Politics & Policy

Growing Worries about Our Pied Piper

Americans are catching on to Obama's fiscal sins and rhetorical devices.

Recent news that President Obama’s approval ratings are beginning to slip is understandable. Even popular leaders lose appeal once they have to govern, and therefore offend, rather than merely promise and please.

And so far, these fairly modest declines in popularity are not resulting in much Republican traction. Few opposition leaders have presented systematic, clear alternatives to the Obama agenda, and even fewer have been knowledgeable and charismatic in voicing them.

All that being said, I think the Obama presidency is going to encounter far more public skepticism than one would expect in the usual post-honeymoon political adjustments. Why? Because our president often acts and talks as if he were at war with what we might loosely call “human nature.”

There is a growing collective recognition that things simply do not work the way Obama thinks they do. They may in the hothouse at Harvard Law School or in the charade of Chicago politics, or among young, hip bloggers right out of Yale, but not necessarily in the larger American landscape or the real world abroad.

First, Obama’s budgetary agenda defies common sense. If it were true that the United States with impunity could borrow $2 trillion this year — and, in the aggregate, run up another $10 trillion in collective debt over the next eight years — then the rules of finance as we know them would be rendered null and void.

In truth, all that borrowed money not only will have to be paid back, but paid back with compounded interest through higher taxes and cuts to government services. And the more we borrow from ourselves and the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans, the more likely it is that the interest rates will climb — both because we will strain capital markets and because the current deflationary downturn cannot last forever.

The American people sense this. They assume that what goes up must come down. At times they themselves have splurged on their credit cards — and enjoyed the thrill of consumption that comes with borrowed money, or even the notion of magnanimity of helping others with someone else’s cash. But they likewise remember that mounting debt at some point overwhelms the borrower, who must either default or radically curb his standard of living. When voters hear that a broke government is talking of “a second stimulus,” they conclude that there is a collective madness in Washington.

Second, there is likewise a spreading feeling of doubt about our foreign policy. All Americans like to be liked — and like to think they are confident enough to admit mistakes. But Obama is beginning to be predictable, boring even, in his once sincere, but now serial apologies about America’s past and present — to almost everyone from Latin Americans and Europeans to Turks and Muslims in general. And why are we more worried about the feelings of a hostile Ahmadinejad than of a friendly Maliki or Netanyahu?

We already have come to expect a certain boilerplate theme, in which the president seeks to placate his hosts by confessing the errors of previous Americans. But the lawyer does not regularly apologize to his rival firm over courtroom disputes; the contractor does not routinely call up his competitor to confess to his own past unfair business practices that unduly won him the disputed contract; the principal, as a matter of habit, does not call in the teacher to show regret over his own theatrical exercise of influence and power.

In the perfect world of the university lounge, perhaps such noble things transpire. But most Americans suspect that gratuitous magnanimity can earn contempt as often as appreciation. Like serial borrowing, a tab comes due. And in the case of foreign affairs, we all sense that sometime soon, a rather dangerous thug or two is going to gamble that his aggression either will not or cannot be deterred by a remorseful and unsure United States.

Also, in emphasizing America’s alleged sins, Obama shows himself to be somehow oblivious to the simple fact that he enjoys such power and prestige as a U.S. president because someone, at some time, must have done something quite extraordinary. Surely there is more to America than slavery and Hiroshima. So many Americans are vaguely beginning to sense that Obama is simply ignorant of Valley Forge, the Oregon Trail, and Iwo Jima. What happened at these places seems absent from his knowledge of the past, and so fails to inform his present narrative of and future plans for the nation.

Third, the same sense of something not quite right is beginning to characterize Obama’s obsessive evocation of George W. Bush, the prior administration, the need to hit the reset button, the “mess” we inherited, and all the other blame-gaming themes that have been daily fare the last six months.

Most of us inherit jobs from someone else. Many of us think that we do a better job than our predecessors. And some of us also like to think we are cleaning up messes that others left. But such self-serving referencing has a brief shelf life. It becomes soon monotonous, then irksome, and finally repugnant. Obama is nearing that third stage of whining, when many Americans are beginning to bristle, and think privately, “Okay already. We’ve heard enough of your ‘he did it’ routine. Now snap out it, get a life, and take responsibility for the consequences of your own actions.”

Fourth, people often fail, not just because of the bogeymen “they” who “raised the bar,” but also due to their own actions. But too often in the world of Obama, max out on your credit card and it’s the fault of predatory banks. Default on your mortgage and you were tricked into buying more house than you needed. Choose to buy a cell phone or TV rather than make a monthly payment on a private catastrophic-health-insurance plan, and it is because you were neglected by government. Do not pay taxes, get a tax credit — but then still blame those “who do not pay their fair share.” In contrast, Americans sense that the world of debt and trust will not work without responsibility and personable culpability — and that often our problem is not just to be found in “them” — the duly chastised and arrogant Lords of the Universe on Wall Street — but sadly in “us” as well.

Fifth, novelty wears off. Bush’s tough right/wrong talk sounded welcome after the Clinton era’s indecision and moral relativism. But soon critics got bothered by the excess of “smoke ’em out,” “dead or alive,” and “bring it on” lingo, which emphasized rather than mitigated a certain unease with Texan braggadocio.

With Obama, the charm of last year is slowly wearing off. What once sounded fresh, even cool, is now suddenly predictable and sometimes trite. When we hear “Let me be perfectly clear” and “Make no mistake about it,” Americans suspect that some sort of dissimulation may follow: Obama is not going to be perfectly clear, and we will understandably make plenty of mistakes about it.

Disavowals of government intervention presage a takeover of the auto industry. Promises to be fiscally sober indicate reckless deficit spending to follow. “Not raising taxes on anyone but the very wealthy” suggests everyone will have to pay more. “The most ethical administration in history” guarantees plenty of lobbyists and tax dodgers.

We now expect to hear in these speeches that gargantuan, costly new federal programs will in fact magically save us money. We anticipate listening to a string of evil “some,” “they,” “others,” and all the other bad straw men cited to create false enemies and, in turn, fake heroes.

Presidential talks are to be peppered with a dozen first-person pronouns, as in “I have directed” or “my team is at work on.”

Obama’s personal “story” inevitably follows, as if Americans, after six months of daily reminders, did not yet know that their president is half African-American, grew up without a father, has a non-traditional background, comes from a family with Muslim connections on his father’s side, has an unusual name, possesses unusual insight into race and religion, or is himself a metaphor for a new, diverse America. In the fashion of the obligatory 19th-century log-cabin birthplace and bloody-shirt gallantry at Gettysburg, we get the message “I am not your white-male president.” Ten times I think would have been enough, and after a hundred occasions such self-referencing wears thin.

When the president’s tone, and indeed accent, almost magically change, and he abruptly goes into his southern-Baptist rhetorical cadences, we have a vague sense that his oration must end with the usual ruffles and flourishes of last summer — “hope and change” and “this is our moment” tropes, but delivered without the passion and sincerity of a year ago. The tunes of last year’s Pied Piper are no longer mesmerizing, but becoming sort of creepy and even ominous.

Finally, Obama seems to believe that the exalted ends justify the often questionable means. Having a Latina on the Supreme Court trumps Justice Sotomayor’s past racialist talk and writing. Landing a supposed genius like Timothy Geithner at Treasury excuses Geithner’s inability or unwillingness to pay his fair share of taxes. Becoming popular in the Muslim world invites fabrication about Islamic discoveries and inventions, or the conflation of Middle Eastern religious and gender felonies with American misdemeanors.

So the problem is not just that Obama, like Bill Clinton, is proving insincere, or like Richard Nixon, at times duplicitous. And the rub is not even that he, like Ronald Reagan on occasion, is showing a limited repertoire or, in the manner of the Bushes, is becoming predictable in speech and custom. Obama, like Jimmy Carter, earns the added injury that all wannabe prophets incur when they promise more than mortal purity while proving to an ordinary human in character.

Americans are waking up to the fact that their president says, promises, and does things that simply do not make sense, at odds with what they know of human physics — with the predictable nature of the way humans have conducted themselves for centuries: Borrowing is debt, not “stimulus”; serial apologies soon sound insincere or become counterproductive; blaming someone else becomes tiresome; scapegoating leads nowhere; taking responsibility for failure is as necessary as being praised for success; people can be fooled only so many times by sonorous, ego-laced rhetoric.

Because Obama is a revolutionary who seeks to overturn 50 years of doing business in America both at home and abroad, his shortcomings have the potential not only to diminish his own stature through unmet impossible expectations, but to take all those who signed on to his megalomania down with him.

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