Unreal Expectations?

President Obama Asked for Them

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

For nearly three months since the election, we have been warned by President Obama, his staff and the media not to burden him with unreal expectations that no mere mortal could meet.

But why then consciously borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches? And why re-create Lincoln’s historic train ride to his inauguration especially by flying back from Washington to Illinois to then return to D.C. by slow-moving railcar? Lincoln took the train because it was the only feasible way to get to Washington in 1861, not to copy the grand arrival of some earlier American savior.

Candidate Obama once adopted a presidential-like seal. He held a mass rally at Berlin’s Victory Column (after his request for the more dramatic Brandenburg Gate was refused).

He adopted Greek temple sets at the Democratic convention. And like Zeus on Mt. Olympus, he talked about making the planet cool and the oceans recede.

And now he’s capped all that by warning us to lower our expectations!

But if Obama deliberately takes on the trappings of a messiah, why shouldn’t we expect messianic solutions?

The alterations in positions during Obama’s pre-presidency were praised as “flexible” and “bipartisan.” Perhaps. But Obama did not adjust on just an issue or two. Instead, he went whole hog.

It would be difficult to find a single major policy position that he hasn’t backtracked somewhat on, especially on matters of foreign policy and the war against terror. Yet throughout the campaign, Obama and the media argued that the manner in which Bush waged the war against terror was harmful to the republic. So, were Bush’s polices wrong then, but suddenly right now?

Successfully having it both ways has been evident again on matters of his appointments. Obama defeated Hillary Clinton by running as a Washington outsider who promised new hope and radical change — and anything other than more Bush or Clinton.

Then he imported much of the old Clinton team for governance — Rahm Emanuel, Leon Panetta, John Podesta, Larry Summers, Hillary herself and a score of others — to put a far more articulate and hip veneer on George Bush’s current foreign policy. The Obama team has drafted more old-style former congressional insiders than any administration in memory.

What is going on here? Apparently, Obama accepts that the country is both still center-right and yet eager for a nontraditional national spokesman — glib, young, cool and able to charm a hostile world that is often hypocritical toward and envious of America.

In times of economic uncertainty and war, once Obama moved toward the center voters could see him as a trans-racial healer who offered vague change, made them feel good about themselves and, unlike John McCain, was the antithesis of the stodgy old white guy George Bush.

But Obama’s hard-left base had promoted Obama the liberal activist for different reasons. They want much more of a state role in the economy, while making American society, at home and abroad, look a lot more European.

So to satisfy both left and center constituencies, Obama seems to stick with the status quo on major issues while offering symbolic gestures and low-profile appointments to radical environmentalists, gay and minority activists, open-borders reformers and labor unionists.

In return, progressives will stick with Obama for a while, on the assumption that he alone can carefully prep and hypnotize the country to soon accept a more left-wing agenda.

And when anyone seems to object to this off-putting balancing act, Obama returns to soaring rhetoric to soothe away the acrimony the way he once did with the Rev. Wright mess last spring.

This triangulation may or may not work at home. Yet abroad it is a different story, where one cannot vote present or charm tough guys and thugs who do not always appreciate flexibility — and may interpret it as weakness to be exploited.

The Iranians prefer to talk, talk, and talk — while they get the bomb. Vladimir Putin wants consensus and dialogue — about re-establishing a right-wing version of the Soviet Empire. China loans us trillions to buy its goods — with the idea that it will soon leverage our financial policy. Europe wants to be courted while expecting America to both lead and be criticized for leading. The Palestinians for now want Israel gone from the West Bank and Gaza — and, at a not-so-future date, gone, period.

The much-maligned George Bush handled all these characters with often unambiguous, if inelegant, talk, and a no-nonsense toughness. If Obama, in contrast, feels he can offer them vague hope-and-change great-expectations rhetoric, and make himself agreeable to the world abroad in the manner he did so to us at home — well, then, lots of luck!

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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