Anything You Can Do, He Can Do Better

When President Obama was looking for his new Chief of Staff to replace Rahm Emanuel, President Obama apparently mused “You know, I’d make a good chief of staff.”

No, Mr. President, you wouldn’t. You’d make a lousy chief of staff. A successful chief of staff has to have certain qualities you lack — discipline, loyalty, resolve, and most importantly, a willingness to subsume your ego for the good of another. Chiefs of staff have to be willing to “jump on the grenade” for their bosses, and I simply don’t see Obama being willing to do that.

This statement was, as New York Magazine noted, a pure example of Obama’s self-confidence completely overwhelming reality. And that is entirely typical.

We’ve all known people like that. They are so ego-driven that they simply can’t imagine that they would not be successful at whatever they set their minds to. They are so convinced of their superiority that they can look at anyone else doing their job and say “I could not only do that if I set my mind to it, but I’d do it better.”

I had that disease once. It took a few embarrassing failures to recognize that there are skills I will never possess, and certain tasks I am fundamentally unsuited for. The main takeaway I had was to almost never show any contempt for those in any job or position in the private sector. I would be lousy in a fast-food restaurant, I am almost dangerous with any kind of power tools, I ought to be banned from any kind of auto repair that involves a tool, and there should be a law preventing me from attempting to do anything music-related.

But in Obama’s case, his whole life has been defined as “falling up.” Before now, he’s never really challenged himself, never taken on a role of real responsibility, and never really failed in a way that taught him a lesson.

Oh, there is one almost-exception. In 2000, then-State Senator Barack Obama took on incumbent Congressman (and former Black Panther) Bobby Rush, and was soundly defeated. Rush saw Obama for what he was: “Barack Obama went to Harvard and became an educated fool. Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it.”

That could have been a defining moment for Obama, a wake-up call. Instead, his friends and supporters rallied around him, comforted him, assured him that he really was all that, and it was just a fluke.

But when you look at Obama’s history, one fact jumps out: at no point has Obama ever challenged himself. At no point has he gone all-out for anything. At no point has he taken on a real position of responsibility and leadership.

At no point has he ever put himself in a position where he might fail, publicly and spectacularly, in a way with real consequences beyond himself.

I have a friend who lives in Manchester. We’ve been friends for… good lord, almost 20 years. For a few of those years, we even shared an apartment and got along just fine. (It helps that he worked overnight, and we didn’t see each other that much.) A bit over a year ago, he realized his life was going nowhere — he was in a dead-end job, never getting ahead, and in general stuck in a huge rut where he would expect to keep spinning his wheels for the rest of his life. So he took a huge chance on improving his lot.

He had a contact in Las Vegas, so he up and moved his ass across the country to start afresh. He moved in with his contact, got a job fairly quickly, and started on building a new life.

And he promptly crashed and burned. He lost the job within a few months, his contact got tired of carrying him, and eventually he came back to New Hampshire for an even more menial and lesser-paying job than he’d had before he left. He is, in almost every way, worse off than he was before he went to Vegas.

But I have a hell of a lot more respect for my friend than I do for Obama. My friend took a hell of a chance. He challenged himself, he put himself out there, in an attempt to make his lot in life better. He failed, but he hasn’t given up. He’s building himself back up, he’s not going back to his old job (even though it pays better than what he’s doing now) because the current job has more potential. And he knows a lot more about himself than he did before — he knows that he can fail. But more importantly, he knows he can survive failing.

Obama, on the other hand, has never failed because he’s never taken any chances. Before the presidency, he’d never held or sought any position of responsibility or leadership. Before the presidency, he’s never put himself in a position where he could fail with any real consequences. Before the presidency, he’s never truly challenged himself. Instead, every single position he’s held, he’s used as a stepping-stone for the next level. He’s never even tried to do much in any position, just playing it safe and not taking any chances of failing in a way that would dampen his upward progress.

Which is a damned shame, because he’s held jobs where he could have made an actual difference. But that would have meant involving himself, putting himself out there, taking stands and showing leadership.

Well, now it’s all come together. He’s achieved his final goal, the presidency. Now he can finally put aside his temerity and actually achieve things.

But the guy has no clue what to do. He’s the ultimate post turtle. And he just can’t figure out how to stop campaigning and start governing.

The presidency is the ultimate “on the job training” role. There is nothing that can fully prepare someone for the office. But there are other positions where one can pick up the skills necessary for success — leadership, management, decision-making.

None of which Obama has ever demonstrated.

Maybe he should give being “chief of staff” a whirl. At this point, I’m not convinced that Joe Biden would be any worse.

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