Obama: Not the Great Stone Face

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an allegory about a series of small-town would-be heroes who the gullible public claimed resembled the Great Stone Face on the side of a New Hampshire mountain. The citizens assumed that these men would have a granite-like ability to stand firm against whatever dangers the people faced. (“About this time there went a rumor throughout the valley, that the great man, foretold from ages long ago, who was to bear a resemblance to the Great Stone Face, had appeared at last.”) The most confident and charismatic of these quick-fix characters — Mr. Gathergold, Old Blood-and-Thunder, and Old Stony Phiz — always in the end proved failures, as the people finally learned that they did not have the qualities they ascribed to the face on mountain.

When a once widely popular George W. Bush left office, he was polling about 35 percent approval and 60 percent disapproval. The country had two years earlier turned out the Republican Congress — to the tune of promises from Nancy Pelosi (in the pre-transcontinental-jet days) to end the wars, end the culture of corruption, and end the power of special interests.

In 2008 Barack Obama ran as a moderate liberal, offering assurances on instituting sound financial governance, getting out of Iraq, repealing the Bush anti-terrorism protocols, and making government work for the little guy by taking over some private enterprise — that is, offering government-run healthcare, subsidized student loans, and new and extended entitlements. ANewsweek grandee, Evan Thomas, declared Him “sort of God.” He caused another pundit, Chris Matthews, to experience leg tingles. And the world anointed Him a Nobel laureate for good intentions.

After 19 months, a once cool, laid-back Barack Obama — beloved by Oprah in his mesmerizing ability to make the enraptured faint at his sermons — now polls about 45 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval — nearly a 20-point swing in less than two years. Currently, a generic Republican challenger enjoys on average a six-point edge in the polls — quite a turnabout from the twelve-point spread that Democrats mounted in January 2009. Public approval of Congress ranges from about 10 to 20 percent — the Democratic-led Congress getting even lower marks than the pre-2006 Republican one.

One might say the public has changed its opinion of Obama, but it seems more likely that the public is beginning to see Obama as it finally did Bush. The hard Right always felt about Obama as the hard Left did about Bush, but now independents seem simply to have rechanneled their Bush anger to Obama anger — something that has bewildered Team Obama, who cannot gain any traction by blaming the current malaise on the Bush legacy. Voters apparently don’t see the corrective to Bush’s deficit budgeting in Obama’s yet higher spending and larger government.

When the economy under Bush was good, the public was more worried about Iraq. When Iraq became quiet as Obama entered office, it turned its furor on him for the recession. Obama thought his popularity and charm could win the public over to his unpopular agenda; now he worries that his own growing unpopularity and lack of charm may make any agenda unpalatable. Any more “successes” in enacting a widely unpopular agenda, and Obama’s approvals will be in the teens.

What can we learn from all this?

There is a growing desperation among politicians that the populace perceives them as pretty much alike — alike in the sense of not being appealing. In Obama’s case, the charge is doubly serious, because he made extravagant claims that our first community organizer and our first African-American to become president — and our most purely liberal president in a generation — would be different, as in bringing a new humility and competence to the office.

Instead, over half the electorate sees only hypocrisy. Obama initially called for understanding and patience with the BP spill, in a way he had not when demagoguing Katrina. He suddenly found Guantanamo, renditions, military tribunals, Predator assassinations, and Iraq to be complex issues, after assuring us that they were open-and-shut cases of simple morality. Bush’s deficit misdemeanors suddenly became Obama’s felonies — after he ran on the theme that Bush had recklessly run up the debt. The 2008 campaign to highlight racial harmony by electing the symbolic postracial Obama has become a sort of nightmare in which the old, tired identity politics of the 1980s rage as never before, fanned by an unpopular president desperate to rev up his base.

The common denominator here is that a largely conservative electorate has always wanted lower taxes, smaller but more competent government, fewer overseas commitments, honest government, and officials who live like the public they represent — and it can’t seem to find that package in any party or candidate being presented to it. Indeed, the Obama medicine is now seen as worse than the Bush disease, in that he less competently oversaw the war in Afghanistan, blew apart the budget, and lives more royally than any Republican.

The obsequious media have been left scrambling to explain this new Orwellian barn wall: Bush’s aristocratic golf is now Obama’s needed relaxation; Bush’s bumbling press conferences might explain why Obama wisely doesn’t hold many at all; Republican congressional corruption simply led to a “They all do it, even Democrats” narrative; Bush’s failure to articulate how and why we would win in Iraq suddenly morphs into Afghanistan as a baffling experience that confuses all of us. Obviously, even the most adept public-relations-minded journalist could not pull all that off, and so we are left with media now as discredited as they are loathed.

And where does all that leave us?

The public is waiting for an articulate conservative reformer who will quietly keep promises to balance the budget more through spending cuts than taxes, close the border to illegal immigration, either win or get out of long wars abroad, respect federal law and apply it equally, and restore a sense of American confidence and American exceptionalism.

The odd thing is that the entire country senses how Obama could restore his ratings to over 50 percent in the same way Clinton did in 1995. He would simply call in Republicans to work out a deal to balance the budget, quit his two-year “Bush did it” whine, stop suing the states, reassure business that there will be no more tax hikes, praise the private sector for its ingenuity and competence, stop trying to appeal to his base through race and ethnicity, and get engaged on Afghanistan.

Because there is no chance that Obama will or can do that, we are witnessing another Greek tragedy as our chief executive slowly implodes.

So we, the American public, have become something like the anxious townspeople of Hawthorne’s morality tale. We keep claiming that our next national leader is some sort of monumental icon who will magically solve our crises, only to learn that in the flesh he turns out not to be the Great Stone Face on the mountain at all. (The Obama euphoria of 2008 was not unlike the Bush worship for a short while between September 2001 and early 2003.)

In the end, if we are lucky, we will end up with a workmanlike candidate similar to the Ernest of Hawthorne’s short story, someone nondescript from the community, someone like the rest of America, who through humility and competence avoids the vanity of high office, balances budgets, wins wars, cuts spending, restores American confidence, finesses the partisan rancor, and restores our global stature and competitiveness — and slowly grows to resemble the visage on the side of the mountain.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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