Not to date myself, but I am old enough to remember when President Obama’s arrogance was annoying. When I worried that his occasional lapses into glibness and condescension would diminish the high office he holds and prove counterproductive to his administrative goals.
Then I listened to his improbable interview with Marc Maron—the stand-up comic who hosts a weekly podcast from his garage—and was reminded how, on second thought, the president’s cheerful elitism is among his most endearing personal qualities. I’ve never for a moment regretted that he was elected in both 2008 and 2012, and one reason is that he can be so gosh darned snarky.
When the Maron interview aired, the media were so blinded by Obama’s employment of the word “nigger” that they neglected to mention anything else that was discussed—not least the segment on race relations that, if actually listened to, would explain why the use of the N-word was entirely appropriate in this case. (But that’s another story.)
In fact, what stood out in the podcast for me were the bits about good old politics, and the fact that, rhetorically-speaking, Obama has officially given up treating his Republican adversaries as sane, rational people with whom he could ever forge a common bond.
Nope, in the twilight of his presidency, with no further elections except the one to choose his successor, he has finally accepted that the GOP leadership in Congress is obstinate, dumb and worthless, and he simply doesn’t have the faith or patience to expect that they’ll ever grow up.
There was the moment, for instance, when Maron shifted the subject to climate change and Obama ruefully recalled how James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recently “proved” that global warming is a hoax by bringing a snowball into the Senate chamber. Or Obama’s more general assertion, “I believe in reason and I believe in facts,” dryly insinuating that his Republican counterparts do not.
Having followed the news over the past six-odd years, I find both statements incontrovertible, and I think Obama has every right to announce this point loud and clear. That the GOP has functioned as an ideological stone wall since January 2009 is the plain, simple truth, and it’s the president’s duty to speak the truth from time to time.
Then again, this is all coming from an unabashed partisan of his. I can imagine that, to those who do not share Obama’s worldview, his self-satisfied demeanor is utterly insufferable. (Not that any imagination is necessary.) I am reminded of that week when we found out the administration’s overriding foreign policy philosophy is, “Don’t do stupid shit.” Clever, yes, but also extremely limited insomuch as the definition of “stupid” is not exactly settled science.
The trouble, you see, is that however appealing it is to implore your adversaries to just listen to reason, framing the argument as a clash between logic and illogic only serves to make you look like a jerk. It alienates your sparring partners instead of engaging them, and the leader of the free world cannot afford to alienate anybody if he expects to get anything done. History buffs love to reminisce about the good old days when Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson could effect major legislation through sheer force of will, but both of those men enjoyed huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress—an advantage Obama lacks.
In other words, the present president does not have the luxury to get cocky, or to blow his own trumpet too loudly. He has to play nice and exercise tact and restraint. He has to treat his antagonists as smarter than they actually are. He has to humor them with the prospect that he takes their silly ideas seriously, or at least respects how they think.
However, at this late date, it is clear beyond doubt that he doesn’t and he won’t. It’s just not in his DNA to suppress his irritation with a Republican Party that values ideological purity over pragmatism, compromise or even basic arithmetic.
Considering all Obama has accomplished in the teeth of that resistance, paired with the basic validity of his public critiques of life on Capitol Hill, I humbly ask: Are there instances in which arrogance and condescension are not only acceptable, but necessary?
As a rule, arrogance is among the lowest of all human qualities, particularly among public figures. It is a form of pride—the gravest of the Deadly Sins—inevitably leading to overreach and alienation. Recent political history suggests as much: Cockiness did few favors for Mike Bloomberg—a mayor who often portrayed his opponents as not just wrong, but insane—and the one-two punch of Donald Trump and Chris Christie in the GOP primary scuffle speaks for itself (albeit the former more so than the latter).
It just might be that, as so often happens, Obama is the exception to the rule.
Recall that moment in January’s State of the Union when he noted, “I have no more campaigns to run.” When this yielded a smattering of sarcastic applause, he couldn’t help but add, “I know because I won both of them.”
I can’t imagine any other president getting away with that—let alone trying to—but Obama, through the sheer force of his audacity, somehow made it work.
And what is the magical X factor that allows him to pull this off time and again? Is it simply the sharpness of his wit? The twinkle in his eye? Has his status as America’s First Black President led us to subconsciously give him a pass on certain points of etiquette that—let’s face it— aren’t all that important in the first place?
Or maybe it’s just that, when you pay close attention to precisely what he is arrogant about, you realize that it’s not arrogance at all. As a certain New Jersey governor would put it, he is simply telling it like it is.