Increasingly, Barack Obama's speaking style inspires a reaction borrowed from the narrator of the Raymond Chandler novel The Long Goodbye: "You talk too damn much, and too damn much of it is about you." Of the first seven sentences Obama delivered to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, the presidential "I" was the subject or direct object of five.
Like a State of the Union address, a presidential speech to the U.N. General Assembly is difficult to do well. Too many interests clamor and compete for their share of a finite amount of time. The main themes are in danger of disappearing as aides and agencies press for a mention of global financial architecture or climate change—and don't forget our friends in Latin America!
Even granting the difficulties, however, President Obama's UNGA address was alarming.
The continued flow of criticisms of the previous administration and Obama's apologies for the actions of the United States are becoming more than unseemly. The president observed, "I came to office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust." He allowed that "part" of this feeling about the U.S. was due to "misperceptions and misinformation." But apparently another part was a justified—or at least justifiable—response to American actions, or so he invited his audience to infer.
True, the president declared, "I will never apologize for defending the interests of the United States." But he then proceeded to say: "In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war. We have removed American combat brigades from Iraqi cities, and set a deadline of next August to remove all our combat brigades from Iraqi territory." Those words suggest that U.S. troops were the cause of prolonging the internecine conflict in Iraq—rather than the solution.
The president seems to hold a fixed view that he can mitigate anti-American feeling by conceding the truth of what the anti-Americans say.
Less obnoxious, but more threatening to his administration's hopes for foreign policy success, is the commitment he has once again issued to deeply re-engage himself personally in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Compare these adjoining sentences:
"And in countries ravaged by violence—from Haiti to Congo to East Timor—we will work with the U.N. and other partners to support an enduring peace. I will also continue to seek a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world." Haiti, Congo, and East Timor are to be concerns for his administration and the world generally, but Israel is to be a responsibility for the president personally: that inescapable presidential "I." A president has the same number of hours in a day as any other man, and a promise to do something himself is necessarily a warning that other things will be left undone.
Afghanistan—where an American-led coalition is fighting a shooting war—received only two mentions in the speech, but Palestinians and their concerns rated 13. Now, this astounding discrepancy in attention may reveal nothing more than an artful and insincere presidential nod toward other people's pieties, in this case those of Europeans and the Arab states. But there's a worrisome possibility that the president actually means what he says—and that he is about to pour hundreds of hours of his time into the job of cajoling the Palestinians to accept the deal they violently rejected eight years ago.
Maybe Obama has some private reason to expect greater success this time. More likely, though, he is just doubling down on Clinton's bad bet, thinking that Clinton failed because he waited until the end of his presidency, while he will succeed by starting near the beginning. Obama seems inspired above all by his grand, unlimited, vaulting self-confidence.
This president is an impressive man. But it's not reassuring that he seems even more impressed with himself than others are with him. At least with previous presidents, hubris followed some prior, ego-inflating triumph. Obama seems to be exhibiting all the symptoms with none of the initial success that normally induces the disease.