarely speaks of herself as the sitting vice president, but rather disclaims nearly all her hypothetical statements with some form of “If we are so fortunate to serve”—or “privileged,” or “blessed.” The sentiment seems genuine, as did McCain’s during his closing statement of the last presidential debate: serving America, he said, was “the great honor of my life, and I’ve been proud to serve. And I hope you’ll give me an opportunity to serve again. I’d be honored and humbled.”

Such phrases are MIA from Obama transcripts. In fact, he drops the “when I’m president” line so often that his electoral win might as well be a foregone conclusion. (As it is, the New York Times reports that former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta is already whipping up Obama’s inaugural address.) Typical Obama speeches include lines like this, uttered during his first debate with McCain: “I reserve the right, as president of the United States, to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe.” The contrast between Obama’s electoral certainty and McCain’s and Palin’s humility (whether concerted or authentic) is undeniable and striking.

Big deal, you might say. Pre-election cockiness or humility cannot accurately predict effective leadership. Perhaps. But like Obama’s long line of admitted radical influences, associations, and alliances (from Frank Marshall Davis to Reverend Wright to Bill Ayers to Rashid Khalidi), Obama’s consistent overconfident belief in the power of Obama is troubling. It’s troubling because that focus on the self, has, in fact, shelved political and social advancement for Obama’s own gain time and again. Let’s take his famous “community organizing” days in Chicago. Obama, by his own admission, left the job out of frustration after continually hitting brick walls. Fine. But, said a former organizing coworker of his, Mike Kruglik, to reporter Byron York of National Review: “He was constantly thinking about his path to significance and power. . . . He said, ‘I need to go there [Harvard Law School] to find out more about power. How do powerful people think? What kind of networks do they have? How do they connect to each other?’”

And so, some years later, elected politico Obama surfaced in the Illinois state senate. In 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully for Bobby Rush’s congressional seat, it became clear that he had his heart set on the center of national power—Washington. Four years later, of course, he got there as a senator from Illinois. But how has Senator Obama served his Illinois constituents? Poorly, in that they voted for a complete term. Here’s Obama in his own words to the Chicago Sun-Times on November 4, 2004: “I was elected yesterday. . . . I have never set foot in the U.S. Senate. I’ve never worked in Washington. And the notion that somehow I’m immediately going to start running for higher office just doesn’t make sense. So look, I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office in four years, and my entire focus is making sure that I’m the best possible senator on behalf of the people of Illinois. . . . I am not running for president in 2008.” Oops. Within two years, that promise gave way to personal aspirations; Obama has, in fact, spent more time running for a higher office than serving in his current one.

If his track record is shortchanging constituents for personal advancement, what’s to say a President Obama would behave differently? Of course, a President Obama can’t run for higher office, but ego can make a man do funny things. Already, he believes that the force of his own personality is strong enough to garner concessions from the world’s worst dictators—Ahmadinejad, Chávez, Kim Jong Il—dictators with proud histories of playing international watchdogs and diplomats for fools. Gee, what could go wrong there?

By the way, note that when Obama did once profess “humility and knowledge of my own limitations” after his Iowa caucus win, he then followed the sentiment up with the belief that his presidency would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” We all know that totalitarians and tyrants tend to use the same kind of messianic language, if not delivery. A President Obama would be neither a totalitarian nor a tyrant, of course. But it’s no coincidence that a candidate advocating a strong, large, and very left-wing centralized government sounds so imperious.

It’s up to the electorate to decide whether Obama’s hyperliberal ideology and furious ego will make a toxic soup. But as we await the election, let’s chew on a favorite quotation of his polar opposite, Ronald Reagan: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Obama is certainly hungry for credit, adoration, and power; anathema to what the Founders had in mind for a president when they wrote Article II of the Constitution. If there is an Obama presidency, expect limits—lots of them.

Katherine Ernst is a writer living in New York City.

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