Photo credits: open.salon.com
Over at the NY Times this morning, Dr. Stanley Fish in Think Again dares challenge the rapidly developing imperialism of President Barack Obama. Fish’s column is upsetting Obama-ites who are on a rampage in the comments section, but for those of us who are uncomfortable with the widespread idolatry among our new president’s followers, it’s a relief that someone in the media is at least calling Obama to account.
Titled “Yes I Can,” Dr. Fish’s column carefully presents how President Obama has moved from saying, “Yes we can,” to emphasizing his “imperial possession.”
Last week I was driving home listening to President Obama’s speech on the General Motors bankruptcy, and I heard the full emergence of a note that had been sounded only occasionally in the two-plus years since the announcement of his candidacy. It was the note of imperial possession, the accents and cadences of a man supremely aware of his authority and more than comfortable with its exercise.
I was reminded of the last scene of “Godfather I,” when Michael Corleone, who begins the film as a young idealistic patriot, ends it by striking the pose of a Roman emperor as subordinates kiss his ring. Obama is still idealistic and a patriot, but he is now also an emperor and his speech shows it. “Language,” Ben Jonson says in Discoveries, “shows a man; speak that I may see thee.”
Fish notes when Obama begins to move away from his original restraint and modesty to start speaking from the “I” perspective:
Everything alters in the inaugural address (Jan. 20, 2009). The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. “But know America” — or, in other words, “hear me” — “…they will be met.” And later, when he says, “We will build the roads and bridges… We will restore science to its rightful place… We will harness the sun and winds,” the “we” is now the royal we: just you watch, “All this we will do.”
By the time of the address to the Congress on Feb. 24, the royal we has flowered into the naked “I”: “As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress.” “I called for action.” “I pushed for quick action.” “I have told each of my cabinet.” “I’ve appointed a proven and aggressive inspector general.” “I refuse to let that happen.” “I will not spend a single penny.” “I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves.” “I held a fiscal summit where I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term.” That last is particularly telling: it says, there’s going to be a second term, I’m already moving fast, and if you don’t want to be left in the dust, you’d better fall in line.
There’s no mistaking what’s going on in the speech delivered last week. No preliminary niceties; just a rehearsal of Obama’s actions and expectations. Eight “I”’s right off the bat: “Just over two months ago I spoke with you… and I laid out what needed to be done.” “From the beginning I made it clear that I would not put any more tax dollars on the line.” “I refused to let those companies become permanent wards of the state.” “I refused to kick the can down the road. But I also recognized the importance of a viable auto industry.” “I decided then…” (He is really the decider.)
And it’s not just in the U.S. that Obama has assumed power:
Accompanying the “I”’s are a bevy of “my”’s, which reach out to embrace the universe. The third time he says “my auto task force,” it sounds as if he were referring to a lap dog. Ditto the mention of Karen Mills, “my Small Business Administration” chief. When he thanks Canada and Germany for doing their part, it is as if those sovereign nations were doing him a personal favor to which he was entitled. When he invokes “my administration” you might think he was talking about some prized possession. (My daughter…my ducats.) It is always “I couldn’t in good conscience,” “I became convinced,” “I wanted to ensure,” “I instructed,” “I recognized,” “I want” (three times), “I’m calling on Congress.” At least he doesn’t say “my Congress,” although that is certainly implied.
I differ with Fish in his concluding remarks as I don’t see Obama’s behavior as “okay as long as he gets results.” But at least Fish has had the courage to point out to readers who continue to idolize Obama that four months after taking office, our new president has become an imperialist.