Politics & Policy

Obama versus Obama

Will the real Barack Obama (if there is one) please stand up?

There is little need any more to offer consistent opposition to Barack Obama, since he himself is already running hard against the many previous incarnations of Barack Obama.

The first one we met was Barack the radical progressive, in his primary campaign against Hillary. Then in the general election we were introduced to the centrist Obama, who promised to invade Pakistan if need be, called for an end to partisanship, and lectured about fiscal sobriety.

Then with congressional majorities, soaring public support, and obsequious media attention came the leftist ideologue President Obama, who tried to ram through a statist health-care regime, gobbled up private enterprises, and gave us Anita Dunn and Van Jones.

Now we are back to sorta centrist Obama, who is going to fight terror, not apologize any more to the Muslim world, and freeze spending rather than give us another $2 trillion in debt. 

These serial reset Obamas are quite astonishing even for a politician.

Take the examples of public advocate Obama’s once idealistic promotion of C-SPAN broadcasts of the health-care debate, and Obama’s current fiery lamentations over the Supreme Court decision overturning elements of the McCain-Feingold limitations on corporate campaign donations.

But Obama, the current reformer, seems to be railing at Obama, the cynical backroom organizer, who would never dare televise anything about his thousand-page health-care mess. Yet Obama II not only nixed Obama I’s repeated promises of C-SPAN debates, but outsourced his health-care bill to congressional insiders, who did more backroom-dealing, vote-buying, and quid-pro-quoing than at any other time in recent memory.

So there is no consistency even in the flip-flopping. Obama III as the sudden guardian of campaign-financing curbs is antithetical to Obama I, the rejectionist of any government interference. In 2008 Obama I destroyed the idea of public campaign financing of presidential elections. Indeed, in his efforts to raise a billion dollars of private money, Obama became the first presidential candidate in the general election in over 30 years to back out of public financing, an idea which is now more or less kaput.

So what is the present-day Obama III? Nothing and everything. We have no idea whether he is against corporate campaign contributions, given Obama I/IIs voracious appetite for them. Will he accept public campaign financing in the future? Only if his money machine stalls? Is C-SPAN necessary for or irrelevant to public debate?

Take also terrorism. Obama 1.0, the champion of civil liberties, based the entire foreign-policy side of his 2007–08 campaign on the notion of George W. Bush’s shredding the Constitution in his unnecessary War on Terror and his venture into Iraq. Obama at one time or another attacked almost every Bush protocol — e.g., renditions (“shipping away prisoners in the dead of night”), military tribunals (“flawed military commission system”), preventive detention (“detaining thousands without charge or trial”), the surge of troops into Iraq (“not working”), the Patriot Act (“shoddy and dangerous”). We were to have all combat troops out of Iraq by August 2010, and Guantanamo (“a legal black hole,” “a sad chapter in American history,” “a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus”) closed last week. Predator strikes, according to candidate Obama, recklessly terrorized civilians.

But Obama 2.0 seemed to be ignoring Obama 1.0. Our realist president embraced renditions and tribunals, still held terrorists in preventive detention, kept troops in Iraq, championed the Patriot Act, and apparently counted on Guantanamo to stay open. Three days after he took office Obama ordered our first reported Hellfire missile attacks inside Pakistan itself.

And Obama 3.0? His team renamed the War on Terror “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters,” dithered on troop escalations in Afghanistan, allowed his attorney general to go after CIA interrogators, gave the Christmas Day al-Qaeda would-be mass murderer his Miranda rights, and plans to try in a civilian court the architect of 9/11 a few blocks from where his evil genius led to the incineration of 3,000 Americans. But wait — Obama 3.0 has also belatedly expanded the war in Afghanistan, has vastly increased the controversial judge/jury/executioner Predator attacks, and is talking more about terror and less about the mythical achievements of the Muslim world. That’s quite an abyss to bridge — insisting that a known mass murderer like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gets his Miranda rights while blasting to smithereens suspected terrorists and their families in their living rooms in Pakistan.

Obama versus Obama versus Obama could be played out in almost any venue. In 2008 he was the candidate who, in response to the McCain-Palin “Drill, baby, drill” mantra during the energy-price spike, supported more drilling, expansion of nuclear power, and using all our energy resources. Then, in the euphoria of early 2009, it was to be cap-and-trade and the solar/wind vision of Van Jones. Now there is a nothing-and-everything energy policy, apparently depending on the polls and the price of energy at any given moment.

Candidate Obama warned that the “Bush deficits” would cripple his imaginative spending agenda. Yet President Obama damned the red-ink torpedoes and went full speed ahead into far greater deficits, resulting in an addition to the national debt of nearly $2 trillion in his first year alone. Yet reset-button Obama is already calling for a national commission to freeze (some) spending and “address” the spiraling deficit.

Two observations. First, there is a hazy pattern to the Obama tri-step: soar with progressive platitudes when there is no responsibility of governance; then as president slowly learn that a center-right country is not ready to blame itself for radical Islam or destroy the private-sector entrepreneurship that made America wealthy beyond imagination; and end up with an ad hoc, poll-driven policy of everything and nothing. 

The problem with Obama 1-2-3 is that progressives rightly feel betrayed and now see their once-in-a-century savior exposed as an inept triangulator, without the Machiavellian savvy of Bill Clinton or the input of Dick Morris.

Conservatives, however, who should appreciate that Obama is still fighting in Afghanistan and has kept the Bush anti-terrorism protocols, are enraged about the KSM trial, the Abdulmutallab mess, and the demagoguing about the CIA and Guantanamo. 

Second, this absence of consistency, of identity even, was entirely predictable —  given what the nation knew of newcomer candidate Barack Obama in the brief two-year period we were introduced to him.

He sermonized on purple-state America after compiling the most partisan record in the Senate. He talked of political and racial reconciliation, while assembling the most radically divisive cast of intimates imaginable — Bill Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, the Rev. James Meeks, Father Michael Pfleger, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He soared about a new transparency, but unlike rival McCain never fully released his medical records, his college transcripts, or the details of his Senate race.

If we do not know who Barack Obama is, that may be because Barack Obama does not know who Barack Obama is. Barry Dunham? Barry Soetoro? Barack Soetoro? Barry Obama? Barack Obama?

Is he the racial healer who called his own ailing grandmother a “typical white person”? The white middle-class prep-schooler, or the authentically African-American community organizer?

The hip, yuppie multicultural agnostic — or the devotee of the them/us wacky old-time religion of Trinity Church?

The working-class populist who ridiculed the culture of rural Pennsylvania?

The modern-day Cicero who needs a teleprompter?

The Harvard Law graduate and Chicago law professor who gets confused about everything from Cinco de Mayo to the number of states? The Chicago progressive who regularly voted present? The reformist Senate candidate whose rivals in both the primary and general elections mysteriously found their divorce records leaked?

By pleasing his immediate audience with his mellifluous rhetoric and clichés about his racial transcendence, Obama has always charmed his way up his cursus honorum. Why worry about the nonexistent record, broken promises, empty platitudes, and self-contradictions when his mesmerized audiences believed that he believed in them, and lapped up the inexpensive absolutions for their assorted past sins?

The only catch is that Barack Obama no longer navigates among gullible Ivy League deans, naïve philanthropists, and inept organizers and bureaucrats. No, he is running a country that still has millions of no-nonsense truckers, teachers, small-business owners, and general skeptics who don’t give a damn about either Harvard or Chicago. And in their eyes, after a year, the game is about up.

Yet in a weird sort of consistency, Obama remains what he always was. Whatever we choose to see in this glass mirror, he will sorta, kinda reflect our vision.

Obama is our first everything-and-nothing president.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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