The President Who Never Was

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

A Teen-age President in Search of an Adult Identity

Barack Obama keeps looking for a presidential identity not his own [1]. In 2008, he wished to be JFK—whom he often referenced as a youthful and charismatic figure supposedly similar to himself. So we heard references to Obama’s father’s arrival to the US during the golden Kennedy Camelot years. Caroline Kennedy herself [2] came out of seclusion to assure us that Obama had the same Kennedy zest, and she flirted with a senate run to help restore the lost age of grandeur. And at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama would have liked to electrify Europeans with another “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech. But even the left-leaning Germans sorta balked at that, and relegated the new Galahad to the Victory Column — a nice enough gesture that earned them a snub when a later President Obama chose not to go to Berlin for the commemoration of the twenty-year anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall (But flying ad hoc to Copenhagen to lobby for the Chicago Olympics is a horse of a different color).

The New Gipper

Next candidate Obama channeled his inner Ronald Reagan. He reminded us that that he too had a sense of a new “trajectory.” His supporters swore that he had the same sunny disposition and eloquence. Obama liked that new persona. Soon he was talking about being the same “transformative” president — as long as we understood that Obama was going to be Reaganesque solely in the way he campaigned and soared with “hope and change” rhetoric — a sort of ironic payback to the Reagan Revolution as Obama mimicked the Gipper’s personal talents to undue his legacy [3].

Young Mr. Lincoln

That did not last long. When he won the election, Obama now referenced the Civil War, slavery, and the Civil Rights struggle as he became the Great Emancipator to finally bind up the nation’s wounds. So he was for a bit Barack Lincoln. I mean this literally and to such a degree that he chartered a slow train [4] from Springfield to DC in December 2008, to remind us that it had been 148 years since a similar messiah had trained from Illinois to Washington to save the Union. Aides got copies of “Team of Rivals,” since Obama had long seen himself as a saintly Lincoln in magnanimous fashion bringing in former political opponents who perhaps were more experienced but surely less talented than himself. A Biden or Hillary as Seward or Stanton?

Hyde Park Redux

But when he assumed office, there being no Civil War, Obama of Chicago Hyde Park now channeled FDR [5] of New York Hyde Park to meet the same crisis of yet another Great Depression induced by Bush/Hoover. The “100 Days” of 1933 were upon us again. Those were the glory moments, as the White House let it be known, when a new FDR would bookend Social Security with Obamacare. That did not last too long — given the fury over the healthcare machinations, the Tea Party, 9% plus unemployment, the horrendous new debt, and the greatest mid-term setback since Roosevelt’s own in 1938.

Axelrod as Morris?

In this search for another persona after the 2010 disaster, Obama flirted briefly with a Bill Clinton identity. He gave signals that he would be another triangulator of the Dick-Morris brand, who saved his presidency after the 1994 “shellacking” by moving to the middle. So in December 2010, a subdued Obama announced that these recessionary times were not the right moment to raise taxes on anyone. There was no more talk of “punish our enemies.” Remember Rahm Emanuel had wisely resigned right before the midterm wipeout, and Chicago fixer Bill Daley took his place as proof of the new pragmatism. The Left howled and soon even the New York Times was printing op-eds that Obama was more or less a fraud.

Missouri Obama

But given that Obama had, by his own advisors’ admission, already lost the clingers’ vote, triangulation passed. Obama had not Clinton’s political savvy or flexibility. So he dug in, searching for yet another identity — only to find it in Harry Truman circa 1948 [6]. “Give ‘em Hell” Barry now crisscrossed the country in campaign mode, damning another do-nothing, Republican-controlled Congress that had tried to stall the fair deal. The premise was that if over $4 trillion in borrowed money had not jump started the economy, someone should be blamed for not borrowing an additional half-trillion that surely would have.

Obama Versus the Trusts

And what mask now? Apparently it is to be Obama as Teddy Roosevelt [7], crusading against the modern equivalent of trusts, monopolies, and John D. Rockefeller zillionaires — and this from the largest recipient of campaign cash in presidential history, and the first candidate to renounce the public financing of presidential campaigns.

Note that Obama’s TR trust-busting does not include mention of tax-avoidance by a Timothy Geithner or John Kerry. Ill-gotten gains and unfairness do not include Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, much less a Leonardo DiCaprio or Johnny Depp’s many annual millions, still much less those who pony up $38,000 a head to meet with Obama. We are not to hear much about Jon Corzine’s missing $600 million [8]. Nor is there reference to Bill Clinton’s firm’s charging $50,000 a month [9] to a broke MF Global.

The evil “they” are not the liberal elite whose children are at Harvard, but the lesser, more uncouth folk who hustle to run three muffler shops, or operate barges, or own a timber company, lacking the grace that comes with government sinecure or inherited wealth and with no guilt over their success, and no desire to purchase psychological exemption from Obama.

A Better Mask

How odd that Obama has tried on every mask except one that naturally fits him, that of Jimmy Carter [10]. Carter, remember, railed about luxury boats and three-martini lunches, as if that kind of indulgence had sent the economy into 8% unemployment, 12% inflation, and 15% interest rates. Our problem was always Nixon of old, never Carter of the present. Beneath the utopian Christian caring was the mean streak and petulance; Carter, you see, loved humanity but not humans.

Currently we also see a return of Carter’s foreign policy disasters. Do we remember them — the reach out to leftist enemies, the suspicion of Israel, and the drift away from Europe?

What happened with Obama’s natural resonance, as he promised in his Al Arabiyainterview, with Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Egypt? Now reset is also over with Russia. The pressure is heating up with Iran, which not long ago we dared not slight when a million were on the streets trying to topple the regime.

Finally, there is furor rising against Syria. All this schizophrenic heat is also reminiscent of Jimmy Carter circa 1979-80. After three years of proclamations about having no inordinate fear of communism, of loudly elevating human rights in sanctimonious fashion as the adjudicator of foreign policy, of lecturing allies and reaching out to enemies, of blasting Kissinger realpolitik, the charade ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the communist expansion in Central America, the end of the Shah and the seizure of power by Khomeini, the hostage taking in Teheran and rise of radical Islam, general chaos abroad as China invaded Vietnam, and so on.

Carter, then, got angry that lesser folks had betrayed his trust, and suddenly we had defense increases, a new angry Carter Doctrine and saber-rattling talk. That is natural, as we see too with Obama: those abroad did not appreciate his godhead, and now he too is furious that enemies are, well, even more enemies, and friends are less friendly. If they cannot see that he is not Bush, well then screw them…

As the Curtain Falls

What are we left with in the end? Empty soaring rhetoric of the day, as the president without an identity desperately searches for one about every three months. In the old days the masks were a Bill Ayers for revolutionary fervor, or a Rev. Wright for black fides. Now they are dead presidents.

Where does this lead? Nowhere. Obama’s TR persona is based on an untruth. The “rich” are not ruining his economy; indeed they pay an inordinate percentage of the income tax burden, and give us everything from iPhones to fracking. All their net worth, if confiscated, is not enough to match the trillions Obama himself has run up. For every extra $20,000 Jerry Brown can squeeze out in taxes from an about to leave California employer, three more deserving are waiting to gobble that up in all sorts of entitlements as their “fair share.”


It is true, that Wall Street greed in 2008 helped crash the financial markets. But mold to appear needs moisture. And Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers were well watered by a corrupt Congress that empowered both Freddie and Fannie. Chris Dodd was the poster boy, taking Wall Street perks and covering them with liberal concern about housing the poor. These Fannie/Freddie troughs, in turn, were fed at by hungry ex-administration insiders and retired gadflies — a Jamie Gorelick, Franklin Raines, Jim Johnson, and, yes, for a bit, Rahm Emanuel and even Newt Gingrich. Even those were not the only guilty. “They” were also “us” — the millions who jumped into a hot real estate market to flip houses and make thousands with little labor in an endless round of musical chairs with the music supposedly never stopping, the chairs never one short. And there were the millions more — with lousy credit ratings, and no history of discipline or thrift. But they “deserved” “home ownership” [11] and so bought a house that neither their income nor savings, such as they were, warranted. They walked away. They were innocent “victims.” And they let others pick up the tab [12] as others “should.”


The next year will be nothing but more teenage petulance. The world has disappointed Barack Obama. Like any adolescent, he will keep reinventing himself, endlessly trying on new presidential masks and blasting “them” who were not so charmed. What else can a man without an identity do, a president who never really was?

URLs in this post:
[1] a presidential identity not his own:
[2] Caroline Kennedy herself:
[3] to undue his legacy:
[4] he chartered a slow train:
[5] now channeled FDR:,16641,20081124,00.html
[6] Harry Truman circa 1948:
[7] Obama as Teddy Roosevelt:
[8] Jon Corzine’s missing $600 million:
[9] charging $50,000 a month:
[10] Jimmy Carter:
[11] they “deserved” “home ownership”:
[12] pick up the tab:

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This