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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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