Ex-president George W. Bush with accustomed candor once shrugged after the end of his eight-year presidency, “People were kind of tired of me.” That ennui happens eventually with most presidents. But in the case of Barack Obama, our modern Phaethon, his fiery crash is coming after 32, not 96, months.
We can sense the national weariness with Obama in a variety of strange and unexpected ways. There is the self-pitying anguish of liberal columnists who scapegoat him for turning the public against their own leftwing agenda. The current silence of “moderate” Republicans and conservative op-ed writers who once in near ecstasy jumped ship to join Obama is deafening. A growing number of Democratic representatives and senators up for reelection do not want their partisan president to visit their districts in the runup to November 2012. Approval ratings hover around 40 percent.
Perhaps strangest of all, there is now a collective “Been there, done that” any time Barack Obama walks up to the podium to give yet another teleprompted speech. The speeches still are well delivered; he still has a way with the mannerisms and cadences. But even his critics pray for his sake that he does not come out with yet another embarrassing “Let me be perfectly clear,” “Make no mistake about it,” or “Let’s be honest” — as he goes back to bashing either the tired Bush bogeyman or yet another strawman Satanic reactionary who, if not for Barack Obama, supposedly would expose children to mercury, neglect roads and bridges, and finally dissolve government altogether. We have all heard ad nauseam
that an eight-month-old Republican-controlled Congress has stopped Obama’s legislative agenda for three years.
In truth, Obama is out of arrows. His quiver is bare, because he came into office as a rhetorical president without much experience or any ideas other than growing even bigger a tired big government. And now the public realizes that both the speeches and the big spending do not work. The result is that we collectively know what the president cannot any longer say — and it proves far greater than what he can say. He is well past the point of Jerry Ford’s WIN buttons or Jimmy Carter’s fist-pounding malaise speech.
Obama cannot jawbone interest rates down — they are already at near-zero on passbook accounts. Obama cannot ask the EPA to shut down any more powerhouses or the NLRB to try to close any more new manufacturing plants. Obama cannot really ask for any more big borrowing programs — not after running up $5 trillion in new debt and getting little economic activity in response. The bogus vocabulary of “stimulus,” “shovel-ready,” and “investments” provokes laughter; it does not ensure an unemployment rate no higher than 8 percent. He cannot, with a straight face, appeal to the collective wisdom of Geithner, Goolsbee, Orszag, Romer, and Summers — or quote the predictable shrillness of Paul Krugman on the need for ever greater debt. Those academic arrows were long ago shot in vain. In truth, every classical Keynesian remedy has been tried, and we are left only with the hard work of trimming regulations, talking up business, producing more fossil fuels, and returning to budget discipline, thrift, greater productivity, and radical reform of the tax code and entitlements. What Obama might say on all that, his ideological training and shrinking base will not allow him to say — as we saw from his shunning of his own Simpson-Bowles commission.
Obama cannot give one more speech on “civility.” He has done that for three years — only to violate his own directives by urging voters to “punish” our “enemies” and demonizing those who make over $200,000 as culpable “millionaires and billionaires,” “fat cats,” and owners of “corporate jets.” To oppose Obama is to be a “hostage” taker. The nation got Obama’s accustomed calls to cool the partisan invective while Jimmy Hoffa and Maxine Waters were slurring tea-party members as “son of a bitches” and telling them to “go straight to Hell” — confident that Barack Obama’s collective morality does not apply to them. The result is that another appeal to “civility” would now at best earn laughter.
He cannot promise a “summer of recovery,” not after chronic 9 percent unemployment, soaring food and fuel costs, a herky-jerky stock market, near-zero growth, record deficits and debt, and the downgrading of the nation’s credit. Perhaps Obama could promise us relief of only a $1 trillion annual deficit, a return to 8 percent unemployment, $3-a-gallon gas, a steady GDP growth rate of 2 percent, holding the debt at $16 trillion, and opening a single new oil field.
Nor can Mr. Obama any longer call for “millions of green jobs.” Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s personnel adviser, cannot any longer purr out, “Oooh. Van Jones, alright! So, Van Jones. . . . We were watching him for as long as he’s been active out in Oakland.” Between that silliness and today, there have been just too many hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in subsidizing “green” sweetheart deals that ended in bankruptcies. More calls to buy government-produced Chevy Volts I don’t think would work.
Obama cannot promise to close Guantanamo or try KSM in Manhattan. Nor can he even continue the demagogic attacks on the Bush-Cheney national-security protocols — not when he embraced and expanded them all. In 2012 his commercials will highlight killing bin Laden in Pakistan, not closing Guantanamo or ending Predator-drone attacks. And yet, neither can Obama’s team speak any longer of “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters.” He is between the rock and the hard place of both caricaturing and adopting the policies that work when they were alleged not to work — so he is quiet on that count too.
His address to Congress last week went nowhere. It was hyped well. It was delivered well. It was comprehensive. But Obama had nothing to say that we have not already heard from him — and that has not already failed or proved to be hypocritical.
When the quiver is empty, the archer puts his bow away. Silence, not “This is our moment,” is the wisest course for Barack Obama now that the arrows are all gone.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.