David Bromwich on the “Disappointment in Obama”

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the only commentator worth reading on Obama, precisely because they bring literary tools and imagination to a man who’s himself an almost literary invention. Professor Bromwich takes the study of our president, in effect, out of the White House press room, out of “political science,” whatever that is, into English class. The first premise is that language — scripted and impromtu — reveals the man. “Close reading” suggests further that something about his language is at the core of the low-lying invasive fog of “disappointment in Obama.” In the Bromwich reading, President Obama is “an unusually forceful politician, especially from a distance,” who underestimated the difficulty of his task and “characteristically overrates the potency of words, his words,” to get the job done.

“What he did in the first few months of his presidency, Professor Bromwich is observing in conversation, “was lay down any number of pledges — what the British call ‘earnests’ — of his good intentions about Guantanamo, about Israel and Palestine, about nuclear proliferation, about the environment… It was a wonderful list, and he made pretty good but very general speeches on all of them. I believe he supposed — semi-magically — that from the inspiring force of his speeches, a groundswell of support would arise from the bottom that made him do it. There something fantastic, something delusive, and something unreal about that idea of his role.”

DB: In an improvised moment in this latest campaign, October 2010, Obama talked about taxes and tried to be very understanding toward the Tea Partiers and other anti-tax fanatics and said something like, “That’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we came in because folks on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation…” Folks? … What was he trying to say? He was trying talk about George III, the tyranny of Britain in the colonial days and Taxation Without Representation. Those are specific names and references every literate American would have recognized, but Obama doesn’t descend into them, or rather doesn’t ascend to them, even though it’s ascending to an ordinary middle level. It was as if he were talking to rather primitive and silly and uninformed people. He has another register which is rather technocratic.

On the Health Care Bill he could talk about the need to “prioritize” and “incentivize” and “watch the trend lines” and so on. So these are two very different idioms. I think the technocratic one is Obama’s natural speaking manner most of the time, most of the day in his presidency, because those are the people he’s around. He learned to talk in the surroundings of the legal academy, corporate life and around bankers and technocrats, and on an honest day he’s one of them.

CL: You caught my attention in the London Review of Books many months ago just with the observation that he can sound like the president of the Ford Foundation, or something. It’s the sound of a vaguely anonymous board room voice, an intelligent mind among a lot of intelligent minds, representing some kind of anonymous consensus of the good people.

DB: Yeah. That’s sort of the good and competent elite who are meant to run things. I call him a Fabian non-socialist for that reason. The Fabians – H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw among them – believed in the reform of society by a group of technocrats, from above, in the direction of equality, but not with much consultation of the populace. And there’s nothing at all low about Obama, nothing the least bit vulgar or ill-bred. In fact, if he had just a dash of vulgarity it might increase the democratic quality of his charm.

He has said the Health Care Bill was a piece of “signature legislation.” That phrase caught my ear. It’s the sort of phrase that would be put into a write-up on the recipient of an honorary degree in a law school or university. And in fact, of course the Health Care Bill was anything but a signature piece of legislation; it worked through many committees, got delayed by Max Baucus and that search for bipartisan consensus, for months delayed by Obama’s personal wait for Olympia Snowe who never came across, and so on. If he had a signature, we don’t know what it looked like… And yet I think for him it was just one more exertion of this neutral, rather impersonal vocabulary that he’s very used to and that you read on the blurbs of semi-thoughtful best sellers.

What can any of us tell about a man’s character, talents, intentions from his words?

David Bromwich is finding the president more detached, perhaps dissociated, than the man he voted for and roots for; a man who’s elegant but not warm; who’s theoretically humble but practically haughty; a gifted writer and speaker who has a hard time naming the thing he’s talking about by its name; a man still hungering for approval and even legitimacy; a politician who does not enjoy the basic friction of politics. John F. Kennedy’s famous news conferences, Bromwich observes on listening again, were “full of human moods and quirks.” JFK spoke rapidly, “as we all do when we’re concerned to say what we really think.” President Obama, by contrast, very rarely ad-libs and speaks “very slowly, deliberately, often even brokenly — not for lack of linguistic skill but for lack of contact between him and what he really wants people to be able to hear of him.”

How strange, if Professor Bromwich is right, that a president who saw himself early, and successfully, as an author, who is still celebrated for his eloquence, is stumbling now on his own use of words.

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  • Pete Crangle

    My signature statement: Culture War Cold Civil War. That fire is stoked by many interests. Red/Blue states may be too coarse grained. It’s more likely to be aether based than geo based, though geo can reflect some aspect of this.

    My personal disappointments, not with President Obama per say (after all, he’s the imperial manager with an itchy trigger finger), but the citizenry, the legislature, the judiciary, and most importantly, the media: bereft of environmentally centered policies/lexicon (because no, humanity, nor it’s current hobby horse Capital Markets, is NOT the measure of all things), not enforcing accountability of the previous administration/legislature, and along with this, not joining the ICC or offering reasons why the U.S. continues to snub this international judiciary.

    I just want to note that President Obama has stated many times he’s not empowered to do this alone. It requires participation and demands from the citizenry. I don’t think Code Pink nor the Tea Party nor tee’d off bloggers are the engaged citizenry that are the necessary non-fanatical instruments of measured change and improvement. But, I’m neither pragmatic nor practical. Nor a professional politician. Just an humble parrot with an unreliable grasp of grammar and vocabulary.

  • geoff

    Great look to your new site. Thanks very much for interview with Prof Browich it just about made my day.

  • Prof. Bromwich is insightful.

    In addition to what he notes, I feel that I was a little bit mislead about what Obama’s political stripes really were. For me, it was refreshing during his campaign to hear him speak out about not giving up civil rights in the name of security. The blatant trashing of our constitution and trampling of international law by the Bush/Cheney administration was damning for our country. Though we have had thuggish behavior for a long time, it was never so boldly criminal. So, when Obama spoke about reversing the damage done to our moral authority, I was sold.

    Only to find out that he’s continuing the trajectory set by Bush. No accountability. No return to the rule of law. A further degradation of our Miranda rights. More wire-tapping. Indefinite detentions. Torturing suspects. Even when their one of our own. It’s horrifying.

    And this doesn’t begin to touch upon the corporatism he embraces.
    Ultimately, I have come to realize that he’s not a leader for change, because he actually likes things the way they are. After all, he rose up from meager beginnings to become President of the United States of America by mastering the existing system. He is beholden to it. He has no desire to lead a rebellion against it.

    With the moral decline and financial collapse we were facing during the 2008 election, it seemed a perfect moment for a transformative leader to step up and guide us through some dramatic changes for the better. However, he doesn’t see the need. As far as he’s concerned, the system works.


  • Glen S.

    Another great discussion. I think the literary approach is indeed the best way to view our president’s administration. His, and his team’s, ability to control the narrative is astounding — and has been since the early days of his candidacy. Indeed we could easily discuss current events with the lexicon of the Bush years, but with the change in administration came a profound change of terminology as well. We all enjoy a good story, and we were all pleasantly surprised to have a national political figure spin a tale of a better tomorrow. But there are other story lines, ones without all the warm and fuzzy feelings, one whose story arch began long before Obama and will continue beyond his presidency. Thanks again for a thought provoking discussion.

  • Tom

    Great interview. Interestingly, when they talk about disappointment, it’s this sort of interview that makes the disappointment much easier to accept and forgive.

  • Potter

    It seems to me natural that an English professor, adept at analyzing characters in a novel, could give us such thoughtful commentary. There’s hardly anything that David Bromwich says in this interview (I listened twice!) that I can disagree with; this analysis is so much more insightful than any I have read. I did listen to Zadie Smith’s at the NYPL- that was awhile ago and am tempted to listen to that again.. and to re-read Gary Wills perhaps.

    Bromwich is, as Chris says, careful and courteous, in his reading of Obama. The respectfulness frees frankness- about the widely felt disappointment many of us have and talk about where the fault lines are in Obama’s character. I am angry that Obama sold himself as someone he is not and that he does not own up to that (he says he is a Rorschach – and so we are left with the blame on us for projecting). Well maybe it is- in part. We were in need after all. But this analysis is not too flattering. I did notice that Bromwich stopped himself at one point because his own anger was about to kick in (was I mistaken?)

    The calmness of this analysis did though help my anger to subside a bit ( and allow for some rationality). Part of the explanation for the disappointment has to be found in the previous 8 years under GWBush as well, the need for an extraordinary leader to dig us out- to really change things. The hope for change that Obama tapped into, that he brought with “glamorous-forceful-rhetorical- persuasion” is pretty now much gone in me. Obama is not going to change anymore than GW Bush was going to. I feel as imprisoned by our political situation as before and despair at the lack of boldness and direction in Obama’s leadership at this very critical time.

    There is a difference in approach between Kloppenberg’s analysis and Bromwich’s and why Bromwich rings true and Kloppenberg’s did not for me. Kloppenberg tried to sort of excuse Obama by fitting him into a set of ideas and traditions, a template, whereas Bromwich’s analysis is much more creative, freer to roam across past presidencies and to use more psychological analysis and intuition.

    Thank you for this, Chris, David Bromwich and Mr. Watson. It’s excellent.

  • Potter

    I did just re-listen to “Zadie Smith’s Speaking in Tongues”. That was just after Obama was elected (late 2008?) and he had not taken office. We did not know how he would govern and she, Zadie, wondered and hoped as she ranged across literary references and made interesting points. But I am not sure that what she hoped for in Obama is not what we don’t have now. And I don’t think I agree with her that this is what we need in a leader. Or maybe she hoped for something different in terms of what she calls being various and not being all things to all people, not projecting a strong core. It would be very interesting to hear her at this point.

  • Potter

    My sentence above does not read right to me either, the double negatives. I meant to say that I am not sure that what Zadie was hoping for in Obama but what she describes that she hopes for may be what we are experiencing and calling disappointment (or as Bromwich puts it wonderfully, not keeping his appointment), that is the opposite of getting stuck in empathy for every point of view (though empathy is a good thing). But it would be interesting to hear from Zadie Smith; she might have meant something else, something different, more subtle that I am just not getting. Is Obama a trimmer neither left nor right? And if he is my question is Is that what we needed now though we may have it?

    Smith’s 4th stage of genius, at the end, after the stages of flexibility, seeing things from both sides etc., comes when : “the voice relinquishes ownership of itself develops a creative sense of dissociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else’s”

    If it is about creativity, and I think it maybe is and only in part, how can this also be about leadership, or the leadership that we need at this time?

    (sorry for three in a row)

  • Jeff

    One of the semi-literary references that has come to my mind over and over again is a sequence from the television series Babylon 5, which really was a visual novel about a civil war that went from cold to hot to “international” before it was settled. The shadowy puppeteers of (that) history, as well as the heroes, were constantly asking themselves and everybody else, “Who are you? What do you want? What will (or won’t) you do to get what you want?” The difference was in the ordering; the way the Shadows turned people was to get them to ask those questions in the reverse order. Or, as was said of the entire project, “[it] was our last, best hope for peace. It failed.”

    That “last, best hope” line has been running in my mind whenever I watch and listen to him speaking. He really doesn’t like to be among ordinary people; his body language when he’s talking absolutely screams that. He doesn’t want to remake the corporate- and Zionist-dominated American media-legal complex, since (as Allison noted above) he has benefited mightily from it as it stands. Appearing as though he wanted to smash it to pieces and restore something like the romanticised original view of America was useful to him during the campaign and the early months of his reign. If one follows “his” Twitter stream, there are even now constant assertions that he’s making life better for people other than the top tenth of one percent. But, in hindsight, anyone who expected Hope™ and Change™ should have been disabused of those notions entirely by his choice of VP. Joe Biden, as one of the great masters of the corpocratic money/influence machine, would neither want nor have any real place in an Administration that wished to govern along the lines that Obama campaigned on.

    We’ve been had, people, by some of the very best at their craft. And I fully expect things to get much, much worse — economically, socially, Constitutionally — before they get better.

  • nother

    Allison, it’s more than a pleasure to read your words once again. You have a grace and conviction that leaps off the page. On this topic I’m still a believer, I still think “we can” but I appreciate your view nonetheless. btw, I wish you and your beautiful daughter a Happy New Year!

  • orangescissor

    there is a brilliant documentary Virtual JFK (done is a compelling 2:35:1 frame) that came out in 2008 anticipating many these dilemmas Obama would face based on the lessons from JFK’s presidency – i.e. the necessity for a leader that could make tough decisions about war, stand up to partisan politics and face down a hawkish the press. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqEJnVly8Jc
    I also really like the idea that specific actions rather than vague and virtuous dictates are what is required for disarming the American empire. In recent news I think Obama’s support for Michael Vick was one of these kinds of move against excessive force and revenge in a very difficult moral/political dilemma. Obviously killing dogs is nothing to be condoned, but much of the outrage and calls for extreme punishment including most recently execution was really covert racism. By saying the Vick deserved a chance at redemption and challenging the calls for endless punishment and revenge against Vick, Obama used his position to make a very important intervention in our political culture that wasn’t at all opposed to destroying the life of one of the most successful black men in our country. In other words, why does Law and Order consider Michael Vick’s actions “beyond the pale” but not other people and other crimes? That is something Obama challenged, and I hope will have popular support in the long run.

  • Aquifer

    The issue that struck me during this interview was what i saw as the contrast between Prof. Bromwich’s emphasis on the necessity that actions match words and his apparent failure to notice Sen. Obama’s obvious disconnect between the two prior to his election. I, too, listened carefully to what Obama said, I saw how he abandoned the single payer (healthcare) concept he had embraced earlier, I noticed how he dealt with the NAFTA issue, how he voted on telecom immunity, what he said he would do in Afghanistan, who his advisers were (e.g. Rubin) and who his biggest funders were. So i can honestly say Obama is meeting my expectations of him quite well indeed. I voted for Nader ….

    i think the Prof. should have followed his own advice and matched Obama’s words with his actions – if he had he wouldn’t have been “disappointed”. Of course then the question would be, would he still have supported him …..

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  • Janet

    I don’t agree with Bromwich’s opinions of Obama. The list of his accomplishments, which I don’t think I need to go into here, is long, much longer than anyone could expect considering the mendacious political climate his presidency has faced. I do see that our President is not skilled at being a “politician” but perhaps he realized the losers, to use, McConnell’s recent term, he would deal with were too racist and full of their own ideology to bother with. The capitalist oligarchs were in place before he arrived; we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes when a president deals with powerful, entrenched powers who are part problem and part savior. There’s a long list, too, of failed promises – Guantanamo, ME wars, crumbling infrastructure, gun control, militaristic apartheid Israeli government, etc., etc., but the right wing was dead set on thwarting movement on all levels. You don’t fix that by glad handing humans who think your very existence in the White House is “unAmerican”. The situation is ugly American politics, not a novel.
    (A note regarding the life and work of DB: I note that Bromwich’s wiki page is very clean with nothing much pro or con, and have to wonder if it’s possible to wipe out undesirable history on that site. Surely, a writer who looks at the world as a novel, has some dips and curves in the story.)