What Went Wrong?

Piling up debt, and hypocrisy, Obama & Co. are sinking.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

We are witnessing one of the more rapid turnabouts in recent American political history. President Obama’s popularity has plummeted to 50 percent and lower in some polls, while the public expresses even less confidence in the Democratic-led Congress and the direction of the country at large. Yet, just eight months ago, liberals were talking in Rovian style about a new generation to come of progressive politics — and the end of both the Republican party and the legacy of Reaganism itself. Barack Obama was to be the new FDR and his radical agenda an even better New Deal.

What happened, other than the usual hubris of the party in power?

First, voters had legitimate worries about healthcare, global warming, immigration, energy, and inefficient government. But it turns out that they are more anxious about the new radical remedies than the old nagging problems. They wanted federal support for wind and solar, but not at the expense of neglecting new sources of gas, oil, coal, and nuclear power. They were worried about high-cost healthcare, the uninsured, redundant procedures, and tort reform, but not ready for socialized medicine. They wanted better government, not bigger, DMV-style government. There is a growing realization that Obama enticed voters last summer with the flashy lure of discontent. But now that they are hooked, he is reeling them in to an entirely different — and, for many a frightening — agenda. Nothing is worse for a president than a growing belief among the public that it has been had.

Second, Americans were at first merely scared about the growing collective debt. But by June they became outraged that Obama has quadrupled the annual deficit in proposing all sorts of new federal programs at a time when most finally had acknowledged that the U.S. has lived beyond its means for years. They elected Obama, in part, out of anger at George W. Bush for multi-billion dollar shortfalls — and yet as a remedy for that red ink got Obama’s novel multi-trillion-dollar deficits.

Third, many voters really believed in the “no more red/blue state America” healing rhetoric. Instead, polls show they got the most polarizing president in recent history — both in his radical programs and in the manner in which he has demonized the opposition to ram them through without bipartisan support. “Punch back harder” has replaced “Yes, we can.”

Fourth, Americans wanted a new brand — youthful, postracial, mesmerizing abroad. At first they got that, too. But after eight months, their president has proven not so postracial, but instead hyper-racially conscious. Compare the Holder “cowards” outburst, the Sotomayor riff on innate racial and gender judicial superiority, and the president’s Cambridge police comments. All that sounds more like Jesse Jackson than Martin Luther King Jr. Demagogues, not healers, trash their predecessors at the beginning of every speech. When a once-eloquent president now goes off teleprompter, the question is not whether he will say something that is either untruthful or silly, but simply how many times he might do so at one outing. Some once worried that George W. Bush could not articulate our goals in Iraq; far more now sense that Obama is even less able to outline his own health-care reform.

Fifth, even skeptics are surprised at the partisan cynicism. A year ago, Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama praised organizing, dissidents, and protest. Today they have become near-Nixonian in demonizing popular resistance to their collectivized health-care plans as mob-like, inauthentic, scripted, Nazi-like, and un-American. There are still ex-lobbyists in the government. High officials still cheat on their taxes. Hacks in the Congress still profit from their office. The public is sensing not only that Obama has failed to run the most ethically clean government, as promised, but indeed that he is not running as ethically clean a government as the predecessor who he so assiduously ridiculed.

Sixth, there is a growing fear that Obamism is becoming cult-like and Orwellian. Almost on script, Hollywood ceased all its Rendition/Redacted–style films. Iraq — once the new Vietnam — is out of the news. Afghanistan is “problematic,” not a “blunder.” Tribunals, renditions, the Patriot Act, and Predators are no longer proof of a Seven Days in May coup, but legitimate tools to keep us safe. Words change meanings as acts of terror become “man-caused disasters.” Hunting down jihadists is really an “overseas contingency operation.” Media sycophants do not merely parrot Obama, but now proclaim him a “god.” New York Times columnists who once assured us that Bush’s dastardly behavior was proof of American pathology now sound like Pravdaapologists in explaining the “real” Obama is not what he is beginning to seem like.

Seventh, the Obama cabinet is sounding downright uncouth and boorish. The tax-challenged Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, unleashed a profanity-laced diatribe against bank regulators. Hillary Clinton’s recent outburst in the Congo, captured on YouTube, was something out of Days of Our Lives. Joe Biden cannot speak extemporaneously without causing an incident with the Russians or misleading the public about swine flu. Attorney General Holder sounds like a tired scold, only to be overshadowed by the president’s off-the-cuff cuts about the Special Olympics, Las Vegas, and the Cambridge police. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs makes Scott McClellan sound like a Cicero by comparison.

Eighth, we were all appalled by Wall Street greed and the notion that an individual could take $100 million rather than one or two million as a bonus. But the Obama remedy for that obscenity was to conflate Goldman Sachs or AIG with the family orthodontist or local asphalt contractor whose 80-hour weeks might result in an annual $250,000 income. Worse still, the public impression is that while small entrepreneurs may pay up to 65 percent of their income in new state and federal income taxes, payroll taxes, and surcharges, those on Wall Street have been bailed out and have cut various deals with upscale liberals in government.

Ninth, Democratic populism turned out to be largely aristocratic elitism. Obama spends more money on himself than did Bush. The liberal Congress has a strange fondness for pricy private jets. Those environmentalists and racialists who lecture us about our ecological and ethical shortcomings prefer Martha’s Vineyard and country estates to Dayton and Bakersfield. Offering left-wing populist sermonizing for others while enjoying the high life oneself is never a winning combination.

Tenth, Americans no longer believe this is our moment when the seas stop rising and the planet ceases warming. Instead, there is a growing hopelessness that despite all the new proposed income taxes, payroll taxes, and surtaxes, the deficit will skyrocket, not shrink. There is foreboding that while apologies abroad are nice in the short term, they will soon earn a reckoning. And while the productive classes pay more of their income, and while government grows and entitlement expands, there is a sense that what follows will not be thanks for either taxes paid or benefits received, but even more anger that neither is enough and that much more is owed.

Obama’s popularity might rebound with a natural upturn in the economy, continued low energy prices, and good will for our first multiracial president. But then again, it could get even worse if the recovery turns into stagflation, gas prices soar, and the identity-politics lectures amplify. The next six months should be interesting.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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