As the nation prepares to mark the second anniversary of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency with widespread repudiation of his hope and change agenda, theories abound as to what has caused the wheels to fall off what was once a formidable political juggernaut. Here’s my take—Mr. Obama, unlike most of the previous residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, decided to skip his first term and govern like a second term president. By this I mean that his kind of overreach is generally a second term presidential phenomenon.
Of course, this may be the only second term he will have.
There are several well-known examples of post reelection impudence. Woodrow Wilson took us into the war he promised to keep us out of and then later tried to ram his grandiose vision of a new world down our throats after he was reelected in 1916. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved swiftly to try to pack the court and stack the judicial deck after taking his second oath of office in 1937. Lyndon Johnson mired us deep in Southeast Asia after his election in 1964 (sort of a second term), a campaign in which he told us that he wasn’t going to do that. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, and Clinton had Monica, all during their second terms. There’s something about reelection that has historically unleashed heady hubris in the Oval Office. Mr. Obama hit the ground running even before his inauguration with the sort of assumptions about his mandate and vision—not to mention his enormous sense of self—generally characteristic of seasoned leaders who have grown distant and overconfident having been seduced by the trappings of power.
The hubris-nemesis paradigm is a familiar one in politics. Concepts rooted in Greek tragedy and mythology, the basic idea is that pride invariably invites destruction. Nemesis was the goddess of retribution, exacting punishment for the folly of arrogance. History is replete with examples of the meteoric rise of leaders giving way to a similarly swift fall from grace. Of course, it is too early to tell if this is how the Obama narrative will ultimately play out.
Then again, what we may be seeing is the manifestation of something else—rare but identifiable—the combination of both forces in the same personality. It has been described in studies as “the hubris-nemesis complex.” Normally, the two qualities are in opposition, but in certain cases they become compatible in the same personality and feed off each other. On the hubris side, there is an almost messianic mania to transform reality and thereby confirm a leader’s greatness. The nemesis component seeks to blame an enemy for the particular failures or problems that thwart those transformative initiatives.
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