December 31st, 2009

Shelby Steele on Obama’s emptiness

Shelby Steele writes another impressive article about President Obama. In it, he offers the following analysis:

Mr. Obama won the presidency by achieving a symbiotic bond with the American people: He would labor not to show himself, and Americans would labor not to see him. As providence would have it, this was a very effective symbiosis politically. And yet, without self-disclosure on the one hand or cross-examination on the other, Mr. Obama became arguably the least known man ever to step into the American presidency.

Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn’t there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale…Mr. Obama’s economic thinking (or lack thereof) adds up to a kind of rudderless cowboyism combined with wishful thinking. You would think that in the two solid years of daily campaigning leading up to his election this nakedness would have been seen…

I think that Mr. Obama is not just inexperienced; he is also hampered by a distinct inner emptiness—not an emptiness that comes from stupidity or a lack of ability but an emptiness that has been actually nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the political world…

…[H]e has come forward in American politics by emptying himself of strong convictions, by rejecting principled stands as “ideological,” and by promising to deliver us from the “tired” culture-war debates of the past. He aspires to be “post-ideological,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan,” which is to say that he defines himself by a series of “nots”—thus implying that being nothing is better than being something. He tries to make a politics out of emptiness itself.

I think this is very finely put, but I would add the following: I do not believe that Obama’s political emptiness is real. Rather, I think he is quite full—of leftist ideology, that is. This political emptiness was (and still is, although the extent to which he can still manage to pull it off has diminished over time as his actions have begun to speak more loudly than his lofty words) a strategic pose that he adopted in order to get elected. His truer and deeper emptiness is an emotional one which, to paraphrase Steele, has been “nurtured and developed as an adaptation to the world in which he found himself as a child and young adult.” That, perhaps, is the most frightening part of all; I believe he lacks an inner core, and has filled the vacuum with an ideology that he plans to impose on this country if he possibly can, whether we like it or not.

That’s what “yes, we can” was all about.

35 Responses to “Shelby Steele on Obama’s emptiness”

  1. Patrick Says:

    I only partly agree, Neo. You think Obama is full of Leftist ideology. Still, he’s no flaming Leftist: he’s not even as authentically leftist as, say, Kos, much less the neo-Marxists.

    Rather, he simply *assumes* Leftism. A vague and reflexive but personally-lucrative Leftism is de rigeur among his Chicago crowd. Does he really believe it? Probably to the extent he believes anything. But he’s certainly very clearly willing to sell the left out to satisfy his power and ambition. Now he’s stuck in the bed he made for himself, trying desperately to keep his popularity. But he has no self-image; he must have other people approving of him but he doesn’t have any internal grit to get it.

  2. CV Says:

    I was hoping you would comment on Shelby Steele’s column, neo, since his analysis is similar to your own.

    I see Obama’s “emptiness” as less political and more personal. He lacks core principles–in a word, character–and that became clear to me early on in the election process.

    But a lot of people–still–seem to miss this perception when it comes to Obama.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Patrick: I disagree; this is an old argument here, however, and the beauty of Obama is that in some ways he remains a cipher. I believe he is a leftist ideologue, and I’ve written reams on the subject, but it’s impossible to prove anything. The evidence is in remarks that slip out when his self-control falters, such as his statements to Joe the Plumber. Also, in older interviews before his candidacy, he is far more clear about his leftist ideology. Then there’s the matter of his background and associations. As for his selling out the left—that is a pragmatic momentary thing. He explained it all in 2006; see this.

  4. expat Says:

    I tend to agree with Patrick on Obama’s assuming Leftism. It’s a very shallow “everyone does it” kind of default belief. But questioning this does more than just threaten his popularity. It might force him to admit that he had been wrong. Yes, he feeds off the popularity, but his core is pure narcissist. His one belief is that he is the one–the one that can stop the rise of the oceans, the one that can make our enemies love us, the one that can save America from its sins. He may sell out some of the leftist assumptions, but when too many go under the bus and he starts to feel naked, we are in trouble.

  5. huxley Says:

    That, perhaps, is the most frightening part of all; I believe he lacks an inner core, and has filled the vacuum with an ideology that he plans to impose on this country if he possibly can, whether we like it or not.

    neo: That’s very much how Obama seems to me and it is frightening.

    I’d be very curious to hear more from you, given your background, on how this likely plays out as Obama’s polls decline and he discovers that his worldview is “topsy-turvy,” as VDH put it, to reality and consequently most of his efforts fail.

    It seems to me that Obama is heading for a serious personal crisis and possibly a breakdown, and we are all along for the ride. Lucky us.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    expat: there’s really no contradiction between what you say and what I’m saying. All of Obama’s beliefs are shallow, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have them, and won’t act on them. He does, and will try his best, compromising in the short run with a view to the long.

    I don’t think Obama is a pure narcissist, however, although he is a narcissist—because a pure narcissist would have been more responsive to public opinion long before this, in order to continue receiving the adulation. Obama’s m.o. is to allow Congress and his aides to do his dirty work, but he directs them behind the scenes, sometimes by letting them have their way if he knows their way is a leftist one (such as with Pelosi, for example).

    How far to the left is he? I don’t know, and at this point it doesn’t much matter. I think the answer is: as far as he can get.

  7. Baklava Says:

    Neo wrote, “I do not believe that Obama’s political emptiness is real.

    It is a perception he tries to paint – the “nots”.

    What are his real words and actions to other heads of state? Well… They are of a man with conviction. He has hatred of past American actions. He has ELEVATED every dictator and DIMINISHED the office of the U.S. President.

    What is ∅bama was president after 9/11? It’s a hypothetical that makes my mind go blank but there would TRULY be something that Obama does – because he isn’t a “not”. He is something – we can’t put our finger on it.

  8. huxley Says:

    I’m also curious how Obama’s failures will play out for the 20% or so of Americans deeply invested in Obama.

    Obama is close to a religious belief for these blue Americans. He represents all the right things that GW Bush wasn’t.

    Obama is the new paradigm, the smart diplomacy guy, the lightworker, the supremely intelligent, articulate and moral force they have been waiting for.

    Blue state Americans were so sure that Obama would take office and easily turn around all the stupid, evil things Bush had done, and now it’s not so simple. Nothing is going according to plan.

    Obama is not the only American at risk for a breakdown in the coming years.

  9. Bent Notes » How one ambitious young man came to find meaning in his life Says:

    […] Neo-neocon looks at Shelby Steele’s assessment of what we’ve come to know about TCM this past year, and goes him a step further.  Key line:  “He lacks an inner core, and has filled the vacuum with an ideology that he plans to impose on this country if he possibly can, whether we like it or not.” […]

  10. expat Says:


    Perhaps there is some hope if too many of those who do Obama’s dirty work get tossed to save his a**. There could be a court rebellion led by someone who knows all the intrigues. Holder could be vulnerable but I don’t think he would turn on Obama. Where is Obama’s Dick Morris? And would that person take some of Obama’s adoring base?

  11. huxley Says:

    I don’t imagine many here read New Age material but New Agers are totally onboard with and gaga for Obama. Here’s a bit from Caroline Myss, a New Age teacher:

    I consider the election of Barack Obama a global mystical event, quite frankly, a turning of the tide for humanity and certainly for America. This nation was on a respirator and going down fast after almost eight years of being fed the poison of the Bush administration. Finally in a great voice, the majority screamed, “Enough,” and we broke through the dark hold of the Bush administration, redirecting this nation from hopelessness to hope.

    Everyone feels it everywhere around the world. No one has ever seen such a response to a presidential election because never before has America sunk to such darkness. Never before has the world witnessed such a malevolent administration in charge of this great nation as the Bush-Cheney team….

    Our time has come. We are no longer “waiting” for the era of consciousness to begin. We are that era.

    Where do these people go when Obama fails?

  12. Tim P Says:

    “He tries to make a politics out of emptiness itself.”

    Hey, the first Seinfeldian presidency! A president and administration about nothing.

    On a more serious note. I have to agree with Neo on this one. I too think that Obama is a serious ideologue.
    However, I am also becoming increasingly of the opinion that he’s incompetent and way out of his depth. That being the case, he is falling back on what got him there, old fashioned Chicago style corruption and thuggery. Like all thugs, he’s a coward at heart which explains much of his toughness against domestic political foes and softness towards foreign leaders. Many foreign leaders, having taken the measure of the man have shown their thinly veiled contempt in one form or another.

    A Happy New Years to all!

  13. Amused Cynic » Blog Archive » The Obamalinsky Model… Says:

    […] blogger I admire, Neo-neocon, has a brand new post up on “Obama’s emptiness.” In it, she cites Shelby Steele’s WSJ piece on […]

  14. Baklava Says:

    TSA subpoenas bloggers NEO !

  15. Baklava Says:

    A different way of putting it by Annie Jacobsen

  16. expat Says:


    Maybe some stimulus money could be diverted to building more mental hospitals. Ones that serve Koolaid , naturally. We wouldn’t want to cause severe withdrawal problems.

  17. Tom Says:

    Hux: You ask where the New Agers and other left airheads will go when Baraq fails. I think they won’t go anywhere. Whatever he does and does not do is OK with them, because they believe in Him. Failure is in the eye of the beholder.

  18. ET Says:

    I think that Obama is a pathological narcissist, and in contradiction to neo-con, this does NOT mean that he’d react to criticism; it means the opposite.

    For Obama, if you are a critic, a questioner, a dissenter, this means that you have moved yourself outside of his control. And this means that for Obama, you literally cease to exist.

    I suspect that Obama moved himself into a malignant narcissism as a young boy, where he developed his skills of misinformation, emotional manipulation and ..if you resist him, accusations that you are biased. These three tactics enabled him to control the interactions of people around him – and the reaction he needs is absolute adulation.

    I don’t see him as intellectually committed to any ideology; he is too intellectually shallow, ignorant and disinterested in ideas for such a result. He IS, however, embedded within the political left because the left sets up a political structure of elites ruling over those who are stripped of power.

    The political right focuses on individuals having personal power and responsibility. Obama’s need to control people puts him firmly among the left – but this is a psychological not ideological stance. He remains ignorant, shallow and also, uninterested in analysis and policies.

    What will happen as his popularity slips; Rasmussen polls him as minus 12 to 20 in the last month, an enormous drop in one year from his plus 30 rate at the beginning of the year. I suggest that his need for constant adulation, unmet by criticism, unmet by any need for constant campaigning, will result in his withdrawing more and more from public life. He’s a delegator and we’ll see more of this; as he retreats to reading wooden prepared speeches, to uninvolvement with the country – and, to actually leaving for some other position, and not seek a second term.

    BUT – the damage he and radical socialists who run him are doing to the nation now, is enormous.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    ET: yes, malignant narcissism is different than mere narcissism. I know a lot of people believe Obama is a malignant narcissist, but I’m not there.

    Not yet, anyway.

  20. SteveH Says:

    I think the nothingness is in reference to a form of pathological indisciminateness. Which apparently relies on a class system where lower class world citizens are allowed all the leeway and people of means allowed none.

    This explains why liberals seem to despise a wealthy westerner daring to harshly judge lower class criminality.

  21. Thomass Says:

    I’d point out there is a difference between not being a leftist and just not going with the current flow of what the progressive movement wants at the moment. The progressives are not known for consistency or intellectual rigor and their whims don’t define ‘leftism’. Obama just gave them forced equality in healthcare by passing the parts of the healthcare bill he did. Just no public option [yet]. The KOS kids just are not bright enough to get it yet.

  22. rickl Says:

    huxley Says:
    December 31st, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I remember reading the demented nonsense about Obama being a “Lightworker” during the campaign (I think it was at SFGate).

    I had already noticed the cult of personality surrounding him by then, and so that article scared the living daylights out of me, since I recalled that the Nazi movement was rife with mysticism.

    There is something gravely wrong with people who assign near-superhuman powers to politicians. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Palin, but I like to think that I don’t cross the line into idol worship.

  23. NeoConScum Says:

    BEAUTIFUL ! Shelby and, recently, Charles Krauthammer’s column on The One sum the Beta Boy up pluperfectly. A negative sum. A vast, pathetic emptiness. A grifter, pretender and ponzi schemer who, in a mere 11-months, stands buck naked.

    Lucky us.

  24. huxley Says:

    Whatever [Obama] does and does not do is OK with them, because they believe in Him. Failure is in the eye of the beholder.

    Tom: Some, sure. Even Nixon had his loyal supporters at the end.

    But if Obama hits the rocks as badly as I suspect he will, he may not be reviled as much as Nixon, or GWB for that matter, but everyone will drift away pretending that they were never big Obama fans to begin with.

    Among other things, Obama reminds me of the dotcom bubble. After the bubble burst, it was obvious to everyone that it was bound to, and for a couple years lots of people wandered around dejectedly feeling that they had been gypped out of their million dollars.

  25. Bob from Virginia Says:

    Has anyone noticed that there has not this many analyses of a single personality since Jack the Ripper. Come to think, in light of Obama’s plans for the US….

  26. huxley Says:

    I remember reading the demented nonsense about Obama being a “Lightworker” during the campaign (I think it was at SFGate).

    rickl: That was Mark Morford. I met him once. He’s a Burning Man dude with a buff build, tats, a nipple ring, and lots of attitude. I don’t think he does humility or self-reflection, so Obama’s failure might not affect him.

    Obama is not just another politician or president. He was elected on a wave of cultish adoration that we’ve not seen before. With a straight face he proclaimed his elevation as the occasion for the sick to heal and the oceans to recede, and people lapped the liquor up.

    There is going to be a terrible hangover, when Obama goes down. They were not only raising up Obama as an idol, but themselves as well.

    “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

  27. Wandriaan Says:

    If Neo’s analysis is correct than Obama himself must implode when his leftist ideology implodes. Perhaps that’s what we are seeing in his increasing fatigue and emptiness.
    Are there witnesses on this? Has he a solid sense of self completely apart from leftist ideology?

  28. strcpy Says:

    Personally I think Obama’s emptiness is not delved enough here – I think that he is so empty that people can project what they want to see on him.

    For instance, we are arguing how far left he is – the left hates him for betraying their ideals. He *is not* a leftst. Were he we wouldn’t be seeing many of the “pivot points” (as one of his advisers calls them) and health care would be a done deal.

    Nor is he a centrist – the health care plan is another good example there. It is, kinda sorta a leftist/central plan.

    And, of course, he isn’t on the right at all. Of all the things people paint him as it isn’t here.

    The thing is it is easy to define what he is *not*, it is near impossible to define what he *is*. For a campaign there is something to be said for that – you get the leftist and the “centrists” and that is almost always enough to win (same thing with getting the right and centrist).

    IMO he is struggling with the issue that as president he has to *be something*. We are here arguing what he is – he isn’t anything. You are missing his point – he has always been nothing and as such can appear to be anything. In all his previous jobs that Nothing Man worked quite well and now he has to *be something*.

    As such he is falling on his classical background – a leftist. But not really being a leftist (again, not really anything) he botches that badly. Can’t be a centrist either, his understanding of that is even less. And of course he can’t remotely understand any other political ideology (right, conservative, libertarian, constitutional, anarchist, or a whole host of others).

    IMO he is perfectly explained by someone who only really knows one side of the world but doesn’t really feel he belongs there. He is struggling to fit in someplace and can’t figure it out. I think he also does not feel he belongs anywhere else and I really do not think he does.

    I have known individuals in the past who I knew would eventually be conservative or libertarian once the understood the philosophy – but in this case no. He is too steeped in leftist identity politics to think otherwise. I do think he is smart enough to realize that, but he is too far down that hole to come to the realization of what really occurred. Ass in a nice big dose of narcissism and you have Obama all the way.

    In the end I do not think he has any strong sense of self and anytime we try and put one on him we are wrong and end up arguing. If we stop there and have no need to paint him as leftist then a lot of contradictions are solved. If we look no further than a product of our city/leftist edumacational (I refuse to call it an educational) system along with an innate intelligence and empathy then we have the whole picture.

  29. NeoConScum Says:

    Ne-Neo…”Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited” by Sam Vaknin. A Hell of a read. I agree with you that Boy Wonder’s narcissism isn’t at malignancy. It’s insanely easy to find narcissism amongst the political elite, particularly in the Senate. For Full Malignant Pschopathic Narcissism, see Billy Bubba Clinton. Andrew Sullivan(before he lost his once fine mind)wrote the best short piece EVER on Bubba’s pathology as ‘TRB’ in an early 2001 issue of New Republic entitled,”Psycho”.

  30. NeoConScum Says:

    Woops..! Meant Neo-Neo. Too early in the a.m. of 2010.

  31. Rick in NY Says:

    At some point in the next three years some event will occur that will effectively, once and for all, reveal a hollow man. He will be unable to perform the duty he is tasked for and it will be obvious to the majority.

    A significant number, eloquently described by Steele, will always cling to the fantasy. But the rest will know.

    I have a very hard time at this point trying to identify the circumstances that would allow for his re-election in 2012. It’s possible, maybe even probable if the world chooses not to revisit us. But as flight 253 revealed, that’s unlikely.

    Danger close. Unavoidable, I fear.

    In a way I feel somewhat badly for our President. He never was qualified to do this. Yet because of the Grand Bargain, he is where he is.

  32. huxley Says:

    For instance, we are arguing how far left he is – the left hates him for betraying their ideals. He *is not* a leftst. Were he we wouldn’t be seeing many of the “pivot points” (as one of his advisers calls them) and health care would be a done deal.

    strcpy: Interesting post, but I can’t see Obama as anything but a leftist. He’s not as pure a specimen as Bernie Saunders, Obama compromises when he’s forced to, and he’s also as much of a machine pol as a leftist, but he’s still a leftist.

    The left is upset with Obama and disappointed in him, but they don’t hate Obama, not yet anyway.

    I have talked gingerly to liberals in my family and it’s true they don’t consider Obama much of a leftist, but this seems to come out of their fantasies about how the world works such as their belief that the NY Times is unbiased or skews to the right.

    The dealbreakers for the left are Obama’s closeness to Wall St. and his involvement in Afghanistan. Never mind that the left had no problems when Obama reneged on his promise to accept public financing of his campaign, and they nodded sagely when Obama said Afghanistan was the good war and he pledged to fight there instead of Iraq.

  33. SteveH Says:

    I see Obama as a full blown leftist. He just struggles with finding a way to avoid a 20% approval rating if he tries implementing what he wants.

    His liberal detractors simply don’t share his concern for alienating traditional Americans. They want him to take one for the team and insist on shoving as much leftism down peoples throats, because the people simply don’t know whats best for them.

  34. huxley Says:

    From my encounters with the left, they don’t understand why Obama has to compromise at all in the grand quest to remake America.

    Obama has decisive majorities in both Houses of Congress. All Obama has to do is knock some heads together and make it so.

    That Obama can’t do this means he won’t do it which means he is kowtowing to Wall St and the military because Obama is too much of a softie and has been corrupted by Washington.

    I’m not saying this makes sense….

  35. Gringo Says:

    Blue state Americans were so sure that Obama would take office and easily turn around all the stupid, evil things Bush had done, and now it’s not so simple. Nothing is going according to plan. Obama is not the only American at risk for a breakdown in the coming years.
    When it doesn’t go according to plan, they will simply blame the evil bigoted racist stoopid illiterate knuckledragging Bible-thumping Rethuglicans for sabotaging ∅bama’s attempt to create Heaven on earth.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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