Obamism was repudiated in the midterm election. Not since 1938 has the Democratic party lost so many House seats. The losses of state legislatures and governorships were as bleak for liberals. Obama’s frantic campaigning in the last two weeks before the election did little to stop the tide, but did much to remind the country how easily the president reverts to a natural partisanship and divisiveness. Nancy Pelosi’s promise to “drain the swamp” of congressional corruption ended four years later with a disgraced Charles Rangel offering up the Magna Carta as a defense of his ethics violations. The congressional elections of 2012 could be just as depressing for liberals, given the greater exposure of Democratic incumbents. George W. Bush now polls roughly even in approval ratings with Barack Obama, who has neither the political experience nor the ideological deftness of a Bill Clinton to triangulate and reinvent himself as a moderate.
For Obama to continue pressing his agenda would further the ongoing destruction of the Democratic party in 2012. However, there are some reasons to believe that he may well instead prefer to vote present, as in his Illinois past, and thereby stave off catastrophe. Why?
The anger of the unhinged Left — the high-profile but ultimately irrelevant rantings of a Michael Moore or a Bill Maher — has the effect of making Obama seem more centrist than he is: With enemies like these, he needs fewer friends. Obama had offered such hope-and-change promises to a progressive America that many naïfs assumed he could turn a country that polls 60 percent conservative into another Sweden — and then onward to even more still. Now that Obama has been rendered politically impotent, he can stop with Obamacare, relieved of the burden of a liberal congressional majority. The extreme Left will become shriller the less the president does. And both their furor at presidential inaction and Obama’s own inability to press on with his leftist projects will help him politically.
We can already sense how the president is not going to take the bipartisan lead in cutting out-of-control expenses. Key Democrats have already turned on the centrist recommendations of the president’s deficit-reduction commission. Republicans will ultimately have to look at everything from Social Security and Medicare to defense. Obama can benefit from their fiscal responsibility while deploring their heartlessness.
The economy is bound to recover, especially when Americans with capital are assured that Obamism has stalled and it is time to reenter the market — to resume investing, hiring, and buying equipment. Consumers have reduced debt. The world economy is healing. Obama can do very little and take credit for very much. Things should be better by November 2012 than they are now — as long as the private sector is assured that Obama will do no more harm.
Obama’s class warfare will not end, but it may be refocused and refined. The problem for many Americans was not that he attacked the wealthy per se, but that he gored those who were not really wealthy — at least as defined by a ridiculous $250,000-annual-income rubric that demonized any above and patronized those below. Expect the president to up his them/us Mason-Dixon line to, say, a million dollars in annual income. Such a hike will reassure his upscale liberal supporters in the media, the universities, and the law that they are not exploiters and need not pay higher taxes, while also exempting most small businesses from increased income, capital-gains, and payroll taxes. Everyone knows of someone noble who makes somewhat over $250,000 a year; most people don’t worry much about a mostly unknown “they” who, as class enemies, pile up $1 million or more in annual income.
Abroad, the president is quietly starting to curb the bowing and apologizing. His team is learning that cynical foreign leaders appreciated Obama’s fawning only to the degree that they could take advantage of it at the expense of America — and of Obama’s reputation.
For all the past talk of hitting the reset button, Obama has quietly accepted the entire Bush anti-terrorism policy. There is no more bragging about closing Guantanamo, ending renditions and tribunals, or trying KSM in a civilian court; idiotic parlance like “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” hasn’t been heard for months. We are now witnessing the surreal world of Hillary Clinton (“suspension of disbelief”) defending America’s use of force in Afghanistan against international criticism and explaining why a Petraean surge is working this time, when she is in charge of U.S. foreign policy.
When Obama urges the American people to have patience with his war plans, as he ups the number of Predator drone attacks and special-forces hit missions, then we are living in quite an alternative universe to wanting all troops out of Iraq by March 2009 and declaring the Bush surge a failure.
By 2011, American foreign policy in practice will resemble nothing of what presidential candidate Obama outlined in 2008 and thought he could deliver in winter 2009. Instead, the damage that Obama has wrought in 2009–10 will be passed off as inevitable American “decline” that he was trying to “manage.”
In his first two years in office, Obama said and did some ridiculous things abroad, and assorted monsters in Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela are still calibrating to what degree they can (literally) get away with murder. Opportunists in China and Russia are still trying to decide whether it is time to humiliate Obama, cashing in their chips and taking their winnings home, or whether they can get more still from our gullible president.
Obama’s reelection chances could hinge on international crises to come. His fate may rest not on whether at home he triangulates like Bill Clinton or continues to sermonize like Jimmy Carter, but on whether abroad he is up to something like Clinton’s confrontation with Milosevic, or whether he prefers instead an appeasement akin to Carter’s enlistment of Ramsey Clark to help out with the hostage release.
How odd that, 22 months into his presidency, the best reelection chances for the president of the United States are suddenly found in keeping quiet, abandoning his agenda, adopting the security protocols of his hated predecessor, and sounding more like a Reagan or a Bush than a Carter when he reaps abroad in 2011–12 what he has sown in 2009–2010.
Weirder still? The more Obama’s polls improve from his not being Obama, the more moderate Democrats will probably praise him for his virtual progressivism.
— 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.