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Obama's 'idiot' defense

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Although there's still a great deal to be learned about the scandals and controversies swirling around the White House, the nature of President Obama's bind is becoming clear. The best defenses of his administration require undermining the rationale for his presidency.

“We're portrayed by Republicans as either lying or being idiots. It's actually closer to us being idiots.” So far, this is the administration's best defense.

Well-intentioned human error rarely gets the credit it deserves. People want to connect dots, but that's possible only when you assume that all events were deliberately orchestrated by human will. This is the delusion at the heart of all conspiracy theories.

Behind all such delusions is the assumption that government officials we don't like are omnicompetent and entirely malevolent. The truth is closer to the opposite. They mean well but can't do very much very well.

This brings us to the flip side of the conspiracy theory — call it the redeemer fantasy: If only we had the right kind of government with the right kind of leaders, there'd be nothing we couldn't do.

It's been a while since we had a self-styled redeemer president. John F. Kennedy dabbled in the myth that experts could solve all of our problems. But you really have to go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson to find a president who pushed the salvific powers of politics as much as Barack Obama.

His presidency has been grounded in the fantasy that there's “nothing we can't do” through government action. For Obama, the only things separating America from redemption are politics, specifically obstruction from unhinged Republicans and others clinging to outdated motives. Opposition to gun control is irrational because the “government is us.” Reject warnings “that tyranny is always lurking,” he told the graduating class at Ohio State, because a self-governing people cannot tyrannize themselves.

But, suddenly, when the administration finds itself ensnared by errors of its own making, the curtain is drawn back on the cult of expertise and the fantasy of statist redemption. When scandal hits the fan, Obama goes from “the government is us” to talking of his own agencies the way a czar might dismiss an injustice in some Siberian backwater. The hubris of omnicompetence gives way to “lighten up, we're idiots.”

Many of his defenders now rush to insist that it's unfair to hold him to too high a standard. He's just a man, just a politician. Well, duh.

Meanwhile, Obama insists that he is outraged. And, if sincere, that's nice. But so what? What the president seems to have never fully understood is that the Founders were smarter than he or that the American people aren't as dumb as he thinks we are. His outrage is beside the point.

A government as vast as it is is destined to abuse its power, particularly in a climate where a savior-president is incessantly delegitimizing dissent (and journalistic scrutiny). Government officials will behave like idiots sometimes, not because they are individually dumb but because a government that takes on too much will make an idiot out of anyone who thinks there's no limit to what it can do. That alone is good reason to fear tyranny. Indeed, it would be idiotic not to.

Jonah Goldberg is the author of “The Tyranny of Clichés,” now on sale in paperback.

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