By Bret Stephens
By Bret Stephens
Feb. 16, 2015
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.”
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
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.
Global View Columnist Bret
Stephens on the degradation of the office of the President, from the Clinton era
to the Obama White House.
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
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
“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
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