President Obama last Friday elicited snickers from some members of the House Republican Conference when he declared, "I'm not an ideologue." But at least one conservative who wasn't in the room adamantly agrees with him. Shelby Steele, Hoover Institute Senior Fellow and author of A Bound Man, a book about then-Senator Obama, earnestly believes that the president is too empty a man to be an ideologue.
In a December 30, 2009 Wall Street Journal opinion editorial, Steele presented an emperor-has-new-clothes metaphor, in which he claims Mr. Obama's election to the presidency was "essentially an American sophistication, a national exercise in seeing what was not there and a refusal to see what was there - all to escape the stigma... of racism." This exercise has presented the country with a president that Steele says doesn't hold much of an opinion on anything, and the lack of substance behind his policy decisions is the clear explanation for a first-year performance of questionable quality.
"It's been kind of a helter-skelter performance. You know one of my criticisms of Barack Obama all along has been that he's unlike, just for an example, say a president like Reagan or the great presidents Lincoln and so forth, or even someone like Truman, who came into office as very well-defined men. They knew who they were; they knew what they stood for; they knew the direction they wanted to take the country in. Barack Obama seems to me to be without that. There's almost this kind of inner emptiness there, but not because he's incompetent. That's just been his bargain, sort of, all his life - certainly his political life - is to be kind of an invisible man."
The bargain Steele refers to is one he describes at length in A Bound Man: promising to be invisible in exchange for being accepted. But the price of the bargain is the constant attempt not to offend, says the Hoover scholar, and therefore never to take a position.
"Nothing makes my point better about Barack Obama's emptiness than the whole health care fiasco. He says he wants health care and to this day, he's never told us what he wants or why he wants it. The emptiness of the president is at the root of the society's inability to deal with this problem, because we're getting no leadership. We're not getting someone who says I want to do two things with health care - whatever they may be. I want this and I want that, and I'm going to fight for it; and I'm going to convince the country and the government why we should go this way. That's what a leader does.
"This is a man who says I'm not even going to write the bill myself. I'm going to give it to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and let them write the bill. And yet he wants us all to support health care. And we still don't know what it is.
"I could tell you in a minute what's important to me about health care: that this whole precondition thing be wiped out, that there be some catastrophic protection for people. I can tell you that, because you get people who get serious illnesses who get wiped out. A smart way to go is to take it piece by piece. This year on the catastrophic; next year let's work on - no, it's just this empty grandiosity with no direction."
He sounds as frustrated as a dedicated progressive who's angry that single payer was never considered. Though he doesn't agree with much of the content of the health care bill that's now reportedly on life support, Steele seems incensed to have a president that he says couldn't find one component of the bill to fight for and didn't adequately explain to the American public why he was nevertheless pursuing the issue with such vehemence.
When asked if the president's press conference, multiple speeches and town hall meetings on health care, and an address to a joint session of Congress didn't provide adequate explanation for his pursuit of health care, Steele's answer: "Obama can say nothing better than anyone else in politics. Thirty speeches and no one knows why he is passionate about health care. Did he want single payer or public option or portability, etcetera? Obama fights for absolutely nothing but the words 'health care.'"
And so Steele maintains that the label of "liberal" is undeserved. He thinks the moniker only emerged because people were responding to the "vast amount of government spending" in bailing out the banks and the auto industry. Those decisions and the stimulus bill made Mr. Obama look like "Roosevelt to the tenth power," says Steele, but there's not much of indication that the president truly believes in the things he's doing using the economy as a rationale and backdrop.
"He never even explained it well. Never explained why today we own 70 percent - or whatever it is - of General Motors. If he were a passionate left wing ideologue, he would have a much better theoretical handle on why he did these things. He could give you an ideological justification for these things. But he can't even do that; he's just sort of done them - thoughtlessly.
For a man who catapulted into the national spotlight on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq war, even President Obama's foreign policy shows an absence of progressive ideology, says Steele.
"If he was really a left wing ideologue then take us out of Afghanistan. Get that over with. He would get a lot of support; he would even get support from conservative ranks for doing that. And he had, in effect, a mandate to do that, but he turns around and takes the sort of conservative, George Bush position on it."
"No matter what he does, there's no passion. There's no sense of 'I'm a man who's lived a long life and been through many experiences, and I've developed over the years to know what direction I want to take this country in.' There's just no sense of that from this president."
Though it's apparent in the world of talk radio and 24-hour cable news that many conservatives share Steele's bleak opinion of the president's performance, few name the absence of ideology as the reason for the president's actions. So are Shelby Steele's powers of observation stronger than the rest of the punditocracy -- or is he just the only one willing to take "an empty man" at his word?