For 30 months the nation has been in the grip of a certain Obama obsession, immune to countervailing facts, unwilling to face reality, and loath to break the spell. But like all trances, the fit is passing, and we the patient are beginning to appreciate how the stupor came upon us, why it lifted, and what its consequences have been.
How Obama Won
Barack Obama was elected rather easily because, in perfect-storm fashion, five separate trends coalesced last autumn.
1) Obama was eloquent, young, charismatic - and African-American. He thus offered voters a sense of personal and collective redemption, as well as appealing to the longing for another JFK New Frontier figure. An image, not necessarily reality, trumped all.
2) After the normal weariness with eight years of an incumbent party and the particular unhappiness with Bush, the public was amenable to an antithesis. Bush was to be scapegoat, and Obama the beginning of the catharsis.
3) Obama ran as both a Clintonite centrist and a no-red-state/no-blue-state healer who had transcended bitter partisanship. That assurance allowed voters to believe that his occasional talk of big change was more cosmetic than radical.
4) John McCain ran a weak campaign that neither energized his base nor appealed to crossover independents. McCain turned off conservatives; many failed to give money, and some even stayed home on Election Day. Meanwhile, the media and centrists who used to idolize McCain's non-conservative, maverick status found Obama the more endearing non-conservative maverick.
5) The September 2008 financial panic turned voters off Wall Street and the wealthy, and allowed them to connect unemployment and their depleted home equity and 401(k) retirement plans with incumbent Republicans. In contrast, they assumed that Obama, as the anti-Bush, would not do more bailouts, more stimuli, and more big borrowing.
Take away any one of those factors, and Obama might well have lost. Imagine what might have happened had Obama been a dreary old white guy like John Kerry; or had Bush's approvals been over 50 percent; or had Obama run on the platform he is now governing on; or had McCain crafted a dynamic campaign; or had the panic occurred in January 2009 rather than September 2008. Then the trance would have passed, and Obama, the Chicago community organizer and three-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, would have probably lost his chance at remaking America.
I note all this at length because Obama seems to act as if this right-center country - one that polls oppositely to his positions on most of the major issues (deficits, spending, nationalized health care, homeland security, Guantanamo, cap-and-trade, etc.) - has given him a mandate for a degree of change not seen in nearly 80 years.
Apparently, Team Obama figured that with sizable majorities in both the House and the Senate, Obama would snap his fingers, Congress daily would pass bills redefining America, and Obama would stay in perpetual campaign mode to hope and change the country to accept his agenda. Governing would be like campaigning, as audiences fainted hearing the details of a 1,500-page health-care bill or of ever more sins from America's past.
But, after just a few months in office, that proved not to be the case. Just as a number of planets had to line up precisely to allow an inexperienced hard-left ideologue to be elected president, so there would have had to be a similar configuration to allow him to govern successfully.
1) Obama had to match his unity rhetoric with brotherly action. In fact, he has done the opposite.
At one time or another, Obama and his supporters have, rather scurrilously, insulted doctors, insurers, the police, tea-partiers and town-hallers, opponents of his health-care plan, non-compliant members of the media, and a host of other groups as either greedy, dishonest, treasonous, unpatriotic, mob-like, racist, or in general worthy of disrespect.
Fewer and fewer Americans now believe that Obama - after just nine months of governance - is a uniter. In Obama's world, doctors carve out children's tonsils for profit, racist morons rant at legislators about losing their private health care, and trillions in borrowed money must be paid back by the greedy rich whose capital was unearned in the first place.
When his base supporters lambaste him for softness, they are lamenting his inability to become an effective partisan - not a lack of partisanship in general. In surreal fashion, liberals demand that the ideologue Obama become more ideological precisely at the time his ideologically driven agenda is souring millions of non-ideological Americans.
2) His opposition is no longer ossified, but decentralized and grass roots. One of the oddest proofs of that statement is the sudden leftist furor at tea parties, town halls, the media, dissent, and free speech. As long as Obama was opposed by calcified Republicans in Congress, there was no real danger to him. But once the opposition proved populist, panicked liberal elites started demonizing populism - and Obama now finds himself opposed to the popular grievance-mongering that was once the mother's milk of our Chicago organizer's existence.
3) Obama campaigned on the notion that even if voters might not like his policies, they most assuredly would like him. Even that spell is now lifting. The more the American public gets to know Barack Obama, the less they find him appealing.
On matters racial, their campaign-season unease with his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his toss-offs like "typical white person," and his stereotyping of rural Pennsylvanians has not been allayed; rather, it has been amplified by Eric Holder's Justice Department, Obama's own statement that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Professor Gates, and the use of the race card by prominent Democrats from the likes of Rep. Charles Rangel to Gov. David Paterson of New York.
Much of the newly stirred public suddenly assumes two things from the Obama administration: that the president himself will periodically say something racially insensitive or unwise; and that his supporters will call opponents of his policies racist. If we have wearied of all that in nine months, think what four years of it will do to the public mood.
In just nine months the phrase "Chicago style" has gone from something old-time that evokes Al Capone or Mayor Daley to something very real, contemporary, and scary - as David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, and others try to strong-arm the opposition, demonize the media, and manipulate government largesse to either penalize or reward recipients on the basis of their degree of support for Obama.
Could the most imaginative right-wing political operative have invented the idea of a National Endowment for the Arts official gleefully considering quid pro quo grants, administration officials trying to persuade other media outlets that a network critical of Obama is "not a news organization," or an administration communications director bragging about how her team sandbagged the American media and took them to the cleaners? We can believe there might be one statement like Van Jones's slander of "white people," or Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" boast, or Anita Dunn's lengthy praise of the mass-murdering Mao, but not an entire series of them. At some point, the American public snaps out of it, and sighs, "Wow, these people really are nuts!"
4) "Bush Did it" was the IV drip of the Obama campaign, always there to infuse a fresh life-saving excuse into every Obama fainting spell. But the problem now is that it has been more than nine months since Bush left office, and Obama's "mop up" metaphors are getting stale. Worse still, the reasons the public soured on Bush are precisely the reasons it may well sour more on Obama, inasmuch as he took Bush's problems like deficits, soaring federal spending, bailouts, and unemployment and made them far worse.
Yet Obama has given no credit for the good that Bush did, and therefore must remain mum about the other "Bush Did It"s, like quiet in Iraq; the homeland-security protocols, from renditions and tribunals to wiretaps and intercepts; AIDS relief for Africa; friendly governments in Britain, France, Germany, India, and Italy; and domestic safety since 9/11. If Bush is at least partly responsible for all these things as well, were they therefore bad?
Obama very soon is going to have to make a tough choice, far tougher than his current "present" votes on the option of sending additional troops to Afghanistan.
As the midterm elections near, and his popularity bobs up and down around 50 percent, Obama can do one of two things.
He could imitate Bill Clinton's 1995 Dick Morris remake. In Obama's case, that would mean, abroad, cutting out the now laughable apologies for his country, ceasing to court thugs like Ahmadinejad, Chávez, and Putin, keeping some distance from the U.N., and paying closer attention to our allies like Britain and Israel. At home, he could declare victory on his sidetracked agenda and then start over by holding spending in line, curbing the deficit, stopping the lunatic Van Jones-style czar appointments, courting the opposition, and tabling cap-and-trade. I think there is very little chance of any of the above, whatever voters may have thought during the campaign.
Or, instead, Obama could hold the pedal to the floor on the theory that, as a proven ideologue, he must move the country far left before the voters catch on and stop him in his tracks in November 2010. That would mean more of the "gorge the beast" effort to spend and borrow so much that taxes have to soar, and thus redistribution of income will be institutionalized for a generation. He would push liberal proposals no matter how narrow the margin in the Senate. He would keep demonizing Fox News. In Nixonian fashion he might continue to hit the stump, ratcheting up his current "they're lying" message and energizing his left-wing base by catering to the unions, gays, minorities - and liberal Wall Street special interests.
If he chooses the former, he might well be a more successful version of Bill Clinton given that his appetites are far more in check.
But if, as is likely, he chooses the latter, he will polarize the country in a way not seen since 1968, set back racial relations to the 1960s, do to the reputation of big government what LBJ did from 1964 to 1968, and, in the manner of what Jimmy Carter wrought, turn voters off liberal foreign policy for a generation.
By Victor Davis Hanson:
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online