No one imagined that Barack Obama, during his first nine months in office, would be falling in the polls even faster than George W. Bush did prior to 9/11. We all knew what Obama’s weaknesses were as he came into office — a lack of experience in foreign affairs, little knowledge of how private business works, and poor judgment concerning the extremist company he had kept in the past.
But given the unhappiness over the war, the September 2008 financial meltdown, the animosity toward Bush, and the lackluster Republican campaign, millions of moderates and conservative Democrats were willing to give the unconventional Obama a chance.
Voters wanted political change — anything other than the status quo. They warmed to the idea that in their generation America would elect its first black president. When the most partisan member of the U.S. Senate started sounding like the least partisan, they believed him.
There was a sense of reassurance that Obama was a healer. He was a transcendent figure that would bring us together at home and make us better liked, and perhaps thereby more secure, abroad. People assumed that his easy rhetoric was not a result of studied preparation or superficial style, but a natural reflection of honesty and sincerity. So Obama was elected and enjoyed quite a 90-day honeymoon in an atmosphere of promised transparency and togetherness. A “god,” a Newsweek editor called him.
Now nearly half the country is not merely distrustful of him, but increasingly viscerally angry at him as well. Actually, “him” is a construct: At times there seems to be no “him.” Instead, the people don’t know whether the kindly Dr. Barack is their president, or his unpredictable double, Mr. Obama.
They never expected the president to show mastery of economic affairs or reveal much expertise in matters abroad, and accordingly were not disappointed when he did not. His critics concede that he inherited two wars and a dismal economy, though they argue that he may be making these bad situations far worse.
Instead, the real anger from independents arises over disappointment, false merchandising, and hypocrisy. It is real and deep — as is true of any animosity that arises from a sense of betrayal of former trust. You see, it took millions of Americans months of fair and judicious examination to conclude that Obama’s real weaknesses were his once-advertised strengths: He seems not a healer at all; he is not particularly sincere; and he is not especially veracious. Someone other than the man who ran for president is sometimes occupying the Oval Office: The present Mr. Obama looks and sounds like the old Dr. Barack, but he surely does not act anything like the candidate who persuaded America.
When thousands of loud protesters went to tea parties and town halls, the people wanted the self-advertised purple-state Obama, the old organizer, in good nature to laugh that he was being out-organized — not to unleash lackeys to call the concerned activists mobs and brownshirts. When the crude Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” the people wanted their transcendent Obama to remind us all that we should not sound off like either a Joe Wilson or a Van Jones, if we wish to engage in responsible debate. Instead, Obama went back into campaign mode, alleging fabrication on the part of his opponents, even as he fabricated many of his own talking points.
Health care would prove to be Obama’s perfect storm, bringing out all of these disturbing revelations at once. In serial fashion, Obama has accused his opponents of lying and distortion — and yet himself still cannot clearly demonstrate in detail whether our existing health plans will change, whether illegal aliens will be included in his reform, how we are to pay for this new entitlement, and why there is need for revolutionary change in the next 60 days.
Obama has given us several figures on the number of uninsured; they change weekly. There was to be a public option; now there is not; and then there is sort of not one. He knows no more than we do what exactly lies hidden in a 1,000-page plan.
Tort reform? Perhaps; but not likely; or is it suddenly kind of? A bigger deficit? Not by a dime — as if more people can get better coverage (remember no rationing!) at less cost. Billions in waste and fraud will soon be saved to pay the costs — if so, why not right now and banked instead?
In almost every statement on health care, Obama uses the conditional or optative mood (may, could, would, should, etc.). And for good reason: When he resorts to the indicative mood of fact he is rarely being fully truthful. The problem is existential: The American people like their health-care system and want it at most only tweaked. All the invocations of God, threats, distortion, and assigning of guilt over the dead to come cannot make them accept in a democracy what they do not trust or want.
Obama worked hard abroad to be liked, but it was a funny sort of charm offensive. He insulted the British in a variety of gratuitous and trivial ways, from poor gift giving to sending the bust of Churchill unceremoniously home. Democratic Israel is hardly an ally any longer. The constitutional government of Honduras is bullied, apparently because it acted in a constitutionally sober, but conservative, manner. The Eastern Europeans, traditionally among America’s staunchest friends, were strangely shorted in order to curry favor with the thuggish Vladimir Putin.
To soothe the anger of the Islamic world, our sins were magnified, those of the Muslim world understated — and over 1,400 years, no less. The new president defamed his predecessor so often and to such a degree that even Obama’s supporters politely urged that he move on and get a life. When the ahistorical president indulged in historical reference, the result was analogous to a George W. Bush offering tutorials on rhetoric and oratory.
All this, the American people put up with on the expectation that Obama’s new directions, his stately apologies, and his airing of American sins and blunders would win over our enemies. Yet the exact opposite has followed.
Iran is more bellicose than ever. It is emboldened by its unchecked progress in getting the bomb and by the ease with which it strangled a democratic reform movement, ignored by Obama himself. What ally wishes to join risky embargos and boycotts when at any moment Obama might cut their legs out from under them with yet another video or valentine sent to Tehran?
Hugo Chávez is following suit. He grasps that the nuclear finagling that works for Iran can serve another dictatorial oil exporter just as well. If Iran is going to be the regional nuclear hegemon of the Persian Gulf, why not its friend Venezuela in Latin America?
No one knows what is going on with North Korea. But we assume that it is not disappointed with America’s move away from missile defense or with a new trade war with our creditor China. It is not clear that the key governments of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan are any more pro-American now than they were in the days of Bush. Many may privately have preferred to safely caricature reliable old “smoke ’em out” and “dead or alive” George W. Bush than run the present risk of soaring along with “hope and change” and “this is our moment” Obama among the Iranians, Koreans, Syrians, and Venezuelans. In other words, Obama the healer has in kindly fashion estranged many of our friends and, by intent or not, encouraged our enemies.
Did Obama at least achieve togetherness on matters of race? A year ago most Americans thought his long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his “typical white person” slur, and his crude stereotyping of rural Pennsylvanians were understandable aberrations, not revelations into the candidate’s inner character. Indeed, they expected the soft-spoken Obama to be a liberal version of Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell: Matters racial would be incidental, not essential to the presidential worldview.
But the president, in just nine months, has managed to ensure that race is on the verge of becoming more problematic than at any time in the last twenty years. As the president’s polls dip, his supporters — scan the week’s network news shows — cry out “racism” on spec, although empirically they have not made the case that the opposition to Obama is any more virulent than what was unleashed against Bush. Most, in fact, assume that what the Left did to Bush — mainstreaming hatred in respectable venues like Hollywood, The New Republic, Alfred Knopf, or MSNBC — the Right has not even approximated. I do not recall anyone suggesting that the Left’s often visceral anger at Condoleezza Rice revealed its own racism.
Instead, through a series of incidents, Obama himself has alienated — perhaps permanently — millions of swing voters. He need not have commented on a minor incident involving Professor Gates at Harvard. Instead, the president pontificated on racial stereotyping and accused the local police of acting stupidly. Most people of all races disagreed, and felt that Obama’s friend had himself gratuitously insulted the officer and played on his position and contacts to construct a dramatic and self-serving “teachable moment.” Would the president now editorialize on all, some, or no more publicized racial confrontations?
Obama appointed a racialist to a White House position. When it was revealed that Van Jones had alleged that white people were racial polluters and were more likely to commit Columbine-like massacres in schools, Obama said not a word in opposition to his venom — akin to his initial ambiguity over the revelations about his own crude pastor.
When the New York governor and a number of prominent House Democrats — most notoriously the ethically challenged Rep. Charles Rangel — played the race card, Obama voted present and said not a word. Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, accused his fellow countrymen of being cowards, because of their alleged reluctance to discuss race under the only conditions that Holder would consider fair. None of these incidents alone was important; but collectively they confirmed doubts from last year’s campaign.
So now we are reduced to a new polarization in which African-American elites are portrayed as more racially sensitive than ever, and quicker to allege bias as the first explanation of discontent. Indeed, a melodramatic congressman has now charged that we are back to the days of night riders in sheets harassing African Americans.
In turn, there is a new simmering on the part of the working classes, as they hear ad nauseam replays of the vulgar Van Jones anti-white accusations, and as they wonder whether the unseemly outbursts — splashed 24/7 on the Internet — of the prominent and successful Serena Williams and Kanye West (who has a history of racial polarization) are emblems of America’s new racial anger and coarseness. All that leaves them confused — and increasingly angry themselves that their healer is more part of the problem than the solution.
Why is Barack Obama sinking in the polls in a fashion beyond the easy remedy of more hope-and-change elixirs?
The people were willing to overlook his weaknesses, given his obvious strengths. But when after months of fair examination they concluded his purported plusses were even greater liabilities than his flaws, they began to see him not merely as unimpressive, but perhaps even as unappealing — to a degree we have not seen often during the first year of a presidency.
Obama’s real problem is not conservative rabble-rousers at town halls or Republican activists. Rather, it is the Democratic rank and file. They may rewarm with an improving economy, but for now they are discovering that just as Obama could take them individually to great heights last fall, so too he could soon bring them down collectively to unprecedented depths.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.