SALT LAKE CITY, November 7, 2014 — Between 2004 and 2008, Barack Obama was high on a wave of audacity. The key word from the title of his best-selling memoir affirmed the hopeful and confident way Obama would face down the country’s, and the world’s, problems.
Confidence can easily lapse into hubris; audacity into immodesty.
Antonymic to “audacious” is “modest,” a modifier that has rarely, if ever, been applied to this president.
Just weeks before the midterms this year he declared, “my policies are on the ballot.”
Yet after a major can of something was opened on him and those policies, he merely shrugged. “Republicans had a good night,” he managed to concede after it was apparent to all that Republicans had their best election night in nearly a century. Then he proceeded with a series of statements that betrayed his belief in himself.
“I hear you,” he said to the millions of Americans whose vote amounted to a rebuke. “To the two thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too.”
What a concession! To Barack Obama, the takeaway was that an absent majority supported him, indemnifying him from any blame for his party’s devastating losses.
To think that his performance had nothing to do with his approach is audacious. Even immodest.
The president’s problem is that he cannot conceive that anybody would ever disagree with him.
What started with his 2008 campaign carried right over into his governing style—immodest out of the gate.
Remember his approach to health care reform. He demanded everything without giving anything to his opponents, whom he had just beaten badly. The audacity of hope quickly gave way to the tyranny of immodesty.
Obama refused to negotiated with the GOP. Legitimate opposition to his health policy was cast as Republicans’ desire to withhold medical care to the uninsured. After Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts, the president declared that voters had elected Brown—who ran explicitly as a vote against Obamacare—for the same reasons that they had voted for Obama.
It was an immodest reading of the mood of the country. And Obama went on to sign the bill that was crammed through Congress in the least modest way possible.
A similar immodesty can be seen in his rhetoric about disagreements over spending, immigration policy, and taxes. There is no loyal opposition in his mind. Republicans are terrorists and hostage takers. Enemies.
Obama’s immodesty hasn’t been confined to domestic policy. When the Arab Spring erupted, his team wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to remake the Middle East. It took an aggressive posture toward the events in Egypt that were quickly spreading. Aggressive in the sense that they wanted events to move quickly.
They were as confident as they had been in 2008, during Obama’s successful campaign. The president’s sober defense secretary, Robert Gates, said he hoped the U.S. could be “realistically modest” about what could be accomplished there.
But the audacious fervor that guided the winning campaign and the win-at-all-costs domestic agenda strategy led Obama to think that he had to “be on the right side of history” with respect to the Arab uprising.
There is not a phrase in the American cultural lexicon that expresses the immodesty of Obama’s worldview more than his constant refrain that the U.S. be “on the right side of history,” as if Obama’s preferences are aligned with metaphysical forces.
Despite the fact that several events have proven the president’s policies to have been just a bit too audacious, Obama remains stalwart in his self-assurance.
Earlier this week, after his party took losses that would have been unimaginable back in 2008 or even 2012, Barack Obama remained defiant. He didn’t seem to have learned much since a similar defeat in 2010, when he said the difference between earlier GOP victories and the Obama era was himself.
He has demonstrated a particular skill in getting people to vote for him, to be sure. It’s an advantage that has put his self-regard in the stratosphere.
Gates’ advice with regards to the Arab Spring was that “we have to be modest about what we know, and what we can do.” It is sound advice that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.