The Obama narrative is that he inherited the worst mess in memory and has been stymied ever since by a partisan Congress — while everything from new ATM technology to the Japanese tsunami conspired against him. But how true are those claims?
Barack Obama entered office with an approval rating of over 70 percent. John McCain’s campaign had been anemic and almost at times seemed as if it was designed to lose nobly to the nation’s first African-American presidential nominee.
One-percenter magnates welcomed Obama. If Steve Wynn, Donald Trump, and Mort Zuckerman now blast Obama, just four years ago they seemed to have found him a relief from George W. Bush. Christopher Buckley and the late Christopher Hitchens openly endorsed him. Republicans like Colin Powell, Scott McClellan, and Doug Kmiec all went public with their support. One got the impression from what David Frum, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan wrote that with a wink and a nod they had welcomed his election. Never has a president entered office with so much goodwill from so many diverse quarters.
Rarely does a president enter office with a majority in both the House and the Senate. Not only did Obama do so, but his soaring ratings put enormous pressure on the Republican minorities to join the Democratic majorities. Liberals were talking about a new era of Democratic political dominance.
No prior president had such a supportive media. Sometime in mid-2008, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, PBS, NPR, AP, Reuters, and hundreds of other mainstream voices had decided that Barack Obama was not just a liberal Democrat whom they would tilt toward, but a messianic figure for whom they gladly sacrificed the last ounce of disinterested coverage.
The financial collapse was four months in the past when Barack Obama took the oath of office, and its immediate aftershocks had been addressed with the October 3, 2008, TARP stabilization protocols. Obama’s chorus simply blamed the entire panic on George Bush; and the idea that government guarantees from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — which the Democrats had backed — had ensured huge loans for the unqualified to buy homes at inflated prices was mostly ignored. The recession was finishing its second year and would end five months into the Obama administration, in June 2009. The stock market had mostly stopped falling before Obama took office. In other words, Obama entered office with all the blame for the bad economy going to his predecessor and with the end of the deep recession in sight.
The president’s own racial heritage was said to be emblematic of the new racial healing. Indeed, it was promised that race itself would become incidental rather than essential to the nation’s persona. Advisers and Cabinet officers like Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, Hilda Solis, Ken Salazar, Van Jones, Steven Chu, and Hillary Clinton were said to “look like America” far more than the old white guys of the past.
Abroad, the unpopular war in Iraq was quiet after the successful surge, and agreements were already concluded about the withdrawal of U.S. forces; in Joe Biden’s words, the war in Iraq had the potential to be “one of the great achievements of the administration.” Everyone had forgotten that Obama himself had urged a unilateral withdrawal as early as March 2008. Afghanistan was still the “good” war but the one where, as Representative Steny Hoyer put it, “We took our eye off the ball”; during the campaign Obama and other Democrats promised to win it.
Most Americans believed Obama when he made the argument that our current problems abroad had mostly started with George Bush and would end when he left. Iran and Syria were said to be hostile only because they had been gratuitously alienated by Bush. Ditto Putin’s Russia. Our battles with the U.N. were said to be over, as multilateralism was trumpeted as the new cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy — a loud boast sure to win even more goodwill both from allies and from neutrals that had been turned off by the twangy Texan Bush. Just as Obama had wowed thousands at Berlin’s Victory Column, so he would win over the world, as his first interview with Al-Arabiya presaged. Obama was shortly to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the theory of what he represented rather than the facts of what he had done.
Many claimed that Obama was the “true conservative,” as he blasted Bush as unpatriotic for piling up $4 trillion in debt and promised to cut the annual deficit in half by the end of his first term. We heard all sorts of bring-us-together rhetoric: a new bipartisanship, a new civility, a new transparency, a new campaign ethos, a new everything — coupled with lots of “no mores”: no more earmarks, no more revolving doors, no more former lobbyists in government, no more serial fundraisers on the government dime.
Obama had the luxury of enjoying the security benefits that had accrued from George Bush’s controversial protocols like Guantanamo, renditions, military tribunals, preventive detention, intercepts, wiretaps, and drone hits, while not having his own signature upon them. The result was surreal, as Obama embraced or expanded all of what he had earlier blasted as unconstitutional or superfluous — to the sudden quiet of a once-raucous civil-libertarian Left. Somehow Obama managed to blame Bush for providing him with the vital measures that he damned even as he utilized them.
Even stranger was a revolution in oil and gas exploration that seemed to coincide with the Obama inauguration. Obama had the best of both worlds: He took office when gas was below $2 a gallon — saving the nation billions of dollars — and when the novel techniques of fracking and horizontal drilling had just tripled known U.S. reserves and promised to offer a godsend of new energy on federal lands.
In other words, the future seemed to be all Barack Obama’s. Bill Clinton’s second term offered an easy blueprint of what bipartisan centrism might achieve. Balance the budget and create jobs, and the nation will forgive anything, from lying under oath to romancing an intern in the Oval Office.
And what happened?
Barack Obama chose to ram down the nation’s throat a polarizing, statist agenda, energized by the sort of hardball politics he had learned in Chicago. Rather than bring the races, classes, and genders together, he gave us an us-versus-them crusade against the “1 percenters” and the job creators who had not “paid their fair share,” accusations of a Republican “war on women,” and the worst racial polarization in modern memory. Statesmanship degenerated into chronic blame-gaming and “Bush did it,” as he piled up over $5 trillion in new debt. Financial sobriety was abandoned in favor of creating new entitlement constituencies, and job creation was deemed far less important than nationalizing the health-care system.
And so here we are, three weeks before the election, with a squandered presidency and a president desperately seeking reelection not by defending his record, but by demonizing his predecessor, his opponent — and half of the country.
What, then, was Obama’s first term?
Jimmy Carter’s ends justifying Richard Nixon’s means.