The next five months should be interesting — given that Barack Obama is now experiencing something entirely unique in his heretofore stellar career: widespread criticism of his performance and increasing weariness with his boilerplate and his teleprompted eloquence.
Starting with his Occidental days, and going on through Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, the U.S. Senate, and the 2008 campaign, rarely has Mr. Obama faced much criticism, much less any accountability that would involve judging his rhetoric by actual achievement.
Yet what worked for so long now does no longer. Obama simply cannot run on 40 months of 8 percent–plus unemployment, a June 2009 recovery that sputtered, $5 trillion in new debt, serial $1 trillion–plus annual deficits, and dismal GDP growth. Few believe any more that what he and the Democratic Congress passed in the first two years of his administration worked — and fewer still that the Republicans are to blame in the last 17 months for stopping him from pursuing even more disastrous policies. He cannot turn instead to the advantages of Obamacare, a dynamic foreign policy, national-security sobriety, a scandal-free administration, or stellar presidential appointments. The furor over security leaks makes it harder to keep conjuring up the ghost of Osama bin Laden.
What then to expect if the race remains tight or Obama finds himself behind?
1. There will be lots more “the dog ate my homework” excuses for the dismal economy. The troubles in the EU, the Japanese tsunami, the East Coast earthquake, ATM machines, Wall Street, inclement weather, the Republican Congress, the Tea Party, and George W. Bush have pretty much been exhausted. But there is always hurricane season, a Greek exit from the euro, or a Middle East flare-up. Expect sometime before October to hear that a new “they” upset the brilliant recovery and is to blame for the chronic economic lethargy. One of the strangest aspects of Obama’s rationalizations is their utter incoherence and illogic: He brags that America pumped more oil and gas under his watch, even as he did his best to stop just that on public lands; he brags that he put in fewer regulations than did Bush, even as he boasts that he reined in business; he brags that he had to borrow $5 trillion to grow government in order to save the country, even as he claims he reduced the size of government. Why does Obama try to take credit for things on Tuesday that he damned on Monday? Is his new campaign theme: Despite (rather than because of) Obama?
2. Mitt Romney is a tough target. If Obama once loudly admitted to abuse of coke, Romney quietly confesses to avoidance even of Coca-Cola. His personal life is blameless. His family seems the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting. And Romney has more or less succeeded at most things he has attempted. No matter, he is Mormon. Expect legions of Obama surrogates to focus on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially its supposed endemic racism, sexism, and homophobia. Religious bigotry is not especially liberal, but the race/class/gender agenda trumps all such qualms, and in any case Obama and his team have never claimed to be especially tolerant or fair-minded in using any means necessary to achieve noble ends. Whereas the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Trinity Church were off the table in 2008, Mormonism will be very much on it by late summer.
3. We will read and hear about race 24/7. Racism is not an easy sell today, given that without tens of millions of white voters, Barack Obama would not have been elected. Nor is it easy to condemn America as racist when the white vote in 2008 was split far more evenly than were the 96 percent of African-American voters who preferred Barack Obama. Nonetheless, racial relations are at an all-time low. Almost weekly a member of the Congressional Black Caucus levels yet another bizarre charge of racism, and a Hollywood actor or singer blurts out something that would be deemed racially offensive were he not African-American; the polarization over the Trayvon Martin case threatens to overshadow the polarization over the O. J. Simpson trial; flash mobbing in the inner cities is as much daily fare on the uncensored Internet as it is absent from the network news; and both Barack Obama (the Skip Gates affair, the Trayvon Martin quip, the “punish our enemies” call, etc.) and Eric Holder (“cowards,” congressional oversight is racially motivated, “my people,” etc.) have made it a point to make race essential, not incidental, to their governance. If in 2008 liberals celebrated the election of Barack Obama as proof of a new postracial harmony, in 2012 a tight race will be cited as greater proof of a new ascendant racism. The idea that to elect Obama wins the nation racial exemption, and to defeat him earns condemnation, is illogical. No matter: By late fall, expect a desperate Obama administration to be dredging up the charge overtly, nonstop, and in person.
4. We should look for new furor against the “system” in direct proportion to the praise heaped on it in 2008 for being redeemed. The polls, if unfavorable, will be described as innately biased. The uncivil Rush Limbaugh, talk radio generally, Fox News, and tea-party bloggers, we will be lectured, are subversive, peddle hate, foment violence, and should be silenced. Whereas David Brooks, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, and Christopher Buckley were recommended reading in 2008, given their balanced and fair-minded critiques of George W. Bush and their appreciation of Barack Obama, in 2012 we will learn that they are right-wing attack dogs for losing their enthusiasm for the first-class mind and temperament of Barack Obama. Whereas a Pat Buchanan on MSNBC railing against Bush’s war and McCain’s neocon advisers was a reminder of how the libertarian Right has positive affinities with the liberal Left, in 2012 such a paleocon “racist” must be kept off the airwaves. Voter-registration laws and voter-ID requirements, remember, are designed to exclude the oppressed and must be relaxed. Advertising has warped American politics. Super PACs are Romney conspiracies. If big Wall Street money went for Obama in 2008 and thereby won investment banking and the stock market exemption from charges of greed and corruption, in 2012 investors may swing to Romney and thereby incite calls to rein in “big money” and furious op-eds about the toxic mix of politics and cash. If Romney outraises Obama, we will hear again the calls for public campaign financing, which were ignored when a cash-flush Obama renounced public financing in 2008. In 2008, academics, foundation people, the Hollywood crowd, journalists, and liberal politicians confessed that they had fallen in love again with an America that had proved it was not hopeless after all; in 2012, America may prove unsalvageable, with thousands vowing to move to Canada.
5. Suddenly around October the world will become absolutely unsafe. In these dangerous times, Americans must forget their differences, come together, and embrace a bipartisan unity — given that it may be necessary, after all, to hit the Iranian nuclear facilities, since we’ll have learned that the bomb may be a reality by, say, mid-November. Just as we have been reminded that Barack Obama has saved us by his brave decisions to use double agents in Yemen, computer viruses in Iran, Seal Team Six in Pakistan, and philosophically guided Predator assassination hits, so too a strike against Iran may suddenly be of vital national-security interest, though keenly lamented by a Nobel laureate nose-deep in Thomas Aquinas. Cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline delighted greens; the war on the war on women pleased feminists; gays are now on board after Barack Obama decided he really did favor gay marriage; Latinos got nearly a million illegal aliens exempted from immigration law. And yet all those partisan gifts have not yet resulted in a 50 percent approval rating or a lead over Mitt Romney. Something more dramatic is needed, given that there are only so many Obama heroics that can be cobbled together and leaked from classified sources.
We do not know who is going to win the 2012 election, only that it will be closer than the 2008 one — and if Obama keeps it up at his present rate he may destroy the Democratic party for a generation. There is no longer an incumbent George Bush to blame. Romney is a feistier candidate than was John McCain. Fundraising is no longer lopsided. The novelty of the first African-American president has become passé. And “hope and change” has been replaced by a concrete record of three and a half years. Given those realities, if his being an unknown quantity was a reason to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, his being all too familiar will be cause for rejecting him in 2012.