Presidents are undone by their vanities. Even the best ones, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Lincoln, have scuttled their own boats on the shoals and reefs of their own high opinions of themselves.
I used to think that Barack Obama might match Washington and Lincoln in having the sort of self-discipline that keeps vanity in check.
During the campaign last year, he was often accused of possessing incredible vanity. Republicans, members of the National Press Corps, even plenty of Democrats thought he was too taken with his image as the living symbol of a cause. Basically, people were suggesting, with many saying flat out, that he had a messiah complex.
I never bought this. Even when I was supporting Hillary Clinton, I admired the way he seemed to be keeping that under control. I thought he was very aware of himself as a symbol and that he'd deliberately made himself into one and that he was carefully using his own symbolism, while remaining aloof from it. Barack Obama the man appeared to think of Barack Obama the Symbolic Leader as a tool that he was able to use as needed and then put back in the drawer at the end of the day.
Washington, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts knew how to use their own public images in just this detached, self-skeptical way and I thought Obama had learned from them.
I still think so.
My concern was always that he was vain about something else. I worried that he believed too much in all his talk about bi-partisanship and post-partisanship. I worried that when he spoke about change what he meant was not a Throw the bums out! sort of change in policies and direction but a sentimental Why can't we all get along? change of heart. I worried that despite seven years of practical and nearly daily demonstrations by the Republicans in Washington that their only definition of bi-partisanship involved the utter and unconditional surrender and abasement of the Democrats, Obama was convinced that he would somehow persuade the Republicans to change.
But those were my four o'clock in the morning worries. In the clear light of day I was convinced that the talk was, not just talk, but talk to a different purpose. It was a strategy. Obama's targets for it were Independent and Republican voters and the Beltway Media and, maybe, the few, very few, Congressional Republicans who were tired of being pushed around and embarrassed and undermined by their Party's Right Wing leadership.
To voters, I thought Obama was saying, Look, it's ok to listen to a Democrat, it's even ok to vote for one. We're not all that different from you. We want what you want, what's best for you and your families and the country. Nevermind what hate and fear-mongerers like Rush says. Think about what's best and what's right and listen to what I'm saying, and then see if you and I don't have more in common than you and the Republican leadership have.
To the Beltway Media, who need to be reassured that their safe, comfortable, insular little world of privilege and play will never be upset by liberals crashing the permanent party to insist that it's time everybody started acting like grown-ups again, I thought he was just making soothing noises. I thought of him as the Pundit Whisperer.
I did not think he was vain enough to believe he had a degree of persuasive power that no politician in American history has ever possessed and could turn his sworn enemies into his bosom buddies simply by making them see the plain reason undergirding his beautiful words.
It never occurred to me to worry, even at four in the morning, that his vanity lay in his seeing himself as the Great Conciliator.
I never worried that he would let his desire to be seen by himself and others as being the guy who reaches out across the aisle overcome his need, and our need, to get big things done.
I still think the bipartisan and post-partisan talk is a strategy and that it's having, limited, success. The few Republicans in Congress who might have been sick and tired of being bullied by their Right Wing leadership have turned out to be cowards who would rather continue to be bullied than risk making the bullies mad. The Beltway Media types have figured out that the talk about bipartisanship was another way of saying it's time to start acting like grown-ups, and true to their adolescent form they are now using his own words against him. But in reaching out again and again to the Republicans only to have them bite his hand again and again the President is succeeding in getting the Democrats mad on his behalf.
While the President appears to be willing to weaken his own stimulus bill just to be able to claim a handful of Republican votes that he won't ever get, Democrats in both Houses keep adding stuff to the bill guaranteed to piss Republicans off.
The result may be a bill that passes the Senate 52-48 instead of 62-38, but it will be a bill that has more in it and it will be a bill that the President will sign while shaking his head sadly and wishing for the Media's benefit that the Republicans had put the needs of the nation ahead of their own need to score petty political points.
I have to tell you, though, that his nominating Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be his Secretary of Commerce has me worried about the President's vanity for the first time.
I don't care that Gregg is a Republican. The President could have stocked his cabinet with a few more Republicans, for all that matters, if they were the right sort of Republican. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed appointing Republicans to his administration because it made other Republicans hopping mad. Judd Gregg does not appear to be the sort of Republican who makes other Republicans even mildly annoyed.
What would have made them mad is if by appointing Gregg the President had subtracted one more Republican from the Senate.
But apparently that's not what's going to happen.
New Hampshire has a Democratic governor. It's a state that just sent a Democrat to the Senate to fill a seat held for a long time by a Republican. If God existed and this was a just world the governor would nominate a Democrat to replace Gregg and that Democrat would go on to win election on her or his own in 2010.
According to the news reports, Gregg has made it a condition of his accepting the appointment that his leaving the Senate won't change the balance of power there, in other words that the governor has to appoint a Republican or Gregg won't take the job, a condition that you'd think would have caused Rahm Emanuel to scorch the walls of the Oval Office with his cursing before it doubled him up with laughter as he showed Gregg out the door.
I don't know if the Oval Office needs new wallpaper but Gregg wasn't hustled out the door.
Governor Lynch is appointing a Republican first and then Gregg is joining the Administration. Effectively, then, Gregg has said, Sure, I'll come work to enact your programs and policies, Mr President, but only if my friends in the Senate retain the same power they had before to sabotage and destroy those programs and policies, and the President agreed to this.
Which looks to me as though it's more important for the President to be able to boast about the number of Republicans in his cabinet than to get his own programs and policies passed by the Senate.
Now, there are practical arguments that I'm wrong.
After all, how much power to sabotage the President's agenda do the Republicans really have anyway? With Gregg or without him, with one fewer seat or with the same number as before, the Republicans are still the minority party. They can't do anything truly destructive without a filibuster and the help of the Blue Dogs and the Blue Dogs don't seem to be deserting the ship in enough numbers.
The Republican Governor Lynch is appointing has promised to be a seat filler. She won't run in 2010 and that might give the Democrats the added advantage of not having to defeat an incumbent. I'm assuming Gregg planned to run for re-election and if that was the case then taking him out of the Senate now is a good move.
And having one more Republican in the cabinet allows the President to continue the strategy. He can say to voters, Look, I'm trying, and smart Republicans, principled Republicans, Republicans like Judd Gregg who have put the interests and needs of the country ahead of old partisan loyalties are willing to pitch in and help, but those other Republicans, the ones Secretary Gregg left behind, they don't want to try, the won't help, they don't care.
If this is what's going on and if it works, great!
But I don't know about you, but until I see proof that it's working, I'm going to be waking up at four in the morning a lot, very worried by the subject of Presidential vanities.