After the election, dozens of op-eds — I wrote one myself — cautioned the president about second-term overreach, focusing on how either hubris or simple fate has seemed to do in most modern second presidential terms. The recent case histories are well known — Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica, Iraq/Katrina. And yet Obama apparently believed in the mythical “mandate,” or perhaps in his own messianic ability to create one where none existed.
Almost immediately, he reformulated the conditions of the “grand bargain” to mean few cuts, no real deficit reduction, and lots of ways of raising taxes — as he simultaneously outlined ambitious hard-left agendas (redefining the Second Amendment, de facto amnesty, a return to cap-and-trade, more “stimulus”). None of these initiatives had much chance of becoming law without substantial presidential investment in bipartisanship. Most of Obama’s favorite issues polled among the public at below 50 percent support.
But again, in good Sophoclean fashion, Obama felt that his unique 50.6 percent reelection victory, plus his own formidable powers of persuasion, would allow him to steamroll the opposition — or at least he would enjoy trying. Ideally, the Republican House either would shortly cave, given the president’s popularity and magnetism, or would be so discredited by its knee-jerk opposition that it would suffer a 2014 wipe-out that would return Obama’s politics to a pre–November 2010 golden age.
Although the 2014 midterm elections are unpredictable, neither historically nor empirically is there much support for such suppositions, which begs the question whether Obama even cared whether there ever were. Of course, Obama and the press talked of historic realignment, in the fashion of all reelected presidential teams, as he reinterpreted the minuscule fiscal-cliff “victory” as a grand referendum on far more to come. The inevitable result of such hubris is the appearance of nemesis. Stories abound about giving bundlers who raise $500,000 for Obama’s Organizing for Action group special access to the president, and there are ingenious ways of computing what the money saved by shutting down public White House tours could buy (e.g., how many tour days are worth a session with Tiger Woods, a ski junket to Aspen, a getaway to Costa del Sol, a stroll on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, etc.?). Or attention turns to Rand Paul’s Mr. Smith–like performance over drone attacks and American citizens, which had effects on both left- and right-wing bases — energizing the libertarian tea-partiers, while embarrassing the now-mute Bush-despising ACLU wing. Suddenly Obama understandably wishes to talk to the opposition in a way that he did not for the first four months after the election.
The truth is that the Obama “mandate,” like the “mandates” of past presidents, is already gone, if it ever existed. At precisely the time he should have been compromising, given the approaching train wrecks on the horizon, Obama went full speed ahead with the fiscal-cliff bluster, the sequester fiasco (replete with untruths about the origin and effects of the cuts), and some Pyrrhic appointments like the deer-in-the-headlights Chuck Hagel, the buskined John Brennan, and in-and-out Jack Lew. All had the effect of bringing more mediocrities into the Obama administration, while exposing the commander-in-chief as weak on Israel and a hypocrite in his Wall Street and civil-libertarian sermonizing. It was almost as if Obama picked the least impressive candidates imaginable in order to force the Republicans to oppose them and thus earn the wages of “obstructionism.” For Obama, the likelihood of stirring up controversies, not the candidates’ qualifications, seemed to drive the appointments.
What are those train wrecks on the horizon? Even before Obamacare is fully implemented, growing numbers of Americans are coming to fear it, because of the specter of higher taxes and higher insurance premiums, and hints of medical rationing. Americans will not be happy that their insurance premiums are going up, their care is eroding, and employers are cutting back on hours.
The burden of serial $1 trillion deficits and ever more regulations continues to be a drag on the economy. It really is one thing to owe $9 trillion and quite another to owe $16 trillion. We will soon feel the effects of higher income taxes on employers and the restoration of high payroll taxes on the middle class. We have reached the point where we become almost giddy when unemployment goes from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent. Success is having one single month of the Obama administration’s aggregate 50 months slightly lower in unemployment than the worst month of the Bush administration’s 96 months.
Abroad, even “Arab Winter” may prove a euphemism for just how badly Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria could end up. Outreach to Russia is a cruel joke. For some reason North Korea thinks it is funny to threaten to nuke the U.S. and South Korea. Iran is quietly grinning in Cheshire-cat fashion. Substituting Turkey for Israel as our special Middle East partner was inexplicable. China shrugs at the frequent U.S. sermons — puzzled as to why a debtor believes it can lecture its lender on global responsibility. It is old hat to say that we were warned about a looming moment of reckoning like Jimmy Carter’s in 1980, but it is true nonetheless.
Of course, there are sober compromises and solutions that would allow Obama to cut deals with the Republicans in the fashion of Bill Clinton after the 1994 elections. Reforming entitlements by upping the retirement age would fall more heavily on the older, more affluent population and would help the pro-Obama younger population. On immigration, he could agree to pathways to citizenship for the majority of long-term illegal residents while conceding the need to deport the minority who are not working and are habitually on public assistance, who have criminal records, or who have only recently arrived — while also making legal immigration ethnically blind and predicated on merit. On energy, Obama could green-light more natural-gas and oil production on public lands, which would be about as easy a way to help the economy as he could devise. Indeed, since Obama is already taking credit for increased fossil-fuel production that has occurred despite rather than because of his efforts, he should have no problem with opening up federal lands and claiming that he really did not.
Yet Obama is likely going to pass on all of those. It is almost as if he does not wish to have a conventionally successful second term — which is probably true, in that he apparently defines success very differently from the way even his congressional allies might. For Obama, the means — the perpetual campaign; the constant assault on “fat cats,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and the “Republican House” — are not merely justified by the ends, but are more satisfying than achieving them.
Indeed, the Obama modus operandi is based on a familiar constant over his time in the public eye: His “nontraditional,” post-racial persona, his youth, his teleprompted eloquence, and his spell over the media have convinced him that he can talk, pout, and tantrum his way to out-pointing others in lieu of concrete achievement. The thrill is found not so much in successful compromise as in perpetual acrimony and division. Think up a fantasy us/them wedge issue — millions of assault weapons slaughtering the nation’s youth, Latinos being deported while buying ice cream, the seas soon to lap over our cities, gay couples hounded by homophobic reactionaries, a nation of African-American victims like Trayvon Martin and Professor Gates in need of editorial support, the parents of tens of millions of children without sufficient food stamps or unemployment and disability insurance, planes falling out of the sky for want of federal air-traffic controllers — and then demonize the opposition, hit the campaign trail, and finally, exhausted, end up relaxing and golfing with the nation’s plutocrats and celebrities — until the next round of us/them theatrics.
For a soon-to-be post-presidential Obama, these psychodramas are expected to lead to a comfortable retirement and a lifelong reputation for uncompromising leftism among historians and sycophants. And for Obama, that may be enough. An undistinguished undergraduate record led to Harvard Law, where veritable non-productivity led to an offer of a law lectureship, where non-existent legal scholarship led to an invitation of tenure, even as an underachieving Chicago community-organizing career was deemed a success, a mediocre stint in the Illinois legislature was pronounced productive and a pathway to higher office, a brief nondescript interlude as a U.S. senator was declared substantial, a Nobel Prize was awarded for being there, and one successful election was about mythical “hope and change” and another about Mitt Romney’s elevator and his equestrian wife. Does anyone today note that Obama was a so-so Columbia student, a mediocre Harvard Law Review editor, a nondescript state legislator and U.S. senator, and a virtual Nobel Peace Prize winner — or is the consensus instead that he has compiled an impressive résumé?
Achievement is in both the contest and the symbolism of getting there, not in the accomplishment of anything after arrival.
For Obama there is not even “My way or the highway.” You see, the highway — not my way — was the point all along.