by Victor Davis Hanson
I think we could see what was coming. This presidency has about as much subtlety in plot as a grade-B western, soap opera, or teenage tantrum.
A lackluster McCain candidacy, the September 2008 meltdown, weariness with eight years of Bush incumbency, conservative anger over spending, liberal furor over Iraq, a toady media, and Republican congressional corruption all led to a 50/50 electorate that was open to being mesmerized by Obama’s rhetoric and the dream of the nation’s first African-American president.
With congressional majorities, a compliant press, soaring public support, a soon-to-be President Obama was convinced, as he had been convinced by his success in the Ivy League, in Chicago, and in the Senate (surely praise in Cambridge means those in Toledo would be similarly wowed), that he had a left-wing mandate and he could hope and change his way to almost anything he wanted — thin record, self-contradictions, constant inconsistencies, and general confusion be damned.
The hard left was salivating that at last they had an effective delivery system that could usher in a long awaited European socialism. So what followed was predictable: In his hubris, Obama cast off the campaign mask of moderation. Thick and fast came proposals for state-run healthcare, government take-overs, talk of nationalizing the student loan program, bailouts, mega deficits, more borrowing as stimulus, multicultural mea culpas abroad, loony symbolic appointments, and promiscuous talk of higher income, payroll, inheritance, and healthcare taxes, but only on “them.”
In other words, we saw in a trendy, new cool form, the age-old attempt to institutionalize an equality of result, as freedom and liberty give way to mandated egalitarianism and fraternity.
But wait — two thorny problems arose.
(1) The country not quite yet is left-wing, but voted for Obama for the perfect-storm reasons outlined above. Anyone who had read the history of America could see that it was always a different sort of place than France, Germany, or Sweden — at least for a while longer.
(2) So to ram down a left-wing agenda, the thespian Obama would have to continue his role as the bipartisan healer, centrist, reformer, purple-state uniter, transracial unifier, etc. But, alas, instead old habits die hard; and the public soon began here and there to get glimpses of the old reality behind the new mask.
The wages of years with Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers, the easy path through the Ivy League, the Axelrod at our throat politics, and the snow job that had wowed deans, philanthropists, and tony suburbanites all reappeared. How could they not? Still, if one is going to hypnotize the electorate to sleep-walk them into Belgium, then one cannot in Pavlovian fashion revert back to hard-left idolatry.
So even as Barack Obama sought to convince the farmer, plumber, and insurance agent to accept state healthcare, a landscape of windmills, and an E.U.-foreign policy, he slipped back into his old self. Thus we got the nut Van Jones and his racist, truther bombast. Anita Dunn praised Mao. Commissars at the NEA boasted of the new Caesar.
Stimuli were in part apportioned on red state/blue state agendas.
The Skip Gates incident prompted the president to trash the police first, and get the facts second. Creditors were politically rescheduled for bailed-out businesses. The president thoughtlessly weighed in on everything from the Special Olympics and the tea party movement to Fox News and America’s purported sins.
Suddenly we were no longer exceptional, but the Muslim world in fact had jump-started the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The old bad guys — Ahmadinejad, Assad, Castro, Chavez, and Putin — earned new kind talk; the prior president was reduced to contemporary satanic status. Readers, you can cite far more footnotes to these now run-of-the-mill absurdities.
So after a mere year, Obama has crashed and plummeted lower than any first year administration in polling history. His “let me be perfectly clear” and “make no mistake about it” are the equivalent now of the serial teenage filler “Ya know.”
Deadlines mean only more deadlines: “Please stop that Iranian nuclear program — or else I will set another deadline!”; “Pass healthcare before the summer recess; no, before Thanksgiving; no, before the Christmas holidays; no, before the first of the year!”; “We will air healthcare debates on C-span; and we will air them; and we will air them; and we…”
Conservatives are in a “I told you so mood” — as the 2008 talk-radio bombast about Bill Ayers, Rev. Wright, “redistributive” spread the wealth, European socialism, etc., well, turned out not to be 2009 bombast at all.
Moderates and independents sigh, “I can’t believe this is happening to me; he seemed just like Clinton with all that balanced budget talk, balanced energy policy, and mainstream help-the-little-guy talk. What happened to the Barack we trusted?” David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley no longer talk of the knowledge of the great books, of a first class mind and temperament, and a detached calm and sense of competence.
Liberals wonder, “Why is the coolest guy around suddenly flubbing every opportunity to get our agenda passed?” The hard-left laments, “This guy is a triangulator who gave us a nibble, then pulled away the bone.”
His supporters counter, “See, he is a pragmatist and centrist who alienates the extremes.” No, no, no — he alienates them, but now the middle as well. What keeps his approval ratings in the forties is only the idea that the American people cannot quite yet accept a failed presidency after a mere 12 months — one that they had invested such hopes in after the poll crashing of Bush’s final two years.
The finger-pointing and blame-gaming begin since no one can properly address the real and only problem: Barack Obama has had no previous identity or independent ideology. By osmosis (rather than by careful study or life-long experience) he absorbed the trendy left-wing cant that variously manifested itself wherever he traveled, from the Occidental lounge dorm to the Ivy League salon groupthink to Chicago organizing to Rev. Wright’s pulpit to the liberal caucuses of the U.S. Senate. For a while, it was all as easy as sonorously thundering “hope and change.” He never before had to articulate his leftism in any real detail, defend it, debate it, or analyze it.
But now as his polls dip, we hear instead gripes over tactics, not the essence of the problem — the absence of an identity confidently and honestly expressed. So we get nonsense: “He’s too detached and cool: we need a fighting Bob Lafollette!” “He outsourced his agenda to the polarizing, corrupt and inept Reid/Pelosi wing.” “He surrounded himself with one too many shady Chicago polls.” “He took on too much all at once.” “Who thought up the idea that healthcare and cap and trade ranked above the recession in the public mind?”
What’s next? We can predict it in our sleep. He will continue the “let me be perfectly clear,” “fat-cat banker” talk to his base, do his selected-audience hope and change rants while trying to do a move-to-the-center light. Oh yes, a commission to balance the budget — sorta. Tough talk abroad — kinda. Healthcare reform we can all agree on — maybe.
In the past, every time Obama has been in a jam, two things followed. He first throws under the bus perceived liabilities (yesterday’s Rev. Wright and grandmother will be this year’s Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner and Janet Napolitano).
Second, he adopts the no more red state/blue state, “bipartisan,” “there is only one America” rhetoric. Yes, soon we will indeed hear abroad of American exceptionalism, and a thing called “the war on terror,” and, at home, deficits that must be paid back and “working across the aisle.”
I doubt we get genuine effort at balancing the budget, keeping businesses competitive, cutting waste, restoring American alliances, securing borders, centrist appointments, real bipartisanship, or a simplified tax system.
Instead, we’ve come full circle from the idealistic-sounding, centrist candidate Obama, to the Carter-McGovern President Obama, back to the wannabe Clinton triangulator. The only constant — no real identity, no firm belief, no core convictions from which to make the argument that his left-wing vision is good for the country. You see, Mr. Obama never had to: left-wing dogma was always a state religion in the circles Obama thrived, and once Obama the nightingale started in his song, few of the hypnotized worried about the inane message that followed.
Being president is all so, so unfair!
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson