John McWhorter has an interesting article at the Daily Beast in which he discusses the assertion made by some commentators on the right that President Obama is a narcissist. McWhorter thinks the charge is off base, and he suggests that it is made simply because the people making it are biased against the president. Here he means not racial bias but just political bias: they don’t like him because he is the leader of a political movement with which they disagree, and thus stands for things they reject, so they find things about him to criticize. This seems like a reasonable point.
On the other hand, McWhorter is not entirely convincing in his effort to dismiss the idea that the president talks as if he is unduly interested in himself. Those who charge Obama with narcissism point out that he uses the personal pronoun a lot in his speeches. In response, McWhorter makes some comparisons and finds that Obama does not say “I” more than other presidents have in similar contexts.
This is a good way to start the inquiry, but not sufficient to end it. After all, it is not only a question of the number of times one uses the personal pronoun, but also how one uses it. Imagine, for example, a CEO making a presentation to a board of directors. Suppose this CEO got almost to the end of his long presentation without having used the personal pronoun at all, and then ended with this: “In sum, this is how I intend to run my company.” Our hypothetical CEO would have used the personal pronoun only twice, but he would still have used it in such a way as to raise some eyebrows–and some hackles–among the board members. They might with justice think: “What does he mean, his company?!”
And in fact President Obama does sometimes talk like this, and I suspect that this is what many of his critics find irritating, even apart from their disagreement with him on other issues. President Obama often says things like, “I have directed my national security team” to do such and such, and refers to “my secretary of defense,” for example. There seems to be something not right in putting it like this. The people to whom he is referring are his subordinates, but at the same time they are officers of the government of the United States. This is why it might be more appropriate for even the president to refer to “the secretary of defense” instead of “my secretary of defense.” After all, these people all took an oath of fidelity to the Constitution–not the to president personally.
Of course, there are cases in which we can imagine someone appropriately referring to “my minister of defense,” or even “my prime minister.” But the people we can imagine saying that are kings or queens, so this is not a useful precedent for the president of a republic.
Similarly, in a recent statement President Obama said this: “This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” Again, it seems to me that it would have been better for him to say: “This is a core principle of American policy: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” When the president is making a statement like this he is not speaking just for himself but for the country. Moreover, if he thinks this kind of policy is necessary to protect America, then there is a good reason for him to try to get the world to believe that it will continue to be in force even after he is no longer president.
Finally, apart from how often and in what way the president uses the personal pronoun, there is this remark that he made in 2008 while running for president: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
I don’t know if that is narcissism, but it is certainly not the kind of thing that any sensible person would say or believe.