Politics & Policy

Year One in the Age of Obama

How hope and change have fared thus far.

Does President Obama match up to Candidate Obama? Did the rise of the oceans begin to slow and our planet begin to heal? We asked friends of National Review Online to grade the president’s first year on the job.

LEE EDWARDS

Unlike Candidate Obama, President Obama is not so much audacious as cautious, not uplifting but enervating in his rhetoric, not non-partisan but partisan in his politics, not unpredictable but all too predictable in his prescriptions: “Got a problem? No problem, we the government have the answer.” All of which accounts for his sagging popularity and the rising tide of public protest evidenced in the town-hall meetings, tea parties, and results of this fall’s elections.

Obama the politician should be able to learn and adjust his governing strategy from these setbacks. But Obama the ideologue — the progressive in love with the chimera of efficient, effective government — may not be able to. He is close to imposing a government-led health-care system on the American people that has been a progressive goal for more than a century. He may not be able to resist making history with his plan, even if it severely impairs health care and strains the nation’s debt to the breaking point.

As for the GOP, some Republican leaders welcome the signs of rebirth and renewal at the grassroots, akin in some respects to the excitement generated by Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But other Republican leaders are wary of the fervor and what they cannot control.

America remains a center-right nation, but some Republicans seem to resent it. 

– Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON

The no more red/blue state candidate Obama has proven, in just ten months, to be the most partisan — as polls attest — and polarizing figure in the last 40 years of presidential administrations, trying to socialize medicine, raise income and FICA taxes, and restructure energy policy along European cap-and-trade lines. He’s demonized conservative protest and media, run unprecedented “gorge the beast” deficits, and surrounded himself with a highly partisan and angry fringe that includes Anita Dunn and Van Jones.

The great surprise is that the veneer of the healer came off so soon, and the Chicago hard-baller emerged to establish all sorts of us/them dichotomies: Fox/Limbaugh/Tea Partiers/Town Hallers/Republicans are now unthinking, uncaring, and sometimes racist; the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, doctors, insurance companies, the police, etc., are no more than greedy exploiters who do everything from unnecessarily take out tonsils to stupidly stereotype blacks; abroad a “Bush did it” manicheanism has reduced American foreign policy to little more than “We will make you like us as we remind you that we also hated Bush.”

I think the general idea is to ram through a hard-Left agenda before Obama’s approval ratings hit 40 percent and the centrist Democrats bail — with the understanding that in five years, questioning institutionalized Obamacare or cap-and-trade taxes will be as blasphemous as reviewing automatic COLA Social Security payouts is today.

One bright spot: After Candidate Obama’s demagoguing of the Patriot Act, intercepts, wiretaps, renditions, tribunals, and Predator strikes, and demonizing of CIA interrogators and Guantanamo, President Obama kept (and euphemistically renamed) almost all the Bush-era anti-terrorism protocols (he won’t meet the much-promised January 2010 shutdown of Guantanamo) — and as a result we continue to see inroads made against radical Islamists abroad and a number of terrorist plots broken up at home.

Republicans should be learning that instead of triangulating and seeking to ingratiate themselves as enlightened moderates, they need a strong, coherent alternative message that stresses the basics: balanced budgets; no more tax increases; energy exploration and development of more nuclear plants, natural gas, oil, clean coal, etc.; zero tolerance for congressional corruption; resolve in Afghanistan; strong national defense; confidence in American exceptionalism; an end to illegal immigration; and strict-constructionist jurists — all under the banner of restoring America’s confidence, fiscal health, international prominence, and reverence for its past.

What we are witnessing is unique — a hubristic president has misread the reasons for his victory. He sees his win as a mandate to move America hard to the left while caricaturing opponents. The result is a growing popular rejection of Obamism and all that it entails. He may well do for the Left what Jimmy Carter did — if Republicans can return to their principles, clean up their act, and stand for something other than business as usual in Washington.

 – Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.

R. J. PESTRITTO

When Barack Obama campaigned for president last fall, he vowed to “change” and even to “remake” America. There was ample evidence at the time that Candidate Obama had been heavily influenced by those with profound contempt for this country and its constitutional form of government. That President Obama has attempted faithfully to follow through on his campaign rhetoric should be surprising to only the cynical among us (who are always surprised to see campaign promises fulfilled), especially if we consider the absence in Congress of any significant check on the more radical aspects of his agenda.

Democrats said something else during the campaign that we should have listened to. With remarkable consistency, they identified themselves with progressivism and made clear that they aimed to revive the principles and policies of the Progressive Movement from the turn of the 20th century. Many assumed this to be mere rhetoric — “progressive” was simply thought to be a nicer way of saying “liberal,” which had become dirty word in American politics. But the Democrats clearly had more in mind, and have now pursued the main planks of the progressive agenda originally laid out by the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

That agenda was as clear as it was radical: Wilson and Roosevelt loathed the Constitution’s limits on federal authority and sought various ways to undermine them, sometimes through a direct frontal assault but more often through a creative or “living” interpretation of the Constitution’s language (think of how today’s Democratic leaders dismiss the slightest questioning of Obamacare’s constitutionality). They also planned for the national government to take on a much-expanded role in regulating society and private wealth by delegating significant discretionary authority to expert bureaucracies (think of our present TARP program and its progeny — and thank the Bush administration for helping to give the Democrats a running start).

The progressives assumed that in turning government in a new direction, they were tapping in to a new historical spirit and riding a wave of popular support. What remains to be seen for us is whether today’s Democrats are also riding such a wave, or if, instead, a popular backlash will render a different judgment.

– R. J. Pestritto holds the Charles and Lucia Shipley chair in the American Constitution at Hillsdale College. He is a senior fellow of the College’s Kirby Center and of the Claremont Institute.

JOHN J. PITNEY JR.

In a way, President Obama does match up to Candidate Obama. For anyone willing to look carefully, the 2008 campaign showed that he would speak of civility and unity while his crew engaged in hard-edged, polarizing tactics. After Bristol Palin’s pregnancy became public, for instance, he won praise for saying that candidates’ family lives were off-limits and that he would fire anyone in his campaign who spread rumors about the Palin children’s parentage. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, of course, was busy at the time doing just that, which didn’t prompt Obama’s staff to remove the samples of Sullivan’s writing it had re-posted to the official campaign site or prevent the president from quoting him in speeches. A week before his inauguration, Obama met with a group of center-left journalists that included Sullivan.

And family certainly wasn’t off-limits for Howard Gutman, a member of Obama’s national finance committee, who criticized Sarah Palin’s parenting. After the election, Obama made Gutman a trustee of his inauguration committee and then appointed him to be ambassador to Belgium.

Petty political warfare has continued. Earlier this year, the Obama White House directed an effort to demonize Rush Limbaugh. More recently, the staff has been waging a campaign against Fox News. In the beginning, some Republicans may actually have believed the president’s rhetoric about setting aside “the smallness of our politics.” Now they know that he didn’t really mean it.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.

MITCHEL A. SOLLENBERGER AND MARK J. ROZELL

During his campaign, Barack Obama said he would usher in a new era of open government. He attacked the use of the state-secrets privilege and condemned the Bush administration for its lack of transparency. He promised to negotiate health-care reform in public sessions on C-SPAN and post online for five days all bills under consideration by Congress. He also said that he would not hire lobbyists to write national policies in secret and declared none would “find any job in my White House.” 

Obama has largely ignored or bypassed many of these pledges. His administration has made state-secrets privilege claims to block the disclosure of information in judicial proceedings; prevented the full disclosure of White House visitor logs; negotiated health-care reform behind closed doors; refused to post legislation online for five days before signing; continued the practice of issuing signing statements; and delayed or at times failed to show the public the waivers his administration gives to former lobbyists so that they can work in the White House or federal agencies.

Instead of ushering in a new era of openness, Obama has followed many of the secrecy practices of previous administrations. Although most politicians fail to live up to the standards that they set during campaigns, Obama emphasized that he would promote meaningful change, and he repeatedly declared that he wanted the American people “to hold me accountable.”  

– Mitchel A. Sollenberger is assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University.

WILLIAM VOEGLI

The Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez often said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” One of the problems in trying to assess Barack Obama is that he has been such a lucky politician over the past six years that it’s still hard to know how good he is.

Obama leapt from the Illinois state senate, where he’d spent eight undistinguished years, to the U.S. Senate in 2004 because his most formidable Democratic and Republic opponents self-destructed. He became the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee because Hillary Clinton couldn’t organize and sell a presidential campaign any better than she could a health-care-reform proposal. And he became president because John McCain made the worst of a very bad political situation by running a campaign that had tactical chops but no strategy or understandable rationale.

It’s as hard to get a fix on the president’s political beliefs as it is to get a fix on his political skills. The Zelig-like Barack Obama fit into Jeremiah Wright’s congregation when establishing himself in a black district. Once his political ascent there was blocked, he acclimated to the Hyde Park ethos that regarded Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn as having picaresque but morally unproblematic pasts. He fit in with ethically flexible Chicago pols like Tony Rezko and Rod Blagojevich when he needed to build a political network for a statewide campaign. And, despite signals in 2008 that his time at the University of Chicago had left him conversant with and tolerant of arguments about what government couldn’t and shouldn’t do, he now fits in in Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman’s Washington. He has spent the last twelve months as their enabler, which is looking more and more like a role that will hasten the day that his luck runs out.

– William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World, and a contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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