by Victor Davis Hanson
Do As I Say—Not As I Do?
I confess I did not believe Barack Obama entirely during the campaign when he bragged on working across the aisle and championing bipartisanship.
You see, as in the case of any other politician, one must look to what he does — and has done — not what he says for election advantage.
And in the case of Sen. Obama, in his nascent career in the Senate, he had already compiled the most partisan record of any Democratic Senator. He had attended religiously one of the most racially divisive and extremist churches in the country. His Chicago friends were not moderates. His campaigns for state legislature, the House and the Senate were hard-ball, no-prisoner affairs of personal destruction, even by Chicago standards. Campaign references to reparations, gun- and bible-clingers, and Rev. Wright’s wisdom were not words of healing.
In short, while the rhetoric was often inspirational, I found no real reason then — or now — to believe that Barack Obama wishes to be a uniter. And nothing in his first five weeks of governance has disabused me of that first tough impression.
Nevertheless, here are five modest recommendations that he might adopt if he were really interested in bringing the country together.
1) Forget talk radio. During the campaign, President Obama, you went after Sean Hannity on numerous occasions — which are recycled ad nauseam almost daily as sound-bites on his radio program. Once in office, both you and your staff have zeroed in on Rush Limbaugh by name. But Presidential candidates and elected Presidents must seem above the fray, and not descend into tit-for-tat with media celebrities. There is a reason why even your closest associates have ceased calling you Barack and now quite properly address you as “Mr. President” — and it is not due to your persistence in demonizing talk radio.
Did George Bush go after Bill Maher or Air American or Keith Olbermann when almost daily they slandered his character? Did he serially evoke Michael Moore? To have done so by name, would have demeaned his office. Worry about refuting conservative ideas, and governing the country, rather than dueling over the airways with those who get paid for only that. The country wanted a Lincoln, not another Nixon going after Dan Rather at a press conference. So far your administration resembles the latter, not the former.
2) Forget about George Bush. We got the message already that he is near satanic, you angelic. Yet even in your inauguration speech, you could not leave well enough alone, and so once again went after a predecessor who won two elections, and so far has been circumspect in his criticism of your own brief tenure. Even ex-Presidents — cf. Jimmy Carter’s self-serving ankle-biting and Bill Clinton contorted snipes — reduce the office when they engage in schoolyard “they did it, not me” finger-pointing.
Again, in your first address to the nation, you went out swinging: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” But President Bush never set up such a Manichean either/or situation, as you yourself must accept, when you embraced his protocols on FISA, the Patriotic Act, the Bush-Petraeus Iraq withdrawal plan, and kept rendition, and so far have not quite closed Guantanamo.
And there was more still in that address: “A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. . .Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.”
But Mr. President, deficits arose from out-of-control spending, inasmuch as the Bush tax cuts resulted in increased revenue. It is fair to fault the past eight years of profligate spending, but when you engage in such demagoguery, the American people can detect your subtext: “I won’t criticize Bush’s spending because I found it not enough and will trump it; I will criticize his tax cuts, since I want to make the wealthier pay for my even greater borrowing.”
Cutting taxes on everyone who pays them is not transferring wealth, unless you believe that one’s own income belongs to the government in the first place. Under Bush, nearly 50% of the tax filers for the first time paid no income tax at all — hardly a transfer of wealth.
As far as “gutting” regulations go, I don’t think you wish to go there — given the careers of Franklin Rains, a disgraced Jim Johnson (of your recent hire), Barney Frank, and Chris Dodd, who not only really did gut regulations that were at the center of the financial meltdown, but profited from such complicit laxity.
3) Drop the messianic style. The campaign is over. The Victory Column and Parthenon facades belong to last summer. Remember, it’s hard finding elites to serve in government that are not tainted. You yourself discovered that depressing fact when you nominated tax-dodgers and lobbyists to your own cabinet. Not only did you have far more trouble on such ethical fronts than did Bush in his first month of nominations, but you suffered the additional wage of hypocrisy after adopting the prophetic rhetoric about your own virtue. 2012 will come soon enough without vero possumus at every turn.
4) Enough of the evil “rich.” We’ve heard now about the proverbial jets, parties, and ‘they want us to eat cake’ rhetoric that is approaching the sloganeering of the French Revolution. No one likes a Bernie Madoff, or supports AIG and Citicorp execs wanting federal subsidies to cover their lavish lifestyles.
But a little humility is in order: the problem is not just Richard Fuld at a bankrupt Lehman Brothers, but also Clintonites like Robert Rubin at Citicorp, and liberals at Freddie and Fannie who took millions while destroying the financial integrity of hallowed institutions.
A William Jefferson, Charles Rangel, or John Murtha is an advertisement for ethical impropriety. Nancy Pelosi’s private jet is as worrisome as those of the Big Three auto execs now on public assistance; both Ms. Pelosi and the car CEOs get federal monies and preside over bankrupt entities—and fly in class.
You are our President; so, please, begin seeing greed as an equal opportunity vice that infects liberal and conservatives alike — and anyone else with all too human frailties. If anything, the liberal egalitarian suffers the additional wage of hypocrisy for engaging in Rangelesque schemes or Robert Rubin ‘me-first’ bonuses — in the same manner conservatives do when caught with women or drugs after boasting of the need for old-time morality.
5) Stop the dissimulation. Your plan might work for a while given the incineration of trillions in stock and home equity and the need for replacement cash, but its revenue-raising component is not just aimed at the miniscule number of “rich,” which you imply to the American people are flying the skies of America in private jets while being unpatriotic in avoiding taxes and violating regulations.
In fact, for your plan to succeed, you must go after the upper, upper middle-class, those making between $250,000 and $600,000 who are restaurant owners, home builders, labor contractors, architects, surgeons, engineers, hospital executives, college administrators, Ivy-League law professors, and many dentists.
These households are wealthy, yes; but they don’t own or even fly on $50 million private jets or host private Super Bowl parties. Their income is all reported, and with such good salaries come high insurance and, in the case of business, constant reinvestment and expensive inventories. They are not greedy, but the bulwark of the United States’ productive classes who in aggregate pay over 40% of the collective income taxes, and provide most of the jobs in the country. Under your plan many in these high-tax states will pay nearly 70% of their incomes in FICA, Medicare, federal income, and state income taxes. Why gratuitously mislead the American people that those for whom you will lift FICA ceilings or up their IRS bites to 40% are in any way synonymous with the super-rich? Remember the very, very wealthy voted overwhelmingly in your favor precisely because their riches gave them immunity from high taxes, and in many cases they were far removed from the everyday risk and worry of owning a hardware store or trying to keep together a family-owned construction firm. George Clooney is a world away from a paving contractor, just as making $400,000 a year on call 24/7 is not quite making $40 million investing or $2 million for a cameo.
So please no more intellectual dishonesty, Mr. President. Those in great numbers who will pay your higher taxes are not really the rarer Warren Buffets, Bill Gateses, Diane Feinsteins, Teresa Heinz Kerrys, Sean Penns, George Soroses, Oprah Winfreys, or Tiger Woodses, whose mega-wealth really does result in private jet rides, and yet exempts them from worries that increased taxes might wreck their small businesses.
A final note. You are engaged on a vast revolutionary agenda, one that if successful will create a high-tax, big government, large entitlement, U.N.-centered, and European-emulating country, far different from America of the past. Given you political skills and the current economic crisis, you, as FDR once did, may well pull it off.
Such radical transformation ipso facto creates winners and losers and means radical readjustments that stir passions. But the challenge of a President is to show empathy for those you must target, and some sensitivity to counter-arguments made from good intentions and sound logic.
Instead, you are beginning to create an ‘us/them’ climate of increasing passionate intensity, and unleashing zeal that cannot be healthy for the country. So far your soaring rhetoric, untraditional background, and the good will of the American people have mitigated such extremism as your Attorney General calling the nation collective “cowards” or your own serial invective again “the rich,” “bankers” and Rush Limbaugh.
But there will come a time, when you will rue the politics of class warfare and the rhetoric of the demagogue — and may find the very intensities that you are unleashing for political advantage now, later on will be precisely those that you most regret that even you cannot control.
So a little less ‘Bush did it’ or Rush this and Sean that, and a little more of the need of all Americans to debate in calm and respect dissension in these times of uncertainty in which no one has all the answers.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson