Not Fit for Dinner: President Obama, Arrogant or Bold?

Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

I want to follow up my column Placing #ObamaInHistory last week by addressing the issue of President Barack Obama’s alleged arrogance. Many saw the changes to White House presidential biographies as more proof that Obama is arrogant. Reflecting on Obama’s modification of White House president biographies, Heritage Foundation writer Rory Cooper (who brought the modifications to the national spotlight) asserted that recently “we have witnessed several displays of arrogant power emanating from our White House . . .”

Earlier this year, Cooper’s colleague Lachlan Markay warned Obama is paving a “road toward an arrogant, new authoritarianism.” Markay does not name Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but he nonetheless conjures their ghosts as though they are invisible members of Obama’s cabinet who coach him on how to follow in their bloody footsteps.

Obama has not been criticized for arrogance by Republicans only. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif) wrote a blog entry last December in which he agreed Obama is arrogant (though he does not sound the totalitarian alarm as does the Heritage Foundation). Cardoza cites three general actions that indicate Obama is arrogant : “idea disease,” thinking he’s always right, and lecturing others rather than listening. He concludes with saying Obama must adjust these off-putting behaviors if he wishes to be reelected come November.

Cooper, Markay, and Cardoza are in no position to say whether or not Obama is arrogant as a person—nor am I. Discussions of Obama’s alleged arrogance must be restricted to the political arena and should veer from his private life. If someone really wants to judge whether or not Obama is arrogant as a person, Obama’s books are, I think, the best place to turn. I see little fruit coming from such judgments, though.

When discussing arrogance, it is important to identify arrogance’s “companion” characteristic: boldness. The two overlap in many ways, and someone could easily mistake a person’s boldness for arrogance—and likewise arrogance for boldness. (The two aren’t necessarily exclusive either. Someone could be simultaneously bold and arrogant—or neither.)

Christians may turn to Scripture for illustration of this overlap of boldness and arrogance. Daniel risks being mistaken for arrogant when he chooses to reject King Nebuchadnezzar’s choice food (Daniel 1). It is God’s blessing that tips the scales in favor of boldness rather than arrogance in the eyes of the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials. Had Daniel’s boldness been seen as arrogance, things almost certainly would have turned out much worse for him than they actually did.

To evaluate whether Obama is arrogant as a president, it is important to place him within the current political situation. When he took office, he faced enormous issues: the growing Great Financial Crisis and increasing unemployment; the War on Terror; the need to reform health care and social security; and more. Here is also not the place to say what should be done about all these things. It’s important simply to bring up the array of pressing issues needing to be handled promptly—and boldly.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in similar yet more intense conditions, also had to act boldly to address America’s woes. Biographer Max Hastings noted that many people thought Roosevelt was “an arrogant, privileged dilettante.” Regardless of whether or not Roosevelt was arrogant, he made every effort to deliver bold responses to the depression. Roosevelt once said, “at night when I lay my head on my pillow, and it is often pretty late, and I think of the things that have come before me during the day and the decisions that I have made, I say to myself –  well, I have done the best I could and turn over and go to sleep.”

When dealing with presidential action and policies, it is very difficult to gauge someone like Obama’s perceived arrogance. Usually, the side of the fence you say he falls in depends largely upon your political and ideological beliefs. (It is thus no surprise that Heritage Foundations evoke totalitarian ghosts when they write about Obama.) Discussions like this require you to make judgment upon another, and it’s well to recall Christ’s warning against judging others (Matthew 7.1-6).

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  • You’ll notice that I never said Obama is arrogant. I said his policies are. I can’t look into the president’s heart, but I can observe his actions.

    This is the most telling portion of your column: “Here is also not the place to say what should be done about all these things. It’s important simply to bring up the array of pressing issues needing to be handled promptly—and boldly.”

    Progressives often hold that they are not ideological, but simply want to “get things done.” That implies, though, that “getting things done” is not itself an ideological position. In the context of the federal government, it absolutely is. “Getting things done” from the president’s perspective means enhancing executive power and trampling on rule of law, at the expense of constitutional republicanism itself.

    Insisting that “something must be done” ignores an entire school of political thought that holds that government interference in the economy is economically counterproductive. You – and Obama – may disagree, but let’s not pretend that either side is acting non-ideologically.

    Boldness and arrogance in this context don’t just “overlap” – they are inseparable. A president who acts “boldly” – i.e. without regard for constitutional constraints – is assuming that his own policy priorities are more important than the law, and more important than any political opposition to those priorities manifested through checks on executive power. That’s a supremely arrogant position (whether or not the president himself is arrogant).

    I also never mentioned the “totalitarian ghosts” you to which you refer, but now that you mention it, Mussolini was perhaps the first “pragmatic progressive” to hold “getting things done” as a political end in itself. Of course that entailed the usurpation of any checks on his power and the demonetization of political opponents. But hey, something had to be done, and at least he was “bold”!

  • Alan Noble

    Good discussion, Ryan and Lachlan. Thanks.

  • Lachlan Markay

    Please forgive typos. “Demonitization” in that last paragraph should be “demonization.”

  • This is a really interesting take on the problem. However, I might quibble with your statement that the “arrogance” charge is intermingled with boldness. What about aloofness? I have struggled with charges of arrogance my entire life, and it certainly isn’t exacerbated by boldness… I’m a very cautious person in a lot of ways.

    Instead, a lot of times I am aloof and keep my thoughts to myself until the last possible second, and this allows people the opportunity to generate fearful thoughts in their own minds about what I might be thinking or how I might be judging them. Pretty soon they are attributing judgemental thoughts to me that I never had… and calling me arrogant as a result. Might this not be a significant piece of how Obama is viewed?

    That said, your point is a good one. Certainly Bush was accused of arrogance partially because of his boldness, and less because of his aloof air!

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Lachlan, thanks for your timely and thoughtful response. When I quoted you in my column, I was careful not to make it seem like you called Obama as a person arrogant. In my fourth paragraph, I make precisely the same point as you regarding our inability to judge the president’s heart; thanks for reiterating that important point.

    You’re also right that progressive are indeed ideological in their claims to be utilitarian and practical. It’s well to point out, as you do, that conservatives take the same approach, too. I question the way you frame your point with the phrase “government interference,” but your basic point is valid.

    I appreciate your concern over adherence to the Constitution, though it’s worth returning to the document itself to see what powers are granted to presidents. They are, you doubtlessly know, four years per elected term; financial compensation; the position of Commander in Chief; make treaties (with senate’s approval); appoint officials, Supreme Court judges, and ambassadors; temporarily fill Senate vacancies; and deliver an annual State of the Union Address to Congress (II.1-3).

    But have events in American history not added to the Constitution’s expectations and responsibilities of presidents? If Obama were to follow the Constitution to the letter, would Americans not chastise him endlessly for negligence of duty and inaction? For this reason, I brought up Roosevelt’s presidency during the Depression. It seems more relevant — and productive — to discuss him in relation to Obama, rather than Obama in relation to Mussolini, as you propose in your comment. I welcome your comments on Roosevelt’s presidency if you care to share.

    While looking at the Constitution, it’s well to note that it also stresses one of Congress’ central purposes is to provide for “the common defence [sic] and general welfare of the United States . . .” (I.8) Surely it’s done the first — but the second of these? Last summer’s lame-duck Congressional sessions (and the renewed chance of them this summer as well) leaves them vulnerable to the criticism that they are altogether neglecting this responsibility.

    Regarding the totalitarian ghosts you stress you never named: take another look at my second paragraph, where I take precautions to make precisely that qualification, followed by my reading of your work as evoking their ghosts. One doesn’t have to explicitly name them to conjure their figures. Such maneuvers strike me as a rhetorical device meant not to properly frame a discussion but simply to rekindle people’s fears (and rightful disdain) of totalitarianism, and to mobilize them against a disliked political group. It’s not only conservatives who do this. I tried reading Naomi Wolf’s “The End of America,” and she takes the same tactic, albeit explicitly rather than implicitly, regarding George W. Bush’s presidency. Call me narrow-minded, but this tactic unraveled the legitimacy of Wolf’s argument in my opinion, and I put down her book. The rhetorical move works, yes, but it’s misleading and alarmist.

  • C. Ryan Knight

    Ben, great point/idea about arrogance/aloofness. I settled on boldness as the companion to arrogance because both are identified based on someone’s actions, as seen with my example of Daniel. I agree that aloofness is another suitable companion to arrogance, though I do think we move from action to inaction. As you show with the example from your personal life, aloofness is mistaken for arrogance because of inaction: refraining from speaking, silence, eventually proceeding with caution and (I assume) calculation, etc.

    But yes, Obama is viewed as aloof, as Rep. Cardoza’s piece also noted (though I didn’t touch on that in my column). Hope that distinction (action v. inaction) helps, if you accept it as valid.

  • “If Obama were to follow the Constitution to the letter, would Americans not chastise him endlessly for negligence of duty and inaction?”

    Perhaps. Presidents are endlessly chastised regardless of what they do. If he were to follow the Constitution, though, he would at least be fulfilling his oath of office. The choices are: govern according to the law and be chastised for it, or govern in contravention to the law and be chastised for it. Obama has clearly opted for the latter.

    As to your final parahgraph, I’m not making value judgments about the pragmatic form of politics when I compare it to Musollini’s. It’s simply a fact that the “we need to get things done, the law be damned” style of governing is inherently Mussolinian. Roosevelt was a very big Mussolini fan, by the way, as were wide swaths of American progressives at the time.

  • The general welfare clause notwithstanding, the president clearly violated the Constitution with his non-recess appointments. That’s indisputable. One can argue that that was the right thing thing to do, but not that it was legal. And as I point out above, the contention that one must do something because one feels it must be done, regardless of legal checks on power and the firm opposition of political opponents, is a thoroughly arrogant position. It holds one’s own political preferences above the law and above the political preferences of others.

  • If the standard by which to guage presidential arrogance is doing “something because one feels it must be done, regardless of legal checks on power and the firm opposition of political opponents,” then any president who stretched his authority beyond the constitution would be classified as arrogant.

    Though I lean towards agreeing with Mr. Markay in that Obama’s “style of governing is inherently Mussolinian,” the historical continuum of the American presidency reaveals a steady march towards a citizen-approved authoritarianism via arrogance, meaning Obama is not the start of this problem, nor is he the final figure who puts the finishing touches on our eventual police state (I figure we are at least one population-thinning world war and two presidential cycles away from that nightmare).


    By ignoring the historical move towards a more authoritarian state (or at least a corporatocracy) via arrogance, Mr. Markay is distastefully partisan in his neglect to point out George W. Bush’s trampling of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights after 9/11 in his article, “Morning Bell: Obama’s Arrogant Authoritarianism.” Bush forced blatantly authoritarian laws and exectutive orders into place that are now the undeniable foundation of Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” type of constitutional violations.

    I believe Mr. Markay would have a much stronger argument about Obama’s arrogance if he were to remove his partisan blinders and write from a more nuanced view of presidential history. I do not think the Heritage Foundation pays for such writing however, but instead bases salaries on how much revenue a staff member can generate by stoking the flames of fear with buzzwords such as Mussolini or tweeting the word Fascism.

  • Daniel

    MKRoss, you wrote:

    “Though I lean towards agreeing with Mr. Markay in that Obama’s “style of governing is inherently Mussolinian,” the historical continuum of the American presidency reaveals a steady march towards a citizen-approved authoritarianism via arrogance, meaning Obama is not the start of this problem, nor is he the final figure who puts the finishing touches on our eventual police state (I figure we are at least one population-thinning world war and two presidential cycles away from that nightmare).”

    I think your estimate is too rosy; the police state is already HERE. The President, aided and abetted by Congress and the courts can throw anyone he wants to into indefinately detention, demand full surveillance of anyone without a warrant, and even order the extrajudicial execution of an American citizen outside of a war zone based on secret evidence that he need not disclose.

    No, Obama was not the first–Bush II greatly expanded the power (again, aided and abetted by Congress and the Courts), and candidate Obama decried these abuses. Now that he’s in power, of course, it’s different. It’s all ok–not just the wireless wiretapping or indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” but now American citizens may be whacked without formal charges of any crime. (And President Obama nicely put a blanket pardon on Bush and his administration on anything they did like torture or destruction of evidence.) Because of this cynical betrayal, I find Obama even more odious than Bush.

    Manipulating Presidental histories or his arrogant/”bold” chest-thumping is such small potatoes. Frankly, my fellow Christians who get into such a frenzy about gay marriage or Obama’s supposed Muslimness are missing the big picture, that there is not a tinker’s damn worth of difference between the Republican or Democratic wing of the Fascist party.

    I know I must sound like a loon to many…probably because I’ve been reading too much Glenn Greenwald. In the end, I’m not as desperate as I might sound, because I know that God is ultimately in control, and He sets up kings and presidents. The delusions of grandure that politicans may have are nothing in the hands of a sovereign God.

  • Fred Smith

    Let us remember that Arrogance is an attitude; Boldness is a style of action. This is why aloof people can be arrogant, and bold people can be humble. Of course there is overlap, and different circumstances will make us any of the above, depending. (So perhaps FDR was an elitist dilettante until he became president and was confronted with problems so big that he had to be bold to deal with them).

    Boldness is a virtue–exercised when needed. Arrogance is a sin and the bold person may be arrogant. The arrogance is not in the boldness, it is in the attitude by which one acts boldly. Let’s draw another example from history. Both Generals Patton and Eisenhower were bold men. Both were confident in their ability to make good decisions. Eisenhower was humble, Patton was arrogant. Both were talented generals. Both won. Eisenhower could contemplate the possibility of defeat; Patton could not.