By Sunday afternoon, the Gallup tracking poll showed a 17-point spread in the president’s approval rating — 38 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval. Such polls are fickle and can go up and down quickly, often depending on unwarranted and unfair perceptions and media hype, hinging on everything from hurricanes to killing bin Laden. That said, these recent abysmal numbers might suggest that for the first time, a considerable number of Americans are starting to be turned off not just by Barack Obama’s economic policies, but by Barack Obama himself. But why now?
The president’s latest Martha’s Vineyard vacation was a public-relations disaster, wholly unnecessary, and in part responsible for Obama’s most recent slide in the polls. Part of the problem was purely coincidental and no one’s fault: Who could have expected that while the president of the United States was resting on an exclusive private beach on a tony island on a calm August day, millions of Eastern Seaboarders around him would be engaged in a media-driven frenzy of emergency preparation and evacuation?
Yet most of the negative perception was the president’s own doing. For nearly three years, there has been something strange about the First Family’s ritzy getaway tastes. The annual Martha’s Vineyard rentals were bookended by First Family junkets to Vail, Costa del Sol, and Hawaii. The choice of venues spawned at least three problems for the president that have nothing to do with the First Family’s right, and indeed duty, to enjoy a little well-earned vacation time — or with the fact that other presidents have vacationed in nice places.
First, Obama’s fiery rhetoric (“fat-cat bankers,” “corporate jets,” “millionaires and billionaires,” “redistributive change,” “at a certain point you’ve made enough money,” etc.) has demonized the better off. Many successful liberal presidents do that, but they finesse the necessary fundraising and schmoozing with Wall Street zillionaires with tact and discretion. Bill Clinton was a past master at gluing a populist veneer atop his deep fascination with old money and hip celebrity. The Obamas are far clumsier in both their class-warfare boilerplate and their overt elite tastes, whose contradictions they apparently either miss or don’t much care about.
No doubt this August the presidential advisers, without a clue about life in Tulare or Des Moines, gave sycophantic pep talks to the Obamas not to listen to “right-wing talk radio” and just enjoy what they like to enjoy. Obama himself apparently is still confident that the media will always exempt his golfing in a way they never did Bush’s far less frequent putting. Michael Moore, after all, is not going to cut and paste a video clip of Obama on the fairway.
Yet some photos inevitably leaked out of the “redistributive change” statist at his $50,000-a-week rented estate, surrounded by “millionaires and billionaires” who could alone afford such rental prices, many of whom flew in on “corporate jets.” That disconnect appears to the American public as abjectly hypocritical. We all know that for the president to keep pushing his agenda of higher taxes, he will soon inevitably get back to bashing the rich. But we also assume that this time the public has seen the flip side of a one-eyed Jack and wonders, when the president hits up his Vineyard neighbors for campaign cash at his $20 million rented estate, whether he will first make sure that they are not “fat cats” and owners of “corporate jets.”
Even right-wing presidents, even in good times, know enough not to rub in too much the perks of being president. George W. Bush was pilloried for chain-sawing at “the ranch,” as if he were a counterfeit outdoorsman; but he still knew that his media critics suffered far more in his beloved nowheresville of Crawford than did he. The “Reagan Ranch” in the Santa Barbara Mountains was not really a ranch at all, but a rustic hovel, and the videos of Reagan in his early seventies, chopping wood amid burrs and stickers, with sweat spots under his arms, were not faked. In contrast, the elder Bush liked boating off his family estate in Maine — and was flayed for being a bit too happy with his seaside, preppie-sounding Kennebunkport mansion.
Timing poses a second problem, hurricanes apart. The United States is in the doldrums. The economic news — high unemployment, credit-downgrading, a ruined housing market, almost no growth, record debt, trillion-dollar-plus deficits, soaring fuel and food prices — is not just bad, but seems to be getting worse. Could not the president have gone home to Chicago for a week, followed by a weekend at Camp David — demonstrating in symbolic fashion to hurting Americans that their chief executive is cutting back on exclusive travel and amenities? Even Jimmy Carter knew enough to turn down the White House thermostat and put on a cardigan sweater when gas was hard to find. The misdemeanors of phony man-of-the-people photo-ops (the awkward, camouflaged John Kerry coming back from goose hunting) are usually far outweighed by the felonies of “I do what I want to do” overt elitism (the smug windsurfing John Kerry in spandex).
Finally, this summer’s golfing at Martha’s Vineyard has torn the curtain away from an image that Barack Obama has taken a lifetime to cultivate, to considerable advantage. He was decidedly a middle-class prep-schooler in Hawaii. He was not born into Clinton-like poverty. Occidental and Columbia are not Eureka College or Texas A&M. When Obama finally got some real money, he almost immediately bought a wannabe Chicago mansion and tried to enhance his grounds with help from Mrs. Tony Rezko. Nothing in Obama’s résumé suggests poverty — or disdain for elite enjoyment.
To square his apparently embarrassing middle-class circle, Obama has brilliantly manipulated some weird facets of American culture: Being not quite so-called “white,” and vocally left-wing, can mean that even a multi-millionaire has innate street credibility and can qualify for minority victimhood. The fact that Barack Obama is part Kenyan meant for many — and apparently for Barack Obama himself — that a record number of presidential golf outings, and Michelle’s Costa del Sol jetting, were still excused by the fossilized 1960s nexus between poverty, prejudice, and race.
Likewise, Obama (thanks to the two-decade tutelage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) does not talk like someone from Hawaii — at least not all the time. With some flair, he is able to turn on and off the slightly southern soaring cadences of the inner city (better than Hillary Clinton’s awkward attempts at clingers populism), both to reassure skeptical blacks of his racial solidarity and authenticity, and (as Harry Reid bluntly noted of the adroitly opportunistic diction) to remind his white liberal supporters that their efforts at penance really were genuinely well grounded. Again, in our upside-down world of race, a Clarence Thomas or a Condoleezza Rice, who grew up amid the authentic African-American struggle against Jim Crow, could never quite be as legitimately “black” as was Barack Obama (preppie, half-white/half-Kenyan), simply because liberal identity politics offers instant superficial authentication in a way real life cannot.
But this last in-your-face Martha’s Vineyard vacation was one too many even for our most adroit gymnast of identity and class politics: The public at last really does believe that Barack Obama, whatever his heritage or nomenclature, is an out-of-touch elitist who simply likes hanging out with wealthy people and shares their refined tastes, even as millions are out of work or broke. This summer all the old SEIU talk about “fat cats” and “corporate jets” has been reduced to a parlor game.
In short, this year’s vacation was a vineyard too far.
— 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.