Barack Obama’s career has been one characterized by displays of brazenness. In a figure on the rise, this audacity is an attractive trait. Obama even adopted that word as his personal mantra, naming his second auto-biography after it and self-styling his 2008 presidential campaign on his bold refusal to sit on the sidelines amid the “fierce urgency of now.” With Barack Obama’s promise fully exhausted, that bold impertinence isn’t nearly as appealing as it once was.
The staleness of the president’s routinized audacity was perhaps most acutely felt by everyone who was not in the room with the president at a Democratic fundraising event in New York City on Monday night. There, the president quipped snidely about the field of Republican presidential aspirants and the CNBC debate moderators who were widely chided for their displays of bias and haplessness. What could the president’s speechwriters have been thinking when they sent him up onto that stage armed with the following dud:
“Have you noticed that every one of these candidates say, ‘Obama’s weak. Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,'” the president said. “Then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at the debate. Let me tell you, if you can’t handle those guys, then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.”
It takes some gall for this president to believe he maintains even a modest amount of credibility on the matter of containing an irredentist Russia or a revisionist China. It is perhaps no coincidence that Obama’s admonition of the GOP candidates and the RNC, all of which have been fiercely critical of the debate moderators, echoed CNBC’s self-defense. The “leader of the free world should be able to answer tough questions,” CNBC spokesman Brian Steel wrote after the RNC cut NBCUniversal out of the debate process following its anchors’ performance. Obama is surely not doing any favors for a network trying to shed the impression that its talent is hopelessly attached to liberal biases.
The greater offense in Obama’s allegedly humorous remark is not merely the unfounded assumption that he enjoys any credibility on international affairs, but that he is so unashamed of touting his own competence even in the near total absence of supporting evidence. These are remarks that only a president who has nothing to fear from America’s political satirists could make. A president with even a modest appreciation for the power of mockery would have displayed a touch more self-consciousness.
Obama’s remarks, which suggest he believes he can still intimidate his counterparts in Beijing and Moscow, merits a bit of pushback, if only because the nation’s humorists and fact-checkers are more likely to regard the diminution of 2016’s Republican candidates as their more urgent obligation. No, a Russian regime that invaded and annexed sovereign territory on the border of NATO-aligned Europe is not “worried” about Obama. A Kremlin that inserted troops and equipment into an active war zone in which NATO forces were participating, violated the Atlantic Alliance’s airspace, and targeted U.S. drones and Turkish warplanes is not “worried” about Obama. A People’s Republic of China that flagrantly dismissed international norms of conduct by creating sovereign territory in the middle of heavily trafficked and contested Pacific trade routes is not “worried” about Obama. An administration that endlessly talked about a “pivot” to Asia, but allowed China to carry out its coup unmolested and only a year later reluctantly consented to the recommendation of military officials by sending one destroyer within 12 nautical miles of this new Chinese territory has given Beijing no reason for fear.
Whoever the next president is, he or she will inherit a markedly more dangerous set of conditions overseas than George W. Bush bequeathed to Obama. Given that crushing realization, self-satisfied disdain for Republicans untethered to anything that could objectively be considered reality is understandable; it’s all that Obama’s shrinking coalition of admirers have left. It is, however, a sad commentary on the state of our popular media that this comment will likely pass largely unnoticed. Just hours before the president’s first inauguration, the comedian Chris Rock famously asserted that Obama was just too admirable to poke fun at. He did, however, note that this situation might change in the future. Rock was correct, the situation has changed. Obama is now no longer too cool to mock. Evidently, he’s simply too embarrassing.