by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
We are beginning to see the contours of the upcoming 2012 reelection campaign of Barack Obama. Whether always officially sanctioned or not, Obama’s campaign will focus on three general themes: a) the 2008 meltdown of the economy on Bush’s watch; b) conservative heartlessness in gutting cherished entitlement programs; and c) racial bias behind any criticism of Barack Obama.
By any standard, the economy has remained mostly dismal for well over two years. Deficits, joblessness, fuel prices, average GDP growth, and housing are far worse than the average during the eight years of Bush’s presidency. Unemployment during almost all of President Obama’s tenure has exceeded 9 percent, despite promises that, because of the stimulus, it would not exceed 8 percent. Gas still averages almost $4 a gallon nationwide, amid a landscape of continual administration resistance to new domestic exploration and leasing. Record numbers of Americans now draw food stamps and unemployment insurance; to suggest that these programs are plagued by abuse and fraud, or that, if they are too easily available, they can discourage initiative, is heresy. Some of the largest states — California, Illinois, New York — are nearly fiscally insolvent. We’ve borrowed $5 trillion since 2009 to “stimulate” the economy — and seen little upsurge in economic growth, but a lot of evidence of a raging inflation to come on the heels of soaring gas and food prices.
Massive debt, record new deficits, high rates of joblessness, out-of-control prices for essentials like fuel and food — a combination like that usually dooms a president’s reelection bid. Similarly weak economies in 1980 and 1992 derailed incumbents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.
However, Team Obama will make the argument that at least there has not been another Wall Street panic as during September 2008 under Bush, with the general uncertainty that followed. “Bush did it” is now too ironic a charge to evoke any more in matters of foreign policy, given that President Obama has now accepted all the Bush anti-terrorism protocols and wars — and gone well beyond them by joining a third conflict in Libya and quintupling the number of Predator-drone targeted assassinations.
But on the economic front, the “inherited mess” will have to do in the attempt to convince us that the present hard times are still George Bush’s while the signs of a weak recovery are all Barack Obama’s. Similarly, Herbert Hoover was still evoked for nearly a half-century any time FDR, Truman, or LBJ hit a rough patch. And if you did not know about the courageous economic decisions Barack Obama has made on our behalf on the domestic front, you will now, after the heroic killing of bin Laden. In the words of Joe Biden, it was “the boldest undertaking any president has undertaken on a single event in modern history” — an “undertaking” “undertaken” greater than the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, to stop North Korea from obliterating the south, to confront the Soviet Union over its missiles in Cuba, to send troops to recover Kuwait, or to conduct the surge in Iraq?
Obama’s landmark decision, in fact, explains why we can now at last appreciate his (or Joe Biden’s) genius and courage in restoring the ruined Bush economy, or so Biden further assures us: “The American people now . . . have a crystal-clear picture of how strong and decisive this president is. And that’s the last piece of the puzzle that had to be put in place for this great man. People are now beginning to take a second look at those incredibly difficult but absolutely necessary decisions the president had to make the day we walked into the West Wing.”
Then there are those cruel congressional opponents who for some reason believe that the $5 trillion in additional borrowing since January 2009 was a bit over the top. Greed, selfishness, and a lack of compassion — not an aging population, vastly expanded benefits, and soaring health-care costs — are responsible for the difficulties facing both Social Security and Medicare. Remedies abound, but none have been adopted by Team Obama. Before 2012 do not expect that the retirement age will be hiked. Benefits will not be trimmed or some entitlements privatized to encourage competition and cost-cutting — despite the real urgency for reform, since we are already running a $1.6 trillion annual budget deficit, and millions of baby-boomers are on the verge of retirement, a generation not known for either its reticence or its willingness to do without.
If reelected, President Obama will probably be forced to do something about entitlements, but that certain something will for now remain unspoken, and he instead will attack any proposals to change Social Security with the same gusto with which he once trashed the Iraq War and Guantanamo. Already, supportive commercials are airing with a Paul Ryan look-alike shoving a grandmother out of her wheelchair over a cliff. Other hit ads portray the elderly with walkers forced to mow lawns to raise money for their benefits. Ads like that will appear soft in comparison to what’s coming in the next 18 months.
Already, almost weekly one columnist or another insists that to criticize Barack Obama is to display racial bias. A reckless Donald Trump going after Obama’s birth certificate is emblematic of endemic racism; in contrast, unhinged nuts who claimed Sarah Palin never delivered her own child are perhaps a bit too zealous in a noble cause. House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D., S.C.) summarized the racialist strategy best, when he explicitly charged that opposition to Obama’s reelection hinges on racism: “The fact of the matter is, the president’s problems are in large measure because of his skin color.”
Clyburn’s demagoguery is a sort of strategic racial preemption: Prep the campaign in such a way that no one dares to talk of the president’s shortcomings for fear of being called a bigot — just as, in 2008, legitimate questions about the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his intimate connection with Barack Obama were acknowledged to be off limits by a terrified McCain campaign. Yet there is no evidence that mainstream criticism of Barack Obama is racial or has in any way exceeded that shown George W. Bush or Sarah Palin. I will concede widespread racism and irrational hatred against the president when Alfred A. Knopf publishes a sick anti-Obama screed that exceeds Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint; or when we see something comparable to the deplorable editorial that the Guardian published by Charlie Brooker, which ended with the question, “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?”; or to Jonathan Chait’s crazy “Mad about You: The Case for Bush Hatred”NewRepublic article.
In fact, the most racially condescending assessment of the president has come from Cornel West, professor of African-American studies at Princeton, who damned Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” West went on more explicitly, couching his criticism of Obama in anti-Semitic, anti-white terms: “I think he does have a predilection much more toward upper-class white brothers and Jewish brothers and a certain distance from free black men who will tell him the truth about himself.”
The president himself — well after the beer summit, Eric Holder’s rants about “cowards” and “my people,” the racist inanities of Van Jones, the “wise Latina,” and all the rest — in ethnically divisive fashion urged Latinos to punish their conservative enemies, and joked that his opponents wanted alligators and moats to stop Mexican nationals from crossing the border.
So will this tripartite strategy work? Only if the president’s opponents allow themselves to be caricatured as greedy Wall Street profiteers who want to punish the elderly and are prejudiced against blacks. And if they can’t answer back defiantly to that nonsense, then they really do deserve to lose.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson