Quotes of the day

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the magic has drained away. Even among his most ardent supporters, there now exists a certain frustration and disillusionment — not necessarily in the execution of his duties, but in his inability to seize moments, chart a course and navigate the choppy waters of public opinion…

On one side is America — fickle and excitable, hotheaded and prone to overreaction, easily frightened and in constant need of reassurance.

On the other side stands Obama — solid and sober, rooted in the belief that his way is the right way and in no need of alteration. He’s the emotionally maimed type who lights up when he’s stroked and adored but shuts down in the face of acrimony. Other people’s anxieties are dismissed as irrational and unworthy of engagement or empathy. He seems quite comfortable with this aspect of his personality, even if few others are, and shows little desire to change it. It’s the height of irony: the presumed transformative president is stymied by his own unwillingness to be transformed. He would rather sacrifice the relationship than be altered by it.

***
The reviews of Obama’s performance have been disappointing. He has seemed uncomfortable in the role of leading other nations, and often seems to suggest there is nothing special about America’s role in the world. The global community was puzzled over the pictures of Obama bowing to some of the world’s leaders and surprised by his gratuitous criticisms of and apologies for America’s foreign policy under the previous administration of George W. Bush. One Middle East authority, Fouad Ajami, pointed out that Obama seems unaware that it is bad form and even a great moral lapse to speak ill of one’s own tribe while in the lands of others…

In his Cairo speech about America and the Muslim world, Obama managed to sway Arab public opinion but was unable to budge any Arab leader. Even the king of Saudi Arabia, a country that depends on America for its survival, reacted with disappointment and dismay. Obama’s meeting with the king was widely described as a disaster. This is but one example of an absence of the personal chemistry that characterized the relationships that Presidents Clinton and Bush had with world leaders. This is a serious matter because foreign policy entails an understanding of the personal and political circumstances of the leaders as well as the cultural and historical factors of the countries we deal with…

America right now appears to be unreliable to traditional friends, compliant to rivals, and weak to enemies. One renowned Asian leader stated recently at a private dinner in the United States, “We in Asia are convinced that Obama is not strong enough to confront his opponents, but we fear that he is not strong enough to support his friends.”

***
He always “disappoints.” What would have been startling would have been if he hadn’t “disappointed.” His eve-of-election rally for Martha Coakley “disappointed” the Massachusetts electorate so much they gave Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican. His speech for Chicago’s Olympic bid “disappointed” the Oslo committee so much they gave the games to Pyongyang, or Ouagadougou, or any city offering to build a stadium with electrical outlets incompatible with Obama’s prompter. Be honest, guys, his inaugural address “disappointed,” too, didn’t it? Oh, in those days you still did your best to make the case for it. “He carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate,” wrote Stanley Fish in the New York Times. “There is a technical term for this kind of writing — parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.’”

Gotcha. To a fool, His Majesty’s new clothes appear absolutely invisible. But, to a wise man, the placing of buttons and pockets without indicating the relation of co-ordination is a fascinating exercise in parataxical couture…

Chris Matthews and the other leg-tinglers invented an Obama that doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, they’re stuck with the one that does, and it will be interesting to see whether he’s capable of plugging the leak in his own support. If not, who knows what the tide might wash up?

***
The reviews from across the spectrum were, to put it kindly, miserable. One expects Sarah Palin, speaking on Fox, to be less than enthusiastic. On Tuesday night, however, even Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, a woman usually disposed to give this White House the benefit of the doubt, was underwhelmed. As she took over the MSNBC coverage from Keith Olbermann, who was also tough on Obama, she simply sighed deeply in disappointment with the president. The next night Maddow had the intellectual integrity to write the speech she wished Obama had given, an exercise that, in my view, elevates her from carper to critic in the best sense of the term. (Disclosure: Maddow and I are friendly and have friends and colleagues in common.)…

Criticism is a crucial thing (the lifeblood of democracy, the fuel of freedom—choose your noble phrase), but the problem is that there are many more carpers than critics. The fact that anybody can say anything does not mean that anything anybody says is worth hearing. Is this an elitist view? Probably, but I am not arguing for even the remotest limitation on what people can say. The beauty of democracy and the wonder of the digital public square is that more people can express themselves more freely to more eyes and ears than at any other time in history. Such liberation is to be celebrated and honored and defended. With power, though, comes responsibility, for all of us. We can learn, I think, from Maddow—sigh when you think you should sigh, but then have the courage to be constructive.