No one — least of all the American people — is exempt from our president’s snark.
Snark is a popular word used for a particular sort of off-putting sarcasm. Snarkiness can manifest itself as adolescent cheap shots, snide condescension, or simple ad hominem patronizing — a sort of “I know you are, but what am I?” schoolyard name-calling. Its incessant use is typically connected with a peevishness born out of juvenile insecurity, and sometimes fed by an embarrassing envy. All politicians are snarky at times; but few obsessively so, given the wages of monotony and insecurity that the snark earns.
President Obama is well known both for ad hominem dismissals of his supposed enemies — everyone from Fox News to the Tea Party to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity — and for his evocations of nefarious straw men who, he claims, if left unchecked, would uninsure the poor, pollute the environment, hurt the illegal immigrant, and wage perpetual war abroad. But Obama’s snarky putdowns and condescending afterthoughts are a particularly disturbing subset of these rhetorical devices, used by him in the grand world of diplomacy as well as in often petty domestic contexts.
Vladimir Putin is the dangerous autocrat of a nuclear-armed superstate. He has trampled on the rights of his own people while trying to bully the former Soviet republics back into a czarist Orthodox version of the Soviet Empire. So Putin is many disturbing things, but for Obama he is reduced to some archetypal high-schooler to be snarked at: “My sense is that’s part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy.” Putin, in Obama’s putdown, has “got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom.” Gratuitously reducing Putin’s aggression to the work of an adolescent rival show-off may be dangerous when combined with the past six years of Obama’s mostly seeming indifferent to that aggression. Snarking loudly while carrying a tiny stick is particularly unwise.
Mitt Romney was not just wrong in his views, but, to Obama in his snark mode as psychoanalyst, apparently ill: “[Romney is] changing up so much and backtracking and sidestepping we’ve got to name this condition he’s going through. I think it’s called . . . Romnesia. I’m not a medical doctor, but I do want to go over some of the symptoms with you because I want to make sure nobody else catches it.” Note the “I want to go over some of the symptoms.”
The reason Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary of 2008 was not just that the state’s Democratic voters preferred Hillary Clinton; he was sabotaged by an ignorant subset of the working-class population that lacked his own perspective, good taste, and calm analytical mind. Not appreciating Obama’s talents was analyzed as the equivalent of Neanderthalism: “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Note the “It’s not surprising . . .”
Obama would follow that pop psychology by analyzing the police as acting “stupidly” and stereotyping by race. In his unfortunate National Prayer Breakfast riff, he snarked at American Christians, advising them not to get on their “high horse,” given the moral equivalence between the millennium-old Crusades and the present epidemic of radical Islamic terrorism. Snarkers usually project, masking their own high-horse moralizing by alleging bastard forms of it in others.
Snarkers also don’t discriminate in their targets. Sometimes Obama’s snark has been directed at his own Democratic rivals. Hillary Clinton was not just someone Obama ran against and beat in the primaries, but comes off as a frumpy nice girl in his famous quip, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” Note the “enough.”
By all accounts Obama has had a loyal and competent staff; in any event, it ran two winning campaigns. But Obama snarked at them too: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” Note the “I’ll tell you right now.” As far as Washington culture goes, Obama is the parent, it the child: “What Washington needs is adult supervision.”
Obama is supposedly friends with basketball legend Michael Jordan. But the latter made a terrible mistake when he chided the golf-obsessive Obama as in fact a “hack” and a “sh***y” golfer. Obama quickly fired back that Jordan “was not well informed.” He then went after Jordan himself as the less than successful basketball-team owner: “He might want to spend more time thinking about the Bobcats — or the Hornets.” Snark is now exemplified by the president of the United States stooping to engage in a kindergarten tit-for-tat over relative golf skills with an ex-NBA player: “But there is no doubt that Michael is a better golfer than I am. Of course if I was playing twice a day for the last 15 years, then that might not be the case.” Note the “He might want” and “If I was playing twice a day . . .”
Sometimes presidential snark is just mean-spiritedness displayed through gratuitous smart-aleckiness. So when Obama once was asked about consulting past presidents, he replied of Ronald Reagan, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any séances” — a reference to decades-old rumors that Mrs. Reagan, octogenarian and widowed by the time Obama snarked at her, had supposedly consulted an astrologer. Note “a Nancy Reagan thing.”
When Obama talks of his bowling skills, it is by way of deprecating the handicapped: “No, no. I have been practicing. . . . I bowled a 129. It’s like — it was like Special Olympics, or something.” Note the “or something.”
The grandmother who worked overtime to raise him when his mother would not, and who saved to put him through a tony prep school, is psychoanalyzed away as little more than an ignorant racist stereotyper — a useful foil to contextualize and excuse the demonstrable abject racism of his own pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright: “But she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred in our experiences that don’t go away.” Note the “typical.”
Snark can also be a sort of smart-ass caricature in which the statesman devolves into the silliness of popular culture: “I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.” Note “mind-meld.” To dismiss his opponents in his reelection campaign, Obama returned to popular-culture snark, “And you can pretty much put their campaign on . . . a tweet and have some characters to spare.”
When Mitt Romney criticized Obama for deep defense cuts and reducing the navy to its smallest fleet size since World War II, Obama offered snark instead of a counter-argument: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. . . . We also have things called aircraft carriers that planes land on and submarines that go under water.” Note the snark “that planes land on” and “that go under water.”
In the months before the Crimea and Ukraine crises, Romney presciently reminded Obama that Putin’s Russia in 2012 was America’s chief worry. Obama snarked back, “The 1980s — they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
When some Republicans at Obama’s recent State of the Union address clapped when he noted he had no more campaigns to run, Obama left his teleprompter to interject the schoolyard tit-for-tat, “I know. Because I won both.” Touché!
To Senator Jon Kyl, who once questioned the newly inaugurated Obama about the proper mix between tax hikes and budget cuts, Obama offered the gloat, “I won.” To his Republican House opponents of his agenda, Obama snarked, “Middle-class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me.”
Snarkiness, as stated, is a sort of straw-man zinger, an adolescent cheap-shot one-liner to put off critics as losers. As for those who wanted the Keystone Pipeline built to enhance North American energy independence, jobs, and prosperity, Obama reduced them to obsessed one-issue zealots: “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.” Note of the vast Keystone project the adjective “single” — perhaps as in a single Hoover Dam or a single Golden Gate Bridge.
Critics used to say they opposed Obama’s redistributionist programs, but conceded that he must be a pleasant guy. Supporters lamented Obama’s frequent inattention to detail but reminded everyone how charismatic the president was. Both diagnoses are probably mistaken. Snarkery is a character flaw of thin-skinned insecurity and juvenile mean-spiritedness — and embarrassing in a president.