Planet Obama: Where Self-Awareness Goes to Die

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Life in the White House can be notoriously isolating. Harry Truman called the famous presidential residence, which boasts 132 rooms, “the great white jail.” Ronald Reagan labeled it a “gilded cage.” Bill Clinton, who liked the White House so much he sidled out with almost $190,000 worth of furniture, china, silverware, and decorative accessories when he left, called it both “the finest public housing in America” and “the crown jewel of the prison system.”

This federally funded Alcatraz-lite with servants, chefs, and a bowling alley isn’t all bad, of course. “To be sure,” as Kenneth T. Walsh wrote in “Prisoners of the White House,” his 2013 book on the subject, “the president deals with a particularly splendid form of isolation … [and] is pampered and privileged.” Also, unlike, say, Folsom Prison, where trapped inmates wistfully listen to passing trains, wishing they could join the rich folks eating in the fancy dining cars, the White House offers a pretty decent on-demand, taxpayer-funded private jet.

Unfortunately, recent events have left me wondering whether the endless list of White House amenities also includes a giant Anti-Self-Awareness Transmogrifier, conveniently located between the gluten-free flour garden and the ever-useful “Instantly Produce a Federally Employed Yes Man” call button. Speaking at commencement exercises at historically black Tuskegee University last Saturday, first lady Michelle Obama told a crowd of bright-eyed graduates the following: “The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me.”

Let’s pause for a moment to remember that the speaker is an intelligent, attractive woman who went to Chicago’s prestigious Whitney Young magnet school, then to Princeton, then to Harvard, then on to a rather mysterious six-figure job at the University of Chicago, which I’m sure was totally unrelated to her husband’s political work. Next, she was off to the White House, proceeding to globe-hop to places like Cambodia, where, in March, she booked 85 hotel guest rooms at a cost of $242,500 for 33 minutes of public speaking. This was a drop in the bucket, of course, compared to the estimated $44 million in taxpayer-funded vacations she and her husband have racked up over the years.  

Ahem. Moving on. “There will be times,” the first lady continued, “when you feel folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are. … My husband and I [have] both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the ‘help’ — and all those who questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.”

Whatever you think of the first lady’s complaints — and a reasonable approach might involve acknowledging that racism exists and agreeing that we need to combat it, while questioning the strangeness of one of the most powerful, privileged, and admired women in America repeatedly obsessing over her own past “daily slights” — that last phrase is rather breathtaking. In one fell swoop, it groups “those who questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of country” together with a giant bushel of supposed racism. It also reveals a lot about the mind of Michelle Obama, who apparently assumes that the only reason you could possibly criticize her or the president is simple: You’re probably a racist.

This would certainly be news to, say, George W. Bush, a white president whose intelligence, honesty, and love of country were not only questioned, but raked over the coals with relish for years. Burned in effigy? Check! Repeatedly caricatured as a chimpanzee, The Joker, and Hitler? Check! Nationally lampooned as a total dolt? Check! Compared to Satan, the dark lord of the underworld, without a hint of irony? Check! Was that racism? Or was it just America being its usual, vociferous, half-crazy self?

Alas, among the Obamas, self-awareness is not a strong suit, and this particular deficit isn’t limited to the first lady. This week, at Georgetown University, the president bemoaned the scourge of private schools, driven by “an anti-government ideology that disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.”

One wonders: Did he feel that way as a teenager while in the bosom of the exclusive Punahou prep school in Honolulu?  The Obama children, of course, attend Sidwell Friends, a private institution that costs $37,750 a year. Before moving to Washington, D.C., Sasha and Malia studied at the University of Chicago’s elite Laboratory School, where middle school tuition runs at $29,328. 

Ah, well, never mind. “All of us would agree,” said Robert Putnam, a writer and co-panelist with Obama at the Georgetown event, that D.C.’s power brokers need to “rise out of the Washington bubble.” The president and the first lady, sadly, appear to be deeply ensconced — not just in their White House bubble, but on their own, insular ideological planet. It’s a place where, in too many cases, self-awareness dissolves on contact.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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