The election of Barack Obama brought all sorts of contradictions. A man with about the least prior executive experience in presidential history was suddenly acclaimed a “god” and the smartest man ever to assume the office.
Most important, a number of critical changes were heralded that would help address the supposed disasters of the Bush administration: a new “reset” foreign policy, a Keynesian economic miracle, a commitment to “millions of green jobs,” and a promise to end politics as usual, specifically the hardball divisive rancor of the past. Obamism, in short, was not a mere change in administration, but a religion.
In less than three years, however, the Obama administration has established a far different legacy from the one it promised, and the lessons of 2009–2011 will be with us for a long time:
1. The type and nature of a presidential candidate’s prior experience will be examined as never before. Obama’s two years in the U.S. Senate are now universally seen as insufficient preparation. The result will be more emphasis on executive experience and far longer tenure. Fairly or not, the Obama legacy hangs over the possible presidential aspirations of everyone from a Chris Christie or Marco Rubio to a Sarah Palin or Herman Cain.
2. For the time being, the media have lost any credibility as nonpartisan and disinterested investigators of presidential candidates. That many journalists now admit they were “saps” or accept that Obama was unqualified only confirms prior culpability. After 2008, can anyone possibly take the media seriously if they complain that a candidate will not release his undergraduate transcripts, or that he once bragged that he attended every service (“each week”) of a racist pastor, or that he once liked “blow”? After Obama, an entire array of old gotchas are off the table.
3. Ivy League certification and prestigious awards will mean far less. The architects of the massive but ineffective borrowing — Geithner, Goolsbee, Orszag, Romer, Summers — were either esteemed academics or high-ranking bureaucrats. We are no longer impressed that Barack Obama and Eric Holder have Ivy League law degrees, or that President Obama and Steven Chu hold Nobel Prizes — not after Solyndra, Fast and Furious, and the present stagnation. Americans assume that Herman Cain learned far more of value turning around Godfather’s Pizza than Barack Obama learned as editor of Harvard Law Review. Texas A&M is about as relevant to Rick Perry’s creating millions of jobs as Harvard is to Barack Obama’s destroying millions.
4. Again, fairly or not, “green” no longer denotes a noble effort to conserve resources and achieve energy independence. A Van Jones, a Solyndra, yet another promise to emulate Spain’s windmills and solar plants, one more call to borrow hundreds of billions for high-speed rail, and more Al Gore profit-driven escapades and fiery outbursts finally add up. Note that the president simply cannot any longer repeat the mantra, “Millions of new green jobs.” You see, there are too many video clips of such boasts associated with failed ventures. The age of Obama has turned “green” into a refuge for scoundrels. The next era will be marked by unprecedented national wealth from vast new gas and oil exploration, not from thousands of acres of subsidized solar panels and windmills. How ironic that Barack Obama will eventually do more for the gas and oil industry than any other president in recent memory.
5. We are reminded that populism and the high life don’t mix. Barack Obama’s efforts to play Huey Long were sidetracked by First Family detours to Martha’s Vineyard, Costa del Sol, and Vail. One cannot both beg from and demonize Wall Street, and still play community organizer. Obama cemented the notion that liberal Democrats are the party of really big money and of very little money — and of few in between. The next populist will have to cut back on golf, stay at Camp David, and avoid the playgrounds of the rich and famous.
6. Keynesian economics are about over for a generation. The antidote to the Bush $4 trillion debt was not another $4 trillion in less than half the time. With near-zero interest rates, record numbers of Americans on food stamps and unemployment, an annual federal budget $2 trillion higher than just ten years ago, and nearly $16 trillion in aggregate debt — and all this along with a moribund economy — few will any longer believe that printing more money and growing government work. More of what has not worked won’t magically start to work.
7. Barack Obama has essentially ended the smears against the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols. Having himself smeared the prior administration relentlessly, he became de facto its greatest defender. One cannot insist past practices were immoral or illegal and then embrace or expand them all. “War criminal” will recede into the insanity of yesteryear, given that no logician could figure out how waterboarding three self-confessed mass murderers was a crime, while vaporizing two thousand suspected terrorists — including American citizens — by Hellfire missiles is not. Apparently Guantanamo is no longer a gulag, rendition no longer a crime, preventive detention no longer a shredding of the Constitution.
8. Politics simply don’t change. Obama first embraced and then rejected filibusters — the only constant was his relative political position. “Gridlock” was good in 2005, bad in 2011. The suggestion that we should cancel congressional elections for a few years comes from a Democratic governor, not a cigar-chewing, epauletted ex-general. Exasperated liberals call for circumventing the “messy” democratic process, the bothersome Electoral College, the unfairness of senatorial elections — apparently not out of long-expressed philosophical worries, but out of angst that the wonderful system that elected Obama and gave him huge congressional majorities suddenly became unworkable, say, around November 2010.
9. Fight the Smears, JournoList, and AttackWatch.com are not the work of a uniter. “Punish our enemies” and “get in their faces” don’t go well with Greek columns and rainbowed backgrounds. Again, whether rightly or wrongly, the next time a political candidate promises to change the political landscape in Washington, we will have more, not less, suspicion of his motives — and expect website hit lists to follow.
10. The antidote to Bush’s “bring ’em on” bravado was not asking the Arab League to approve no-fly zones over Libya while bombing targets “from behind.” The world of 2008 is pretty much the world of 2011 — with the caveat that an often unliked U.S. is still as unliked but now less respected and feared. Ask the Iranians, Syrians, Russians, and Chinese — or for that matter the Japanese, Israelis, South Koreans, Taiwanese, and Eastern Europeans.
A sadder but wiser electorate in 2012 simply won’t believe that any candidate — Democrat or Republican — can cool the planet or stop the seas from rising. Barack Obama taught us that — and a lot more besides.