The burning question after the Massachusetts Senate election is whether the administration will respond by making a course correction to survive politically, by jettisoning its policy core and cleaning up its methods, or by “doubling down,” as President Obama has implied, and escalating the ideological and guerrilla war for direction of public policy. This was a referendum on the Obama administration, including health care, but not just health care. Even less was it just the rejection of an astonishingly unappealing candidate, predestined to glory as a trivia question. John F. Kennedy took that seat with lashings of his father’s money in an anti-Brahmin revolt against Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952, and was reelected by 864,000 votes in 1958. In the intervening years of Teddy Kennedy, the Democrats could have won with a candidate not confined to two legs and one head. This was less a wake-up call than a Te Deum for a dying and sweaty dream.
The president has three principal problems. He is well to the left of the public and of what he promised the voters in 2008, and his is an old, passé leftism — one that is authoritarian and deviously presented, and was discredited in this country decades ago; it featured the sort of nostrums that caused Bill Clinton and others to become “New Democrats.” Obama is increasingly perceived as having credibility problems and of being cold, cocksure, narcissistic, and intoxicated by what he modestly called “the gift” of his own articulateness. And, as president, he has been quite, and quite surprisingly, incompetent.
The administration bought wholly into the unproved claim that carbon emissions are causing global warming, but global warming has not, for the last ten years, been happening. The president padded around the Copenhagen global-warming conference trying to generate enthusiasm for $100 billion in annual transfers to the Mugabes and Chávezes, as well as the Chinese (the world’s largest carbon emitters), as conscience-alleviating payments for the carbon emissions of the economically advanced countries. America’s fellow culprits found less tangibly burdensome expiations. So will America.
Mr. Obama must have noticed that the science and the politics were wrong, and that the arithmetic was too. The whole concept, like his promotion of renewable energy, his cap-and-trade bill, his redesignation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and his pursuit of complete nuclear disarmament, is mad. It was a worthy encore to the president’s previous cameo appearance in the Danish capital, where his and his wife’s prodigies managed to bring Chicago in fourth in contention for the 2016 Olympics, out of four competing cities.
In foreign policy, engagement with Iran and North Korea, appeasement of Russia (over Georgia and missile defense), attempting to bully Israel and to deny that there was an agreement between the Sharon and George W. Bush governments over settlements, and siding with Chávez and the Castros in the Honduran crisis against constitutional democracy and America’s legitimate interests have all failed, practically and morally (at least in the absence of indiscernible, and unlikely, contrary intelligence).
There have been no initiatives to reform NATO, the U.N., the IMF — all in need of modernization — and there has been a regrettable delay in launching the long-promised and necessary measures to turn the Afghan operation into a success, while the U.S. and its allies have been milling about, losing ground and taking increasing casualties.
The fumbling over Guantanamo has been another fiasco, as Attorney General Eric Holder has acknowledged that it is an exemplary prison. But Obama has been entrapped by Teddy Kennedy’s unfounded identification of Gitmo with Abu Ghraib. The president’s reaction to the near disaster of the panties-terrorist in the skies over Detroit began with waffling from a Hawaiian luau, and gained altitude agonizingly slowly.
No one is audibly lamenting the retirement of George W. or throwing shoes at his successor’s head because he speaks in sentences, but this president is bestriding the world as a flake, kowtowing to the Mikado, apologizing for President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb, criticizing Roosevelt and Churchill’s uninclusive approach to winning World War II, and Churchill and Eisenhower for disposing of the pajama-clad hysteric Mohammed Mossadegh as head of Iran.
And instead of sending the Congress completed bills and drumming up public support for them, as legislatively successful past presidents such as FDR, LBJ, and Reagan did, he just rolls a Christmas tree into the Capitol Rotunda and invites Reid and Pelosi and their vacuum-cleaner committee chairmen to festoon it with their favorite pork baubles. Stealing the Alaska Senate election with the fraudulent prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens (since retracted), the Minnesota Senate election with the fraudulent recounts against Sen. Norm Coleman, and mounting the unchallenging seduction of Sen. Arlen Specter as he was circling the Republican-primary drain in Pennsylvania allowed Democrats to reach 60 in the Senate. This in turn enabled the public purchase of party loyalty, and the dismissal of sincere moderates like Sen. Olympia Snowe (whose furrowed brow is a mortal challenge to Botox), for a bad health-care bill that is not a reform. This was not what was thought to be meant by the slogan “Yes we can”; it is not leadership; and the people — even in Massachusetts — don’t like it.
It has been a year of fecklessness, amateurism, and posturing. Less that is useful has been accomplished by this president in his first year than was achieved by any president since Herbert Hoover, and he was ambushed by the Great Depression after seven months.
President Obama rose with astonishing speed from a more improbable sociological provenance than any of his 43 predecessors, an alumnus both of the genteel finishing school of Harvard Law and of the Chicago boiler room for hardball politicians. Neither his radical nor his sleazy connections stuck to him. He deftly made an unspoken arrangement to liberate white-liberal America from its guilt complex over historic treatment of African Americans, and to banish the down-market Al Sharptons, Jesse Jacksons, and Charlie Rangels as black spokesmen, in exchange for a one-way ticket to the White House. With this implicit, non-refundable offer in his back pocket, he almost effortlessly seemed to take the Democratic party away from the Clintons and rode the trends, the economy, and the sclerosis of his opponent’s campaign straight into the White House, with professional skill and elegance.
Withal, this president seems overwhelmingly confident, strangely detached, and, as Peggy Noonan — Ronald Reagan’s leading speechwriter, and now one of the leaders of the Obama Buyers’ Remorse Movement — wrote, “cold and faux eloquent.” He is fluent and sonorous, but rather vapid. And now, Maureen Dowd — foxy doyenne of New York Times columnists and pin-up girl of the D.C. Democratic establishment; niece of FDR’s top fixer; former co-leader, with Michelle, Caroline Kennedy, and Oprah Winfrey, of the massed, synchronized Obama cheerleaders — has apostasized, and reviled the president as a nasty egotist. When a Democratic president has lost Ms. Dowd and the Kennedys’ Senate seat, it is time to return to the drawing boards.
If the president has a Damascene rendezvous with the real wishes of the American people and turns the White House bowling alley into a cram-course charm school, he can be a popular and successful president yet. An excellent bipartisan health-care bill that really is a reform can still be had and would be hugely admired, especially after this debacle. If he wants to double down on what we have seen in the last year, he will leave the White House in a submersible in three years.
For all the claims that the Republicans are too influenced by religious zealots and country-club knuckle-draggers, the administration may be in the hands of “redistributive,” pacifistic Kool-Aid drinkers. If it is, the Republicans will have to elevate their 2012 presidential candidate this year. The office may, 213 years after the retirement of George Washington, actually seek the (wo)man, but not from what is conspicuously on offer now, from either party.
– Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedomand Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at [email protected].