The Ultimate Self-Referential Presidency


From Bret Stephens:

George Washington did not shake hands as president and would grip the hilt of his sword to avoid having his flesh pressed. The founding father understood that leadership in a republic demanded a careful balance between low populism and aristocratic lordliness. Personal comportment, the choice of clothes and carriage, modes of address: these things mattered. And so we have “Mr. President” as opposed to “His Highness.” Or “George.”

With Barack Obama —you won’t mind, Señor Presidente, if we call you Barry?—it’s another story. Dignity of office? How quaint. In this most self-infatuated of presidencies, the D-word is at best an accessory and more often an impediment to everything Barry has ever wanted to be: Cool. Chill. Connected.

So it was that, hours after the U.S. confirmed the murder of Kayla Jean Mueller at the hands of Islamic State, Mr. Obama filmed a short video for BuzzFeed, striking poses in a mirror, donning aviator shades, filming himself with a selfie stick and otherwise inhabiting a role that a chaster version of Miley Cyrus might have played had Hannah Montana been stuck in the White House after a sleepover with the Obama girls.

Ostensibly, the point of the video was to alert BuzzFeed’s audience to the Feb. 15 deadline for ObamaCare enrollment. If communicating with 20-somethings as if they are 11-year-olds is a way to get them to behave like grown-ups, then maybe the White House has at last found a way to make good on its make-believe enrollment numbers.

But that’s not what the BuzzFeed clip is chiefly about. What it’s about is showing just how totally relatable and adorably authentic and marvelously self-aware is this president of ours. “Can I live?” the president says when caught shooting imaginary hoops in his study by a young visitor. “You do you,” the visitor gamely replies before walking off.

Yes, you do you, Barry: It’s what your political career has always been about, from your myth-memoir “Dreams From My Father” to your well-nurtured cult of personality to the coterie of flatterers with whom you have surrounded yourself in office to the supine and occasionally complicit news media that have seen you through six years of crisis, failure and scandal.

“You do you” is the ultimate self-referential slogan for the ultimate self-referential presidency. It’s the “be yourself” piety of our age turned into a political license by Mr. Obama to do as he pleases. It’s what drives his political choices: the immigration amnesty; arbitrary rewrites of the Affordable Care Act; the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal rules; the $128 billion in settlements the administration extorted from six banks convicted of no wrongdoing.

It is also what seems to explain the president’s insistently passive foreign policy. In its 2015 National Security Strategy, unveiled earlier this month, the administration underscored the importance of what it called “strategic patience,” a high-toned euphemism for doing as little as decently possible in response to crisis. Invade Ukraine: You do you, Vladimir Putin. Build a robust nuclear infrastructure: You do you, Ali Khamenei. Continue gassing your own people: You do you, Bashar Assad.

In other words, let 1,000 you-do-yous bloom. In the end, the president and his advisers seem to believe, events will take their course and history will provide its verdict. Kremlin adventurism will fall afoul of Russia’s economic limits, Iran will evolve from evil theocracy to responsible regional player, and Syria will continue to bleed until it sorts itself out.

As for Islamic State, the president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that “it has no governing strategy,” that it cannot “sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work,” and therefore that it is not “an existential threat to the United States or the world order.”

You do you, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi! But if you can’t provide your people with high-quality affordable health care, world-class educational opportunities and a decent minimum wage, it will all come to naught.

There’s a sense in which the president’s foreign policy reminds me of Francis Fukuyama ’s “End of History” thesis, though it is typically associated with American neoconservatives. Following the publication of Mr. Fukuyama’s book in the early 1990s, the argument was attacked for ignoring all the history—the breakup of Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, and so on—that continued to take place after he had declared it over.

Mr. Fukuyama’s rebuttal was that none of that really counted, at least in the dialectical, Hegelian, capital-H sense of “History.” History had ended because there was no plausible ideological competitor to liberal, democratic capitalism, and sooner or later everyone would get the point.

Maybe that’s even true. Yet in the words “sooner or later” lie the great political questions of our day, matters of life or death for the Ukrainian soldiers encircled by Russian troops, or Western hostages held by Islamic State, or everyone threatened by Iran’s slow and steady march toward regional hegemony.

President You Do You has all the time he wants to film BuzzFeed clips while surfing the arc of history. Not everyone is so fortunate.

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