In the last three years, the president has taught us a great deal about America, the world, and himself.
Before Obama, many Americans still believed in massive deficit spending, whether as an article of fairness, a means to economic growth, or just a lazy fallback position to justify an out-of-control federal government. But after the failure of a nearly $800 billion “stimulus” program — intended to keep unemployment under 8 percent — no one believes any more that an already indebted government will foster economic growth by taking on another $4 trillion in debt. In other words, “stimulus” is mostly a dead concept. The president — much as he advised a barnstorming President Bush in 2005 to cease pushing Social Security reform on a reluctant population — should give it up and junk the new $500 billion program euphemistically designated as a “jobs bill.” The U.S. government is already borrowing every three days what all of America spent on Black Friday.
Obama has also taught us that prominent government intervention into the private sector often makes things worse, and invites crony-capitalist corruption. Nearly three years into this administration, it is striking how seldom Barack Obama brags about Cash for Clunkers, the Chrysler and GM bailouts, or Solyndra. He either is quiet about them or sort of shrugs, as if to say, “Stuff happens.” Even creative bookkeeping cannot mask the fact that the auto-company bailouts (begun, to be sure, by the Bush administration, but made worse under Obama) will prove a huge drain on the Treasury. No one even attempts any more to convince us that we will like Obamacare once we read the legislation, or that it will save us costs in the long run, or that it will cheer up businesses so that they will invest and hire. All that was dreamland, 2009, and this is reality, 2011, when we hear only “It could have been worse.”
Obama has also taught us that a president’s name, his father’s religion, his ethnic background, loud denunciations of his predecessor, discomforting efforts to apologize, bow, and contextualize past American actions — none of that does anything to lead to greater peace in the world or security for the United States. And by the same token, George Bush’s drawl, Texas identification, and Christianity did not magically turn allies into neutrals and neutrals into enemies.
Israel, Britain, and Eastern Europe are not closer allies now than they were in 2008. Iran is still Iran — and may be even a more dangerous adversary after the failed Obama outreach. Putin’s Russia, despite “reset” (a word we no longer much hear), is still Putin’s Russia. China still despises the U.S., and feels in 2011 that it is in a far better position to act on its contempt than it was in 2009. North Korea never got the “hope and change” message. Europe is collapsing, reminding the world where the United States is headed if it does not change course. Outreach didn’t seem to do much for the Castro brothers, Hugo Chávez, or Daniel Ortega. We are helping Mexico to sue our own states, but that does not seem to persuade its leaders to keep their citizens home. Muslim Pakistan went from a duplicitous ally to a veritable enemy. The more we bragged about Turkey, the more we could feel it holds us in contempt. We hope that the Libyan rebels and the Cairo protesters are headed toward democracy, but we privately admit that they seem to have no more interest in establishing it than we have in promoting it. In other words, Professor Obama reminds future presidents that the world will transcend their rhetoric, their pretensions, and their heritage. Other nations always calibrate their relations with the United States either by their own perceived self-interest, or by centuries-old American values and power, or both.
Barack Obama has taught us a great deal about dealing with radical Islam, an ideology not predicated on what presidents do or say. There will be no shutting down of Guantanamo as promised, and no end to either renditions or preventive detentions and tribunals. Khalid Sheik Mohammed will never be tried, as promised, in a New York courtroom not far from the scene of his mass murdering. The so-called Ground Zero mosque — once so dear to sanctimonious members of the Obama administration — will never be built; either liberal New Yorkers will quietly prevent it, or the architects of the scheme will be exposed as financial as well as cultural con artists. Obama will never again give an interview to Al-Arabiya expanding on how his own heritage will ameliorate relations with Arabs. The Cairo speech will go down in history not as a landmark creative effort to win over Muslims, but, to the extent it is remembered, as one of the most ahistorical constructs in presidential history. The Obama legacy in the War on Terror is as Predator-in-Chief — boldly increasing targeted assassinations tenfold from the Bush era, on the theory that we more or less kill the right suspected terrorists; few civil libertarians care much, apparently because one of their own is doing it.
We have learned from Obama that the messianic presidency is a myth. Obama’s attempt to recreate Camelot has only reminded us that JFK’s presidency — tax cuts, Cold War saber-rattling, Vietnam intervention — was never Camelot. We shall see no more Latinate presidential sloganeering (“Vero Possumus”), no more rainbow posters. Gone are the faux-Greek columns, the speeches about seas receding and the planet cooling — now sources of embarrassment rather than nostalgia. Chancellor Merkel won’t want another Victory Column address from someone who ducked out on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Obama himself will not lecture crowds any longer about the dangers of their fainting when he speaks; Michelle will cease all the nonsense about “deign[ing] to enter the messy thing called politics” and finally acquiring pride in the U.S. when it nominated her husband. Even Chris Matthews’s leg has stopped tingling. There will be no more Newsweek comparisons of Obama to a god. Even the Nobel Prize committee will soon grasp that it tarnished its brand by equating fleeting celebrity with lasting achievement.
“Green” will never be quite the same after Obama. When Solyndra and its affiliated scandals are at last fully brought into the light of day, we will see the logical reification of Climategate I & II, Al Gore’s hucksterism, and Van Jones’s lunacy. How ironic that the more Obama tried to stop drilling in the West, offshore, and in Alaska, as well as stopping the Canadian pipeline, the more the American private sector kept finding oil and gas despite rather than because of the U.S. government. How further ironic that the one area that Obama felt was unnecessary for, or indeed antithetical to, America’s economic recovery — vast new gas and oil finds — will soon turn out to be America’s greatest boon in the last 20 years. While Obama and Energy Secretary Chu still insist on subsidizing money-losing wind and solar concerns, we are in the midst of a revolution that, within 20 years, will reduce or even end the trade deficit, help pay off the national debt, create millions of new jobs, and turn the Western Hemisphere into the new Persian Gulf. The American petroleum revolution can be delayed by Obama, but it cannot be stopped.
One lesson, however, has not fully sunk in and awaits final elucidation in the 2012 election: that of the Chicago style of Barack Obama’s politicking. In 2008 few of the true believers accepted that, in his first political race, in 1996, Barack Obama sued successfully to remove his opponents from the ballot. Or that in his race for the U.S. Senate eight years later, sealed divorced records for both his primary- and general-election opponents were mysteriously leaked by unnamed Chicagoans, leading to the implosions of both candidates’ campaigns. Or that Obama was the first presidential candidate in the history of public campaign financing to reject it, or that he was also the largest recipient of cash from Wall Street in general, and from BP and Goldman Sachs in particular. Or that Obama was the first presidential candidate in recent memory not to disclose either undergraduate records or even partial medical. Or that remarks like “typical white person,” the clingers speech, and the spread-the-wealth quip would soon prove to be characteristic rather than anomalous.
Few American presidents have dashed so many popular, deeply embedded illusions as has Barack Obama. And for that, we owe him a strange sort of thanks.