by Jamie Glazov
Frontpage Interview’s guest Victor Davis Hanson sheds light on the unfolding drama of a president whose unpopular proposals threaten to ruin his popularity.
FP: Victor Davis Hanson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I’d like to talk to you today about Obama’s retreat on healthcare and the hit he is taking in the polls.
The President has announced that his administration may abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system.
Your take on this retreat? What’s the significance here?
Hanson: Obama has discovered that his statist proposals are more unpopular than he is popular. But more importantly, dozens of Democratic Congress people sent a message to him that they simply cannot run next year in their purple districts on cap-and-trade energy taxes, $2 trillion deficits, socialized medicine, and higher taxes, with periodic gaffes like the Sotomayor “wise Latina” cut and the Gates “stupidly” fiasco. At some point, they made the decision that hope and change was being trumped by town hall meetings and as a result are making the necessary adjustments on healthcare.
If Obama is wise, he will do a little tinkering, and declare victory, and it will all go the way of Hillary-care. Then we will see whether Obama has a Clinton 1994 moment or prefers to go the Jimmy Carter oblivion route. Even more importantly is the President’s reaction to the setback, whether he will smile and move on, or lash out at “them” who “raised the bar” on him in a ‘downright mean” way.
FP: What is your view of the town hall protestors and their effectiveness?
Hanson: Well, they are less provocative than Code Pink, Moveon.org, and Michael Moore, who until this year were canonized as principled dissidents. Pelosi et al. once upon a time thought the boisterous anti-Bush demonstrators were reflective of the finest tradition of American protest. I’m sure our President, the ex-community organizer, would agree. As long as the town-hallers are non-violent and allow meetings to proceed as planned, I think they are admirable participants in direct democracy. Note they are increasingly non-partisan, but more representative of a senior cohort who fear Medicare will be looted for many of those who choose not to purchase catastrophic healthcare plans, illegal aliens, and others who make decisions for a variety of reasons not to acquire a private plan.
FP: So you believe that Obama’s Healthcare plans are, ultimately, doomed to fail?
Hanson: Well, I think he will now tinker and trim, and borrow some money to enable more to be able to have catastrophic insurance; but the notion of Hillary-care II I think just isn’t going to make it. The original secret dream was a single-payer system, then the fall-back was a Canadian-like system, then came a government medicare-like plan “competing” with private plans — and I think in the end they will just nuance the present system and declare victory. Who knows? Maybe they will follow the war on terror plan, when they damned tribunals, renditions, Predators, etc. as Bush’s totalitarian agenda — and then when in office adopted it whole hog: they could take some ideas from some moderates and conservatives, declare them their own, and get something more than we have now as proof of Obama’s statecraft.
FP: You referred earlier to Jimmy Carter’s “oblivion route.” Tell us a bit about it.
Hanson: Well, Obama shares some of Carter’s self-righteousness and messianic sense of self, and may really think, as did Carter, that his superior intellect and moral sense will inevitably be appreciated by hoi polloi — and therefore he will persist in the sermonizing, ramming down our throats the pie-in-the-sky therapeutic agendas, and then playing the wounded fawn when the rest of us don’t appreciate the genius of our President.
So if he does all that, he just won’t adjust — and we will probably get Carter stagflation at home, and a series of provocative challenges abroad. One cannot reinvent physics and say there is no consequence to running up annual $2 trillion deficits, or think that apologizing and appeasing rather creepy fellows like Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Ortega, Putin, and the rest will not have consequences down the line.
FP: So what is the overall good news regarding this retreat? What are the positive signs it gives off? What does it tell us and what hope does it give?
Hanson: Oh, I think it is all good news. Obama is now a mere mortal again, and will have to succeed or fail on his own merits, since a ministry-of-truth like obsequious media, vapid hope-and-change sloganeering, and tons of money have not exempted him from the normal political realities. So either Obama will go back and lick his wounds, study Clinton’s metamorphosis in 1995, and begin governing as promised in a ‘no more red state/blue state’ fashion, or he will persist in the European socialist mode and follow Pelosi, Reid, Frank, and the other hard-core partisans over the cliff, shrieking about how unfair it is, how illiberal the public is, how dastardly are Fox News, Drudge, and Rush Limbaugh all the way down into the political abyss.
FP: All of this is not happening at the best time for Obama. His approval rating has been dropping lately. One recent poll has his approval rating at 47 % and his disapproval at 52%.
What is going on?
Hanson: Two observations: one, Obama, in hubristic fashion confused general unhappiness with the two-term incumbent George W. Bush (who like Truman in 1952 was orphaned in the succession campaign), uncertainty in the midst of a recession and financial panic, and good will toward our first African-American president with a mandate for big government, higher taxes, nationalization, identity politics, and expansive liberal entitlement. The two were not synonymous; the country remains largely right/center, and Obama is losing an historic opportunity to govern from the center, as Clinton resorted to after his own 1994 disaster.
Two, the charisma and spell of the campaign have worn off. Obama is not reifying his ‘no more red state/blue state’ healing rhetoric, but turning out to be highly partisan, often unfortunately untruthful and gratuitously tough in off-teleprompter commentary, and highly sensitive to criticism. If his healthcare policies stagnate, if cap-and-trade crashes and burns, if the recession continues, and taxes must fall on the sacred 95% who were promised exemption even to meet $2 trillion annual deficits, and if his identity politics persist (e.g., the Gates incident, the “wise Latina”, the Holder “cowards” outburst, etc.), then his polls will hit 40%, and we should expect his supporters in anguish to allege ‘racism’ to explain the President’s unpopularity. In truth, a fawning press has ensured Obama adulation in his decline in popularity, while in the past demonizing Bush as he too fell in the polls.
FP: In what ways does our country remain largely right/center?
Hanson: It still prefers low taxes, limited government, strong national defense, secure and enforced borders, more domestic gas and oil exploration and nuclear energy development, an end to affirmative action, strong ties with traditional allies like Britain and Israel, and on most social issues remains traditional like conventional marriage and no federal subsidies for abortions.
FP: What would governing from the center mean for Obama? In other words, what would he be doing different if he rose to that challenge?
Hanson: Well, just imagine: Obama enters office and realizes that the bailout, coupled with Bush’s prior $500 billion shortfall, left us with a $1 trillion shortfall. So instead of doubling it, he rides out the recession, and offers a plan to balance the budget. He could have modified rather than sought to replace the present healthcare system. Resorting to the Clinton income tax rates was enough without trying to lift caps on income subject to FICA taxes, as mere surcharges, at a time when state income tax rates are climbing.
Abroad, one liberal apology, not dozens, was enough. “Bush did it” is getting old after eight months. One can see that when he did seek the middle, such as the Gates retention at defense, he found success. And for all the campaign rhetoric about Bush shredding the Constitution, note that Obama in quiet fashion kept tribunals, renditions, wiretaps, intercepts, Predator missions, the Bush/Petraeus Iraq withdrawal plan, and troops in Afghanistan.
In short, anytime Obama sought moderate agendas, he enjoyed broad support. The question is not if, but when Obama realizes that the newfound prominence of a Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank et al. is what may well wreck his presidency. With friends like those, who needs enemies?
FP: Expand for us a bit on why Clinton resorted to governing from the center after 1994. What did he do and what did it mean for the country?
Hanson: The successful 1994 Gingrich Contract for America was a reaction to Clinton’s initial plans for Hillary-care, open homosexuality in the military, and a host of planned new entitlements and further tax increases. By 1995-6 Morris had Clinton’s ear and the two adopted “triangulation,” or the tactic of running against both the ultra-conservative and liberal congressional factions. Not all of it was just politics, but valuable legislation like balance budget plans, deregulation, an “end of big government” credo, and welfare reform. Clinton triangulated to survive; and he managed to win again in 1996 — again without receiving a majority of the vote. Despite tax increases, there were two years of budget surpluses, reduced welfare rolls, and stronger defense such as the efforts to stop the Balkans genocide. True, much of Clinton’s few successes and undeniable popularity, despite his glaring character flaws, were due to Morris’s cynicism, the candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, the implosion of Newt Gingrich, and the disastrous Republican complicity in the shut-down of the government, but nonetheless Clinton the pragmatist prospered when Clinton the ideologue had failed utterly (not unlike the story of his Arkansas experiences as well.)
FP: How has Obama been untruthful?
Hanson: In a variety of ways:
 The constant refashioning of history — as in the crazy Cairo speech that alleged the U.S. ended slavery without violence, or that the Arab world was responsible for things from advanced medicine to the printing press, or that Muslims in Cordoba were beacons of tolerance during the Inquisition (cf. the chronology).
 The simple exaggerations that are nonsensical, whether his grandfather liberated Auschwitz, his parents first meeting at a civil rights march, or that if we inflate our tires properly we can thereby eliminate the need to drill offshore or in Alaska.
 Then there was the autobiographical revisionism about his real ties with Ayers, Rezko, Wright, Pfleger, etc. that were in fact quite close but air brushed away. But these are mere details.
 What is more dishonest are the ways in which he simply trashed Bush for things like rendition and military tribunals and then adopted them; or during the campaign suddenly swore off public financing and became the first candidate in three decades in the general election to do that, after saying he would not. We never heard a word from him that he was on record saying that the surge would make things worse. The result was Obama naturally campaigned one way, and immediately began to govern another. Imagine that in October 2008 Obama had said:
“I plan to run a $2 trillion deficit/stimulus, take over GM, Chrysler, AIG, etc. and refashion the order of creditors, nationalize healthcare, de facto stall on fossil fuel exploration, push through cap and trade, apologize to Europe, Turkey, the Muslim world, create distance between Israel and the US, etc.”
I don’t think he would have had a chance. He was the ultimate stealth candidate who knew that masking his intent was the only way to get elected. “Hope and Change” really meant “I am an old-fashioned statist liberal whose views are at odds with most of America, but which are in fact good for these lesser souls implemented from on high by gifted elites like myself — an agenda that means I must remain both charismatic and duplicitous in order that my personal popularity can carry through my unpopular agenda.”
Once Obama learns that his charisma wears thin, watch out — I think critics will be accused of all sorts of things for their apostasy.
FP: What most concerns you about Obama?
Hanson: I admire his set oratory, confidence, and ease under pressure. But I am worried on a number of counts:
[A] He distances himself from American history and traditions, as if he is a third party that can enjoy the prestige and power of the U.S. but at the same time not be subject to criticism from its envious enemies.
[B] His naiveté about human nature and his ignorance. He really does think that problems with a Putin, Chavez, Ahmadinejad, etc. were due to Bush and can be solved with his charismatic rhetoric, apologies, good intentions, and empathy, rather than seeing that the regional interests of such autocrats cannot be reconciled with U.S. interests in free commerce, safe seas, human freedom, and the integrity of existing borders.
[C] He has never run anything — other than having dispersed someone else’s money as a foundation board member. His cursus honorum is Ivy League, Chicago organizing, Chicago politics, Illinois politics, and so he seems completely unaware of the dilemma of those who run small construction companies, medical practices, real estate offices, etc. — the small businesses that are the backbone of America.
He has conflated them with Wall Street — as if making $250,000 a year is like taking a $10 million yearly bonus from AIG.
Finally, he seems to believe in a ‘spread the wealth’ equality of result creed that history shows has brought disaster everywhere it has been tried and failed. We are mimicking Europe at a time when they are having earnest discussions about trimming government and seeking more market than government solutions.
FP: Victor Davis Hanson, thank you so much for gracing us with your presence at Frontpage Interview. Your wisdom is priceless.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson