President Barack Obama’s address to the opening of the United Nations relied heavily on a rhetorical device he has used often, but never to quite the same extent–namely, describing both sides of an argument and then suggesting that his own view transcends both. It is a uniquely post-modern device, different from Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” stance in that it does not actually commit to a compromise position, or any position at all.
Again and again, Obama has used this post-modern approach–in contrasting privacy and security, for example, famously insisting that there is no need for sacrificing either. It is a trick designed to impress an audience with his empathy and understanding, while avoiding any promise or action in the real world that might open Obama himself up to accountability. To put it in literary terms: he would rather be a critic than an author.
So much of American intellectual life today, especially at elite universities, is consumed with this kind of criticism–not criticism of anything, necessarily, but criticism for its own sake, as a way of relating to the world (or, more accurately, escaping from it). Obama’s own intellectual path reveals a talented critic who manipulates ideas already expressed elsewhere but who struggles to produce a book (two!) about anything except himself.
That is the paradox of the post-modern stance. On the one hand, it is self-effacing, a kind of asceticism that is skeptical of all commitments and faintly embarrassed even by individual desires. On the other, it is self-promoting in the extreme, pursuing a radical sense of critical distance that manifests only in one particular, superior mind. Hence the ubiquitous “I” in Obama’s speeches, even as he denies responsibility for anything at all.
Recall recently how Obama even denied that he had set a “red line” for Syria’s use of chemical weapons–how that “red line” was Congress’s, the world’s, someone else’s. Today that “red line” re-emerged, digested through Obama’s post-modernism, as an abstract riddle about the respective limits of diplomacy and force. (Obama’s solution: force his opponents to admit holding a view–the ultimate post-modern punishment.)
Obama’s post-modern rhetoric impresses two groups of people: western intellectuals, and students, who understand that Obama is speaking their common language, namely that of the contemporary academy. (It does not impress those of a distinctly modern mindset, i.e. those who link cause and effect without the requisite shame–people like Putin and Khamenei, whom Obama dismisses as primitives even as they defeat him.)
The speech Obama delivered at the UN was an attempt to defend American policies by denying any responsibility for them. It is the same approach he has applied to domestic affairs–delegating to Congress the task of writing his signature health care legislation; denying paternity of the budget sequester, which he proposed; or accusing Republicans of holding the country hostage as he proudly refuses to negotiate over the debt ceiling.
It is no surprise to learn that Obamacare itself began as a casual line in a speech. The left, sensing opportunity, eagerly provided him a ready-made plan years in the making. The left understands that Obama is fluent in its language but shallow in his convictions. What made Obama a radical is not a life of (contrived) struggle but the left’s dominance of the academy in which he built his reputation (as a “professor,” not a real professor).
At some stage, of course, Obama is forced to deal with the material world–and for that task, he still leans on decrepit institutions that provide muscle and money but have not helped him win much except his own election. He and his intellectual cohort have won by turning national elections into semiotic exercises, in which we choose our national identity (lately, by excluding the Republican “other”), not by selecting an actual leader.
Obama is not so much President as “President,” not the leader of the free world but the “leader” of the “free world.” In Obama’s own mind, to win is to maintain critical distance, to be the critic of critics, to have the last word. Other leaders worry about centrifuges, about pipelines and coastlines, about naval vessels and foreign currency reserves and blood and iron. Obama doesn’t worry. He maintains his critical primacy, and his cool.
In 2008, defending his dependence on speeches, then-Sen. Obama chided Sen. Hillary Clinton: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.” (It turned out that those words, in fact, were lifted from a speech by Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.) Words matter to Obama–not their substance, of course, but their form, the fact that they can become a reality unto themselves. The only risk is that people might stop listening. (Perhaps they have.)