Peggy Noonan Reads Obama’s Mind

Even when presidents get in trouble, we rarely see evidence of the strain they probably feel, creating a void at the center of the dramatic narrative that the media wants to sell. That’s why journalists and pundits so often rush to fill the void with faux mind-reading and silly interpretations of presidential body language.

Consider Peggy Noonan’s latest Wall Street Journal column, which centers on speculation about President Obama’s mental state.

The frame of the article is that the economy and Obama’s presidency have reached “new lows.” By the second paragraph, Noonan has already constructed an entirely fictional dramatic scene complete with a fake movie-style quote from Obama (“If they want this job so much let them have it”):

The market is dispirited. I’m wondering if the president is, too, and if that won’t carry implications for the 2012 race. You can imagine him having lunch with political advisers, hearing some unwanted advice—”Don’t go to Martha’s Vineyard!”—putting his napkin by his plate, pushing back from the table, rising, and saying in a clipped, well-modulated voice: “I’m tired. I’m going. If they want this job so much let them have it.”

She then moves on to speculating about Obama being “depressed” and “full of doubts”:

How could he not be depressed? He has made big mistakes since the beginning of his presidency and has been pounded since the beginning of his presidency. He’s got to be full of doubts at this point about what to do. His baseline political assumptions have proved incorrect, his calculations have turned out to be erroneous, his big decisions have turned to dust. He thought they’d love him for health care, that it was a down payment on greatness. But the left sees it as a sellout, the center as a vaguely threatening mess, the right as a rallying cry. He thought the stimulus would turn the economy around. It didn’t. He thought there would be a natural bounce-back a year ago, with “Recovery Summer.” There wasn’t. He thought a toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball struggle over the debt ceiling would enhance his reputation. The public would see through to the dark heart of Republican hackery and come to recognize the higher wisdom of his approach. That didn’t happen either.

Next, Noonan purports to discern his “inner rationale for not coming up with a specific debt-ceiling plan”:

The president shows all the signs of becoming a man who, around the time he unveils his new jobs proposal in September, is going to start musing in interviews about whether anyone can be a successful president now, what with the complexity of the problems and the forces immediately arrayed, in a politically polarized age, against any specific action. That was probably his inner rationale for not coming up with a specific debt-ceiling plan: Why give the inevitable forces a target?

She then analyzes Obama’s body language during his Midwest bus tour and purports to discern that he was “observing himself and his interactions”:

Under these circumstances he could not possibly be enjoying his job. On the stump this week in the Midwest, he should have been on fire with the joy of combat… But even at his feistiest, he was wilted. Distracted. Sometimes he seems to be observing himself and his interactions as opposed to being himself and having interactions.

Why did Obama decide to vacation in Martha’s Vineyard? Noonan looks into the President’s mind to give us some answers:

Mr. Obama’s media specialists probably told him what Bill Clinton’s mavens told him: If you’re going to the Vineyard, you have to go to some real American place first, like the Rockies. Which Mr. Clinton did. Going to the Vineyard didn’t harm him. But Mr. Clinton had prosperity…

Mr. Obama doesn’t have that advantage. It seems important to him to be true to himself — not to be the kind of person who’d poll-test a vacation. Or maybe he thinks that no matter what he does, it won’t work, so what the heck. But his decision to go now, and there, seems either ham-handed or vaguely defiant.

Finally, the column closes with speculation on Obama’s feelings about possibly being a one-term president:

In early 2010 this space made much of the president’s pre-State of the Union interview with Diane Sawyer, in which she pressed the president about his political predicaments. He said: “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” I thought at the time: He means it, he can accept being a one-termer.

Maybe he’s feeling it now more than ever.

Maybe it means not much will change in terms of his leadership between now and the election.

Maybe he’ll be as wilted next year as he was this week.

(Memo to columnists: When your column ends with three sentences starting with “Maybe,” you haven’t said anything.)

In short, the entire column is built on mind-reading — I had to excerpt half of it just to collect all the examples. It’s a great example of how the novelization of the presidency works. Like Maureen Dowd, Noonan’s talent for making up pleasing stories about political figures have made her a highly regarded pundit for one of the nation’s top newspapers. Too bad those stories are largely fiction.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.