In thinking of Barack Obama’s presidency, I can’t help recalling the Comte de Lautréamont’s definition of Surrealism as the quintessence of the Absurd: “the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing-machine on a dissection table.” For this is certainly the most surreal presidency since Jimmy Carter’s, or even Andrew Jackson’s—or, more likely, the most implausible and Absurd administration in the entirety of American history.
Let us see how Lautréamont applies. It is raining debt and joblessness on the United States, but Obama and his crew are protected by an umbrella so vast it resembles Muammar Gaddafi’s tent. Obama enjoys the top job in the country and avails himself lavishly of all its perks, posting as well an annual income in the millions of dollars, over five million in 2009 alone. His cohorts and backers are doing quite proudly too, not to mention Democratic godfather George Soros, one of the world’s richest men. Home foreclosures and job terminations are not an issue for these people, who are good at theoretical empathy and not much else, apart from making the situation even worse than it already is. As for the sewing-machine, it is busy at work stitching a fabric of lies and subterfuges, from global warming to Green energy to cap-and-trade to socialized medicine. And on the dissection table an entire nation is being cut to shreds to the jubilant disbelief of America’s dedicated enemies. The borders are porous, military spending is being reduced, terrorists are Mirandized, geopolitical adversaries are regarded as aggrieved friends-in-waiting and real friends are given the cold shoulder. On the domestic front, genuine popular movements seeking beneficial change are slandered as an army of thugs and seditionists. All this is Surrealism with a vengeance.
Carter and Jackson serve as theatrical analogies. Jimmy Carter, as we all know, was (and is) the archetypal wimp who never met a theocrat he didn’t like and gave us the Iran we know today while eventually selling out to the Saudis, the principal funders of his misnamed Peace Center. Carter was conceivably the worst president in POTUS history until the present incumbent appeared to bring the highest office in the land into turmoil and disrepute. Andrew Jackson, according to his biographer James Parton, was a bundle of contradictions: “A democratic aristocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.” Founder of the Democratic Party, Jackson was one of the most interesting and selectively dynamic in the almanac of presidential characters, but also one of the most problematic, especially with respect to the institution of slavery. Both Carter and Jackson, each in his own unique way, were spectacles that almost defied credence. Both were made for the Theatre of the Absurd, one a grovelling clown without an iota of reason to his credit and the other a blustering commander who dominated the political proscenium with his personal eccentricities.
They have now been pre-empted by Barack Obama, aided and abetted by an apostolic media that refused to examine his tainted past and divinized him as someone rather more than merely human. One remembers that old joke about the media’s relation to George W. Bush. If he had walked on water, the headlines would have read: “Bush can’t swim.” But with Obama it’s exactly the other way round. If he went for a swim, the headlines would read: “Obama too modest to reveal messianic powers.”
What many have failed to recognize until recently is that Obama is no wonder-worker, no farsighted statesman, no honest broker, no competent chief executive, no bipartisan healer—and in point of fact, he is simply not presidential material at all. Obama has absolutely no idea of how to go about running a country. But it would be a mistake to assume that he is nothing more than an untalented bungler, for he is blessed with thespian aptitudes that none of his predecessors could have mustered. Obama is a man with a résumé so thin it would look sideways head-on, but he is unexcelled as a performer.
Obama is essentially an actor in a kind of Brechtian drama promoting a neo-Marxist ideology, say, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, mixed with robust elements of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As with Brecht, Obama believes in the redistribution of income as the central program of the welfare state—although Brecht, who wrote in the service of the East German regime, deposited his substantial profits in West German banks, a rather salient item in the current context. At the same time, there is a sense in which Obama resembles Beckett’s elusive Godot who is eagerly awaited but never actually arrives. He intends to show up later in the day, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, but the promise is never realized. Similarly, Obama doesn’t “show up” in any meaningful acceptation of the phrase, as his tardy response to the BP oil spill makes pretty obvious. But it’s more than that: he just doesn’t seem “there” to meet the major challenges of the time with insight, knowledge, intelligence and courage. Obama also mirrors the character Estragon whose trousers fall to his ankles without him noticing it, a fitting end to the play in which the character’s naked ineffectualness and perpetual dithering is finally exposed.
America is now living under the simulated presidency of an impressive actor for whom all the world’s a stage and all the people in it merely suckers. Displaying the quirkiness and ostentation of the inveterate ham, he soliloquizes in Cairo, postures in Copenhagen, preens in Oslo, orates in Washington, warbles “Hey Jude” with a merry singalong gang in the White House, awarding Paul McCartney the Library of Congress Gershwin Award for Popular Song “on behalf of a grateful nation” while the real, neglected nation groans, looks fetchingly troubled when examining oil slick on the Gulf coast, relishes photo-ops and relies on a teleprompter the way actors depend on the souffleur beneath the planks. As president, he manifests on the one hand the futility and ineptitude of Jimmy Carter taken to the nth degree, in particular with regard to the Iranian threat, and on the other the idiosyncratic behavior of Andrew Jackson—though it must be acknowledged, without Jackson’s native gumption and profoundly held convictions.
Indeed, Obama is a weird bird. To be fair, he does bring a parcel of convictions with him, albeit of a distinctly socialist stamp, which he seems determined to impose on a once-largely unsuspecting public. These convictions, however, seem like a kind of ideological stuffing without which he would fold, buckle and collapse on himself. It is as if he needs to have something controversial, something startling to say in order to convince himself, as well as others, that he exists, and requires a platform on which to exercise his repertoire of roles. An utter prima donna, he is so consumed with his own histrionic self, and his ability to adopt whatever pose the situation demands, that he seems nothing so much as an absence made concrete, a flamboyant nullity inadequate to the problems he confronts, adept only at speeches, monologues and striking gestures. As a result, the time inevitably comes when he begins to look inauthentic and faintly ridiculous, and ultimately as unreal as a typical character in an Absurdist play who faces alarmingly incomprehensible predicaments before which he remains helpless and unbuttoned. Such, of course, is the nature of the genre, as it is of this presidency.
The long and the short of it is that Obama’s tenure in the White House will be remembered as a national aberration, a piece of avant-garde theatre and a surreal installment in the far more serious drama of unforgiving realpolitik. Meanwhile, the umbrella is open wide, the sewing machine keeps humming away and a country is laid out flat on the dissection table.