In 1964, Barry Goldwater gave an uncompromisingly conservative and liberty-loving speech to the Republican National Convention. A reporter in the audience couldn’t believe his ears. “My God! He’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”
I had a similar reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union address.
For all the talk of how he needed to “pivot” to the center, the Obama we saw was the same Obama who ran for president and the same Obama we’ve seen over the last year. His White House is so deep in their own bunker they could sustain a Dresden-style carpet bombing without even hearing the dishware rattle. For instance, leading social scientists with the most sophisticated statistical tools concluded that Scott Brown’s election was like a slap in the face with a wet, semi-frozen flounder. Yet the White House’s response is to claim that a vote for Brown, who promised to derail Obamacare, was really a vote for . . . Obamacare.
But it’s not just the fact that Obama has dug in or “doubled down” on his unpopular agenda that reminded me of the Goldwater story. It’s the fact that Obama is running as Obama.
Since taking office, Obama has continued to see the presidency as the perfect perch from which to campaign for a job he already has. The solution to every problem the White House runs into is “more Obama.” Much of this stems from Obama’s own arrogance. When people disagree with his health-care proposals, it is because they don’t really understand them or because they are misdirecting their anger at him. When Rep. Marion Berry (D., Ark.) warned the president that the 2010 midterms were shaping up to be a replay of the 1994 Republican tsunami, Obama reportedly told him that there was one important difference between then and now: “Me.”
In his State of the Union, the president waxed eloquent about the baleful climate of what is commonly called the “permanent campaign” mindset in Washington. This was an interesting line of attack from a man who has never disbanded his campaign operation, Organizing for America, and who responded to the Scott Brown election by bringing his campaign manager into the White House.
“Doubling down” is a popular phrase in Washington these days to describe Obama’s insistence on sticking to his guns — on health care, cap-and-trade, and incontinent “stimulus” spending. But doubling down is the wrong term. In blackjack, you can only double down once. What Obama is doing is letting it ride. The self-proclaimed pragmatist refuses to adjust a bet he made long before the financial crisis or his presidency even began.
Obama campaigned on an agenda that he believed made sense before the financial crisis and the onset of a steep recession. When circumstances changed, Obama did not. The financial crisis “proved” that we needed the same policy prescriptions. And so, for the last year, the president has pushed health-care reform when Americans were interested in jobs and economic growth. He’s pushed a Keynesian spending binge that has had little to no effect on economic health but has been a bracing tonic for Democratic constituencies.
Obama came into office with stratospheric poll numbers and supposedly unstoppable majorities in both houses of Congress. The press has given him every benefit of the doubt, quickly propping him up after every stumble. The Beltway bureaucracy and intelligentsia have swooned like teenagers for the man. He has given more speeches, lectures, press conferences, and tutorials on his policies than any president in modern memory. In response, independents have abandoned him, conservatives have steeled their resolve against him, and liberals have lost faith. And yet, like the drunk in a bowling shirt at the craps table who insists his losses don’t disprove his “system” for winning, Obama stands behind his bet.
So what was Obama’s bet? He believed that he was elected to usher in a new progressive era, a new New Deal. Unfortunately for his wager, every significant election since November 2008 has refuted the sagacity of this gamble. In New Jersey, in Virginia, and even in Massachusetts, voters have said that this is not the change they were looking for. The rosy scenario for Democrats is that they will “only” lose 20 to 30 seats in the coming midterm elections. If we were at the dawn of a new New Deal, you would expect voters to be ratifying Obama’s actions. That’s what they did for FDR. Not so for BHO.
And yet there the president stands, mocking his opponents and the ignorant rubes who don’t understand his system as he says in word and deed, “Let it ride.”
– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.