New Obama’s Morbid Vanity

May 21, 2012

I recently came across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s haunting short story “Wakefield,” and I couldn’t help but notice similarities (and differences) between Wakefield and President Obama.

In “Wakefield,” a man tells his wife he is leaving for a short trip, but instead, he moves in to a rental home a block away, where he remains for 20 years, unbeknownst to his wife and friends. At the end of this period, he waltzes right back into his house “as from a day’s absence, and became a loving spouse till death.”

Perhaps at first Wakefield isn’t sure why he left. He could be experiencing a midlife crisis and trying to see how he will fare in a different environment. But he can’t completely pull himself away and “finds himself curious to know the progress of matters at home — how his exemplary wife will endure her widowhood, of a week; and, briefly, how the little spheres of creatures and circumstances, in which he was a central object, will be affected by his removal.”

It’s as if he tried to take himself out of his own reality, to witness that reality more objectively, as a third-party observer, and thereby discover himself. With apologies to Eastern mystics, the problem with this experiment — or any such experiment — is that a man cannot separate his inner self from his observing self. Wakefield cannot step outside himself to view himself in that former life more clearly, because he has taken himself out of that life. He is not in the home with his now grieving wife, interacting with her; he is outside, watching from a distance.

As he sees a physician visit his wife, Wakefield suspects she might be deathly ill, and this seems to slightly arouse his concern, but not enough to move him to return and comfort her back to health. By no means shall his sojourn in self-discovery be affected by these inconvenient stirrings of conscience; he hasn’t yet decided when he will return, and this decision must be determined by his needs, not hers.

Ultimately, according to Hawthorne, “a morbid vanity … lies nearest the bottom of the affair.” Wakefield is so self-absorbed that it is not enough that he has indulged his grotesque midlife confusion to leave his wife, with barely a concern for its deleterious impact on her; he has to return to the scene of the crime and, beyond his process of self-discovery, must also savor her suffering because of his absence. Amazingly, at the end of this decades-long navel-gazing exercise, he is allowed to return home with impunity, as though he never left and he weren’t the causal agent of so much damage.

There are, as I see it, at least two similarities between “Wakefield” and Obama’s marriage to America.

In 2008, Obama had a record — most liberal senator in 2007, liberal state senator in Illinois, mysterious past, sordid relationships, radical community organizing past, anti-American upbringing and mentors, and more — but he concealed it and ran, instead, on a false messianic image.

Now he has compiled a record as negative as his falsely constructed image in 2008 was positive. So under no circumstances can he run on his record. His campaign construct for 2012 is just as elaborate and fictitious, but instead of seducing America’s willing disbelief with grandiose promises of hope and change, he is seeking to create the illusion (similar to Wakefield) that he isn’t the main causal agent of enormous economic devastation in America.

Is Obama’s contention that Bush caused our present economic conditions less preposterous than his pledge to stem the ocean’s rise? Unlike Wakefield, Obama didn’t actually leave, but he would have us believe he did, that it was not he but Bush who was America’s abusive husband for the past three-plus years. But like Wakefield, Obama caused horrendous damage, yet he expects America to be his loving spouse for another four years.

Obama’s narcissistic self-absorption is also analogous to Wakefield’s, but it’s worse. Wakefield appeared at least to have wrestled with the process of self-exploration and discovery; there was arguably some hint of self-reflection. But like a spoiled adolescent whose misdeeds have even been positively reinforced by recklessly doting parents, Obama appears to have no interest in honest self-assessment.

Obama’s scapegoating of Bush is probably not entirely contrived. Obama is so self-satisfied that in his mind, his legacy was largely written before he stepped into office. So fervent is his ideological belief system that even objective evidence of his dismal policy failures doesn’t shake his confidence in his prescriptions. Because the facts don’t square up with his pre-inauguration narrative, he simply changes the facts to make them conform, essentially saying: “The economy isn’t good, but it’s much better than it would have been had I not been in office. To the extent it’s still bad, it’s Bush’s fault.”

For Obama, maybe more so even than Wakefield, a morbid vanity lies nearest the bottom of the affair.