David Stokes

The hubris-nemesis complex is, according to one study, characterized by “a grandiosity that has both spiritual and material components, and that involves realizing a special future destiny and overcoming past history.” This is accompanied by “a vengeful animosity toward a powerful enemy who is blamed for holding a society back historically, who now stands in the way of its potential for future greatness, and who thus deserves retribution.”

So, when the vision is something as overweening as what Mr. Obama described during his 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, you have the makings of hubris (a synonym of audacity, by the way). Here’s what he said:

“We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

Heady stuff.

Now consider President Obama’s recent nemesis-like remarks to a largely Hispanic audience during a radio interview that aired on Univision. He urged Latinos not to “sit out the election,” but rather to “punish our enemies” and “reward our friends.”

Scary stuff.

It may be too early to tell if we are witnessing a full-blown hubris-nemesis complex—but Mr. Obama’s words and actions after his party takes a thumping this Tuesday will be telling. Will the president read the tealeaves and take steps to moderate his agenda or will he double down? Watch for the latter.

If he has a Bible handy this Wednesday, he should read about Solomon’s son, Rehoboam—a story found in I Kings chapter 12. It’s a case study about the folly of stubbornness in the face of the obvious.

Of course, most research on the hubris-nemesis complex (or syndrome) deals with some pretty nefarious characters, from Hitler, to Castro, to Milosevic. But such extreme examples do not preclude us from viewing leaders in a free society through the complex’s prism. Certainly most politicians have outsized egos, not to mention opposition. But there is nothing in our history or current state of political affairs that suggests that our nation is immune to hubris-nemesis leadership.

The aforementioned Woodrow Wilson clearly had tendencies toward the hubris-nemesis complex. He was a vindictive visionary. More recently, Jimmy Carter exhibited similar traits—and still does. His new book, White House Diary, is a window into his very self-righteous and self-important mind. He remains a bitter man whose favorite word is “ass” when describing those who stood in the way of his ambitions. And as was written a couple of weeks ago in a Washington Post article about the 39th President, he “can’t resist suggesting how he who has seen it all still knows it all, and uses his wisdom not so much to transcend the petty, but to punish and scold.”

Like Carter, President Obama is enamored of his own thoughts. George W. Bush had his problems and was often accused of arrogance by liberals, but it is doubtful he ever thought of himself—as Obama seems to do—as the smartest guy in the room.

Jimmy Carter told NBC a while back that his post-presidency “is superior” to all the rest. I beg to differ. I think George W. Bush has already shown himself to be a classier act than the man from Plains. But should this week’s political adjustment lead to a more enduring realignment in 2012, one that finds Mr. Obama having to move his furniture, look for the most audacious and annoying ex-presidency of all time.

I suspect it’s the job he really wants, anyway.


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared