Politics & Policy

Proteus-in-Chief

Obama’s rhetoric has swung from hard-left to moderate to hard-left to conciliatory. The problem is, his policies were real, not rhetorical.

Barack Obama 1.0 had a solid record of hard-left governance as an Illinois state representative and U.S. senator. He voted for partial-birth abortion, wanted all troops out of Iraq by March 2008, and proved himself the most partisan of the 100 members of the Senate, even to the left of the only Socialist senator, Bernie Sanders. He seemed unaware of or indifferent to the embarrassment of his long intimacy with the crackpot racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright and other Chicago radicals. Version 1.0 led to office, but not to the highest office.

#ad#Barack Obama 2.0 then ran a stealth campaign in 2008 — now moderate more than hard left and often at odds with his own record. At times he called for fiscal sobriety, a more balanced approach to energy production, intrusions into Pakistan if need be, and a beefed-up presence in Afghanistan. In surreal moments, Obama almost seemed more centrist than Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. Thanks to brilliantly voiced hope-and-change banalities, a lackluster McCain opposition, subservient media, the September 2008 financial meltdown, collective anger at President Bush, and the novelty of the first serious African-American candidate, the American people did what they hadn’t done in a half-century: They elected a liberal Democrat who didn’t have a southern accent. Version 2.0 achieved its purpose of election to the presidency.

Barack Obama 3.0 then reverted to his leftist roots. We saw appointments like Van Jones and Anita Dunn. Federal bailouts followed for politically approved businesses and crony capitalists. The SEIU leadership made serial visits to the White House. More than $3 trillion in spread-the-wealth borrowing was added to the national debt. Obama engineered a federal takeover of health care, and rhetorically waged war on the affluent, who were supposed to pay new taxes as penance for their assorted sins.

That was coupled with a fuzzy multicultural reset foreign policy that saw gratuitous slights of allies, apologies to foreigners for America’s supposed sins, and outreach to enemies on the principle that America’s problems began and ended with George W. Bush. Along the way, we heard silly pop editorializing on everything from the Ground Zero mosque and the Arizona immigration law to the Skip Gates debacle and the Fort Hood massacre. All of that earned the Democrats the greatest midterm congressional rebuke in 72 years and Obama himself approval ratings in the low forties. Version 3.0 pleased the base for two years, but nearly wrecked Obama’s presidency.

Barack Obama 4.0 now promises support for “clean energy” goals and more natural gas. Instead of damnations of Las Vegas and Super Bowl junkets from the president himself or Van Jones’s unhinged socialist rants, we get a pro-business op-ed by the president in the Wall Street Journal and a fat-cat banker as his new chief of staff (not that Mr. Daley’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, did poorly on Wall Street, where his utter lack of fiscal experience somehow netted him $16 million).

Bush’s once-despised Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, and Patriot Act are now vital to Obama’s sober national-security policy — with the approval of a once-hysterical Left. Iraq is our “greatest achievement,” with our troops leaving “with their heads held high” (as opposed to fleeing in defeat in March 2008). The chances of trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court, as promised by Eric Holder, are zero. Republicans are now praised for their bipartisan work in December. There is a new centrist civility. We are to forget that last October someone called his opponents “enemies” who needed to be punished and kept out of the metaphorical front seat of governance. Version 4.0 is designed to ensure Obama’s reelection.

Obama’s problem is not the shamelessness of adopting and rejecting positions as polls indicate. All politicians do that, with varying degrees of success. The rub is that during his two-year-long 3.0 phase, his policies were real, not rhetorical, and they made the recession far worse.

Right now gas prices are skyrocketing. The housing market is in worse shape than ever. Food costs are climbing. We are adding billions to the deficit every day. The world abroad is not safer, and in fact it’s heating up. Unemployment remains over 9 percent. A Proteus-in-chief can change only his own shape, not the shape of things as they are.

#page#In short, the Obama administration made four critical errors that ensured continued hard times instead of a natural upswing from the stagnancy of recession:

a) Obama ran up huge deficits of an additional $3 trillion that did not stimulate job growth, but most certainly the reverse: The deficits scared business into keeping costs low by not hiring new workers. When an employer believes the country either is going bankrupt despite higher taxes, or will inflate its way out of debt, he is not going to be bold and risk-taking.

#ad#b) Obama waged psychosocial warfare against private enterprise. In the space of just two years we learned from the president himself that we were two countries: Those who made above $250,000 were greedy and deserving of higher taxes; those below were okay for now and should receive rather than pay out. Traveling to Vegas or the Super Bowl (but not Martha’s Vineyard or Costa del Sol) was inexcusably self-indulgent. The president alone knew at what point we should cease making money. Doctors were limb-loppers. And so on. When an employer believes his efforts are considered unimportant or perhaps even nefarious, he is not going to be bold and risk-taking.

c) Obama did not encourage business to drill on federal lands, offshore, or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nor did he fast-track nuclear power plants, or return irrigation water to previously productive land. There was no sense that our food and fuel, the stuff of life, come from somewhere other than rhetoric, and constitute real material wealth that enriches the country and provides millions of jobs. Ethanol sounds great, but it is a poor substitute for fossil fuels, and producing it inflates food prices. Pushing hard for cap-and-trade in the era of the global-warming-industry meltdown, while Energy Secretary Steven Chu muses that California agriculture will blow away, does not lower food or gas prices. When an employer believes professors will decide energy and food production, he is not going to be bold and risk-taking.

d) Obama did not just absorb the nation’s health care into the federal government, but did so in Byzantine fashion. To this day, frightened businesses know only three things about Obamacare: No one quite understands what is in the 2,000-page bill; it will cost employers much more than the present system; and a select few interests close to Obama can obtain exemptions for their organizations to opt out of the new plans. When an employer believes he has an obligation to borrow thousands for health plans that he does not understand, he is not going to be bold and risk-taking.

So if the United States is to join the global recovery, a Barack Obama 5.0 would have to reverse himself on points of substance. Can he? 

I doubt it. Other than some rhetorical reworking, Obama still believes borrowing money creates jobs. The only difference is that debt is now called “investment” rather than “stimulus.” Under his plan, keeping federal deficits at more than a trillion dollars per year, while cutting a few billion, is proof of fiscal sobriety. Obama will probably veto any changes to his signature health-care bill, as he grants ever more exemptions from it to selected companies. How odd — proof of support for Obama is found in not accepting his gifts. Talking about nuclear power, coal, and oil and gas is not the same as granting leases or licenses for their development.

In 5.0, I think we will instead be told that 9 percent unemployment is not — as 5.5 percent was in 2004 — proof of a “jobless recovery,” but the new reality because of “structural” changes beyond our control. In short, language can do only so much — masking but not altering reality.

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.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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