During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was billed as a cool rationalist — a sober and judicious intellectual so unlike the inattentive and twangy “smoke ’em out” George W. Bush, so rational in contrast to the herky-jerky and frenetic John McCain. Like Senator Kerry, our professor president now laments Americans’ descent into emotion. “Facts and science and argument does [sic] not,” our president moans, “seem to be winning the day.”
The largely academic intellectuals whom Obama brought into his administration promised to bring their erudition and logic both to reading public opinion and to providing commensurate winning solutions. Sympathetic liberal pundits also cited their own empirical thinking as proof of a scientific method that they find sorely lacking in the gush and rancor of talk radio, the Tea Party, and Fox News. But in its first 21 months, this administration has serially proved inept at analyzing public opinion, and seems instead governed by predetermined ideology that trumps basic empiricism.
It all started in January 2009, when a giddy Barack Obama failed to appreciate how he got elected. He concluded that his victory was proof of a radical shift to the left on the part of the American electorate. In fact, it was a combination of the novelty of the first serious African-American presidential candidate, a so-so McCain effort, the traumatic financial meltdown of Sept. 15, 2008, unhappiness with the Bush administration’s Iraq war, fawning media, an orphaned presidential election with no incumbent running, and Obama’s centrist campaigning that explained the near impossible election of a northern liberal, when kindred sorts such as Dukakis, Kerry, McGovern, and Mondale had all failed. The country clearly wanted a corrective to the big spending and borrowing of the Bush administration — and soon discovered that, instead, it was going to get a far larger second serving of it.
From the outset, European expansive government was the model for this administration. But a statist antidote to the financial crisis was a complete misreading of ongoing events at home and abroad. The Wall Street meltdown was a result of a two-decade-long state intervention in the mortgage industry. Big government had guaranteed lower-income Americans that they could buy homes they could not afford, while those who built, sold, or financed subsidized houses were aided and abetted by the con — assured of exorbitant government-backed profits with the ethical cover of helping the poor achieve home ownership.
In reaction, quite fabulously the Obama administration explained this government-backed Ponzi scheme in terms of popular distrust of private enterprise and a need for a radical expansion of government as a share of GDP — or, in the now-infamous quip of Rahm Emanuel, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” More ironic still, the implosion of much of southern Europe and the belt-tightening and cost-cutting of the European Union’s strongest economies offered ongoing proof that the redistributive state was unsustainable, at the precise moment we Johnny-come-lately Americans were rushing to embrace just that failed paradigm. The almost stealthy departure from the Obama administration of academics who so prominently guided our economic policy until recently — Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers — suggests that they wished to get out of fantasy town ahead of the reasoning posse that was bound to follow.
The same flight of logic explains the Obamians’ weird post-election political triumphalism about the first two years of unpopular legislation promoted or passed by the administration. The takeover of health care, passage in the House of cap-and-trade, bailouts, expansions of entitlements, and huge deficits should — given their low poll ratings — have been something to hide rather than parade. Yet Obama and his loyalists point to these very accomplishments as proof that a now unpopular administration should be proud of its unpopular record.
Of course, the American people did not see it that way, in the greatest outpouring of anger in any midterm election of the last 72 years. Apparently the voters liked very little of what Obama had envisioned for them — and felt that it didn’t take a political genius to increase government spending with borrowed money. Only a fabulist would keep bragging of a political legacy that led to political catastrophe. Two years of stasis and gridlock would have done better for the Democrats at the polls.
There also emerged an equally unhinged postmortem analysis that cited almost every cause of Democratic defeat — except the unpopular record of 2009–10 and the weak economy: The most visible and exposed president in American history had not “gotten the message out.” The inordinate loss of blue-dog Democrats in key swing congressional districts that are barometers of national opinion “proves” that the defeated Democratic incumbents there were not liberal enough. The referendum was supposedly a warning to both parties in general and Washington in particular — and therefore the loss of 60 or more Democratic seats in the House is analogous to the wave of public frustration that Obama rode into office in 2008. Again, the reasoning class clings to fantasy instead of the “facts and science and argument” that explain why all the House gains of 2006 and 2008 were wiped out at one stroke. Twenty-one months of Barack Obama’s vision proved more deleterious to Democrats than what six years of Iraq and the mortgage meltdown did to Republicans.
The list of mythologies could be expanded: A public furious over open borders and looming amnesty was supposedly frustrated about the lack of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the new euphemism for amnesty. The failure to act on unpopular promises like closing Guantanamo, trying KSM in a civilian court, and ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” apparently disappointed voters. Calling fellow Americans “enemies” and telling Republicans to sit in the back seat were symptomatic of Obama’s inability to rev up the base in partisan style.
What’s going on with this folklore? In a word, the Left appreciates that Barack Obama in 2008 was, for a variety of reasons, their best hope in a half-century to force a center-right country to embrace a liberal agenda. Everything now follows deductively from that premise. To the extent that the agenda fails and the Democratic Congress gets shellacked, exegeses must arise explaining that things could have been worse, that such a singular midterm rebuke is fairly normal, that the bipartisan statesman Obama might have erred by being too centrist, that the great communicator, in his zeal for quickly serving the electorate, ignored the more mundane arts of public relations and communication. It would be as if Bush supporters explained the president’s nosedive in the polls by his unwillingness to invade Syria and Iran or expand Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Perhaps Bill Clinton’s agenda got trounced in the 1994 midterm elections because voters were disappointed that Hillary had failed to deliver a promised single-payer federal takeover of the health-care system.
So the most logical explanation of the problem is the most shunned, given its ramifications for liberalism: Even with a young, charismatic African-American president who rode to victory on the unpopularity of Bush and of the war, on the upheaval on Wall Street, and with the aid of the media — with all that, in just 21 months Obama finds himself well below 50 percent in approval and his agenda incurring the largest midterm legislative losses since 1938.
In short, the truth is unbearable, reason fails, and the self-described rationalists have become fabulists.
— 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.