Explaining Obama's Ressentiment

The Romney campaign has come out with a new ad responding to Obama's disparagement of individual achievement. This article takes a look at the psychology of why President Barack Obama would say and believe in something like this.

Updated July 19, 2012, 4:02 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

The Romney campaign is out with a very effective new ad illuminating and responding to President Obama's disparagement of individual achievement. The ad constructs a dialogue between Obama and Jack Gilchrist, a political independent who is president of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Co., a small industrial concern conveniently located in the swing state of New Hampshire.

First we get a medley of Obama quotes sneering at the successful, then a response from Gilchrist, who is shown in various settings: on the factory floor, in his home, with his son and a portrait of his late father. Here are the words:

Obama: "If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, 'Well, it must be 'cause I was just so smart.' There are a lot of smart people out there. 'It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.' Let me tell you something: If you've got a business, that--you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Gilchrist: "My father's hands didn't build this company? My hands didn't build this company? My son's hands aren't building this company? Did somebody else take out the loan on my father's house that financed the equipment? Did somebody else make payroll every week and figure out where it's coming from? President Obama, you're killin' us out here. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it? We are the solution, not the problem. It's time we had somebody who believes in us--someone who believes that achievement should be rewarded, not punished. We need somebody who believes in America."

That somebody, obviously, is Mitt Romney, who delivers his rebuttal to "You didn't build that" (we quoted it yesterday).

Meanwhile, @BarackObama tweets a quote attributed to somebody identified only as "Jacob, Michigan": " 'President Obama had the courage to step up and save General Motors, and because of it, I have a job today.' " William C. Durant didn't build GM, but Barack Obama saved it.

The claim that Obama saved GM is fraudulent. What he did was use political muscle to intervene in a bankruptcy process in order to ensure a settlement on terms favorable to his supporters, the United Auto Workers union, at the expense of taxpayers (or "freeloaders," in the president's parlance) and bondholders. It would be more accurately characterized as an act of larceny than salvation.

Yesterday's column discussed the philosophy behind Obama's belittlement of the successful. Today we'd like to examine the psychology behind it. For it seems to us that Obama's generalities about success being undeserved are absolutely true in one particular case: that of Barack Obama. Unearned success is the central theme of his life story.

Let's run through the list of Obama's achievements.

"The Harvard Law Review, generally considered the most prestigious in the country, elected the first black president in its 104-year history today," the New York Times reported Feb. 6, 1990. Obama himself understood his election to be a product not of unusual ability but of luck: "It's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks," he told the Times. "You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance."

He was lucky to be privileged and he was lucky to be black. But for the former, in his own telling, he never would have had the opportunity. But for the latter, his election would scarcely have been noticed outside Harvard Yard. In an interview with the Times, Peter Yu, Obama's predecessor as law review president, used apophasis to raise the possibility that the honor was undeserved: "Mr. Yu said Mr. Obama's election 'was a choice on the merits, but others may read something into it.' "

In 1995, Obama published an autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," substantial portions of which turn out to have been fictional. Just how substantial has become clear since David Maraniss published his heavily reported biography, but it had not gone unnoticed before, as evidenced by this 2008 piece from the New York Times's Janny Scott:

His memoir is, as one publisher put it, "the single most vetted book in American politics right now." Written at a time when Obama says he was thinking less about a career in politics than about simply writing a good book, it leaves an impression of candidness and authenticity that gives it much of its power. Reporters have questioned Obama's use of fictional techniques like composite characters, but some editors and critics say that is common in memoirs.

"The book is so literary," said Arnold Rampersad, a professor of English at Stanford University who teaches autobiography and is the author of a recent biography of Ralph Ellison. "It is so full of clever tricks--inventions for literary effect--that I was taken aback, even astonished. But make no mistake, these are simply the tricks that art trades in, and out of these tricks is supposed to come our realization of truth." . . .

In the introduction, Obama acknowledged his use of pseudonyms, composite characters, approximated dialogue and events out of chronological order. He was writing at a time well before a recent series of publishing scandals involving fabrication in memoirs. "He was trying to be careful of people's feelings," said Deborah Baker, the editor on the first paperback edition of the book. "The fact is, it all had a sort of larger truth going on that you couldn't make up."

It was in 2004 when Obama came to national prominence. As Chicago magazine recounted three years later:

The keynote speech that Barack Obama delivered on Tuesday, July 27, 2004, galvanized the delegates who packed Boston's FleetCenter and electrified a nationwide television audience. The 2,297 words uttered over 17 minutes changed Obama's profile overnight and made him a household name. Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority. After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

It was a good speech but hardly a great one--uplifting but platitudinous. He did not deserve the comparisons to JFK and Dr. King. But even at the time nobody was saying: "If Kerry loses, this young man deserves to be president in four years."

And he would not have been elected president in 2008 without a series of lucky breaks. As Joshua Green noted in The Atlantic Monthly, strategic errors by Hillary Clinton's campaign made it possible for the junior senator from Illinois to eke out a narrow victory over her:

One story line that has featured prominently in the postmortems is Harold Ickes's attempts to alert the campaign to the importance of the party's complicated system of allotting delegates--a system that Obama's campaign cleverly exploited, by focusing on delegate-rich caucus states. Ickes wrote a series of memos, fatefully ignored, that drew attention to this matter. Nothing I was privy to suggests that anyone else gave it more than passing attention until just before Iowa (though as a cost-saving measure, the budget team halted polling in many of the caucus states they expected Obama to win). Then, on December 22--just 12 days before Iowa--Ickes tried again, in a memo that seems to be introducing the subject of delegates for the first time.

So Obama had the Democratic nomination in a year when the public was fed up with Republicans. His general-election opponent, John McCain, was elderly and erratic. When the financial panic hit, Obama was able to project an air of competence simply by standing still as McCain flailed. What clinched Obama's election was not anything he had done, but merely that he had not behaved foolishly when his opponent did.

What gave his campaign much of its appeal also was not what he had done, but what he was. As Janny Scott put it in that 2008 piece: "Out of his story, he has also drawn the central promise of his campaign: if a biracial son of a Kenyan and a Kansan could reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable in himself, a divided country could do the same."

And of course not only Americans projected their hopes onto this political cipher. So did Norwegians, who awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize after less than a year in office. You may get a kick out of rereading our column of Oct. 9, 2009, titled "Most Embarrassing Moment." We'll quote again here from a contemporaneous Reuters dispatch titled "Obama Peace Prize Win Has Americans Asking Why?":

"It would be wonderful if I could think why he won," said Claire Sprague, 82, a retired English professor as she walked her dog in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. "They wanted to give him an honor I guess but I can't think what for."

Itya Silverio, 33, of Brooklyn, was also surprised. "My first opinion is that he got it because he's black," she said. "What did he do that was so great? He hasn't even finished office yet." . . .

Some said the choice could damage the Nobel committee's credibility and that of the award.

"It looks less like an objective award than it does a political endorsement," said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta and author of a forthcoming book on Obama.

"Guantanamo is not closed yet and it makes it difficult for him to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan," he said.

At least he eventually closed Guantanamo. Oh wait . . .

Obama recently said his biggest shortcoming as president was that he has failed to tell the electorate "the story that tells us where he's going." But he's certainly told a story: a story in which he has personally achieved great things, like saving Detroit and killing Osama bin Laden, whereas everything that's gone wrong is the fault of somebody else--George W. Bush, congressional Republicans, corporate jet owners, etc.

The problem with this story is that it is manifestly untrue. Obama not only has failed to deliver on the extravagant promises--world peace and racial harmony and receding oceans and free medical care for all. He has fallen short even of a minimal standard of political and governmental competence.

What is the root of Barack Obama's ressentiment? Why does he insist that men like Jack Gilchrist don't deserve their success? Not because they are successful. Even if Obama loses in a landslide, he will have enjoyed more success than most people can dream of in a lifetime.

No, Obama resents their modest success precisely because they did earn it.

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