In the end, of course, Gore was cast more as a dorky fibber than a narcissist, while Kerry’s flip-flopping became his fatal flaw. This, in turn, may explain why Obama’s alleged self-absorption is being treated as a sharp new insight rather than a recycled line of attack. From the GOP’s point of view, this is a remarkably fortunate turn of events — because the narcissism critique could be far more damaging to Obama than it would have been to recent Democratic predecessors.
Consider Obama’s greatest political strengths: he’s young, charismatic, a master rhetorician. He makes his supporters feel like they’re part of something historic, something that transcends politics — and in so doing, he makes a lot of people swoon.
The brilliance of the narcissism charge, from a GOP perspective, is that it neutralizes these advantages. Instead of being an exciting fresh face, Obama becomes a young upstart who wants something he hasn’t earned. Instead of being a great political communicator, Obama’s simply in love with the sound of his own voice. Meanwhile, all that over-the-top adulation might be the fault of Obama’s supporters, not the man himself. But doesn’t his willingness to accept it, to capitalize on it, suggest that he actually thinks it’s warranted?
In this strategy, the exact opposite happens with McCain. Sure, he’s old, and a crappy public speaker, and nobody’s idea of the second coming of JFK or RFK. So what? At least he’s paid his dues. And at least he’s modest. Obama thinks he’s better than us; McCain is one of us.
The Big Head Barack conceit is also a crafty way to drive a wedge between Obama and the press. As recently as mid July, Weekly Standard contributing editor Noemie Emery was casting Obama and the media as a happy elitist couple in the National Review (“The press and Obama, side by side, looking down on the country: together, and happy at last”). That’s a fine angle to peddle to staunch conservatives — but given its unflattering characterization of the Fourth Estate, it wasn’t likely to get much play in the mainstream media. Call Obama a narcissist, however, and his high self-regard becomes an individual sin, not a collective one. Which means, of course, that the press is free to take this particular talking point and hammer it into the ground.
Uppity and coming?
The aforementioned aspects of the narcissism allegation — its staleness and its tactical obviousness — should give the press pause. So should the simple fact that seeking the presidency is, at its core, a wildly presumptuous act. Think about it: every presidential candidate is announcing, in effect, that they’re better-suited than tens of millions of other citizens to lead the United States, and to solve the sundry problems and challenges it faces. “They’re absolutely right — Obama is an egoist,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Here’s the shock: so is McCain, and so is anybody who thinks they can be the most powerful person in the world. . . . I’ve known a few presidents who pretend to be humble, but I’ve never known a humble one.”