In 2008, a mostly unknown Barack Obama ran for president on an inclusive agenda of “hope and change.” That upbeat message was supposed to translate into millions of green jobs, fiscal sobriety, universal health care, a resetting of Bush foreign policy, and racial unity.
Four years later, none of those promises will be themes of his 2012 reelection campaign. Gas has more than doubled in price. Billions of dollars have been wasted in insider and subsidized wind and solar projects that have produced little green energy.
Unemployment rates above 8 percent appear the new norm, when 5 percent in the past was dubbed a “jobless recovery.”
From the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, the world seems on the brink. Modern racial relations are at a new low.
If borrowing $4 trillion in eight years was “unpatriotic,” as Obama once labeled George W. Bush, no one quite knows how to term the addition of $5 trillion in new debt in less than four years. Obamacare is unpopular with the public. Its constitutionality now rests with the Supreme Court.
After four years, the claims of “Bush did it” and “it might have been worse” grow stale. So reelection will rest not on a new agenda, or an explanation of what happened, but on a divide-and-conquer strategy. Translated, that means Obama will find fissures in the voting public over fairness, expand them, and then cobble together various angry partisans in hopes of achieving a bare majority. Such an us/them strategy is not new in American history.
There are suddenly new enemies called the “1 percent” — those who make more than $200,000 per year and who “do not pay their fair share.” Apparently, in a zero-sum economy, this tiny minority has taken too much from the majority and thereby caused the four-year lethargy that followed the 2008 meltdown. Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all ran, with varying success, against the selfish “rich.”
Congress is also now a convenient enemy of the people. Although it was Democratically controlled in Obama’s first two years, and the Senate remains so, the new theme insists that a Republican House stops the Democrats from finishing all the good things they started. When support for 16 years of the New Deal had evaporated by 1948, Harry Truman ran successfully against a “do-nothing” Republican Congress that had blocked his own big-government “Fair Deal” follow-up and thus supposedly stalled the economy.
In 2009, Obama pushed through his health-care plan by a narrow partisan margin in the House, despite constitutional questions about the individual mandate. Now, as the Supreme Court seems skeptical of the legality of Obamacare, the president seems to be running against “unelected” justices. That could work too. In 1968, Richard Nixon squeaked by Hubert Humphrey in a divisive campaign, in part by lambasting the activist Earl Warren Court that had done everything from outlawing school prayer to supporting school busing.
Team Obama has seized on the Democrats’ allegations of a “war on women,” waged by both Republican and Catholic grandees against federal subsidies of birth control. For the first time since the campaign of John F. Kennedy a half-century ago, the role of the Catholic Church in politics is suddenly a landmark issue.
The president faults “Big Oil” and tension in the Middle East — not his own failure to develop vast new gas-and-oil reserves on public lands — for high gas prices. Jimmy Carter likewise blamed greedy oil companies and the Middle East in 1980, after gasoline prices spiked and lines formed at filling stations.
Suddenly, after the Trayvon Martin tragedy and what may prove to be murderous white vigilantism in Oklahoma, race again looms large. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have weighed in often on that issue. The former castigated police for acting “stupidly” in one incident, and more recently reminded the nation of the racial affinities between himself and Trayvon Martin. The latter blasted the nation’s reluctance to discuss race as cowardly, and alleged racial bias among his own congressional overseers. Race is always an explosive wedge issue. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran successfully in part on the need to expand civil rights, while in 1968 Richard Nixon found traction in the backlash against racial violence.
If Obama can cobble together disaffected young people, greens, women, minorities, and the poor — who all believe some nefarious “they” have crushed their dreams — then massive debt and deficits, high unemployment, sluggish growth, and spiraling gas prices won’t decide the election.
Lots of presidential candidates have run by identifying such enemies of the people, rather than debating the general state of the nation — sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
But the problem with an us/them strategy is not just winning an election, but trying to put back together what was torn asunder.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author most recently of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected] © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.