Politics & Policy

The Anecdotal Presidency

Obama tells comforting stories rather than making hard choices.

Honestly assessing the Benghazi disaster would not have been pleasant for the pre-election Obama team. Anyone could sense that there might be no firewalls — as the media could jump to a resurgent al-Qaeda that had been declared moribund after the hit on bin Laden; or the shattered dreams of the Arab Spring; or the politicization of our embassy security that led to deliberate neglect of proper defenses; or a Libyan intervention gone bad. Almost all those narratives have subsequently emerged in post-election inquiries or from the State Department’s official internal investigation.

Yet the Obama administration offered an exegesis — a sole Egyptian-American filmmaker, a Coptic Christian, who had offended Muslims with a two-month-old Internet video to the point that they rioted abroad and stormed our consulate — that was completely irrelevant to the murder of Ambassador Stevens, but might circumvent all of the above difficulties, while giving the president a natural occasion to blast an illiberal, bigoted filmmaker whose intolerance had cost good men their lives. The video narrative was as incidental to the killings as it was apparently attractive to the Obama team — and so Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a footnote to the tragedy, continues to sit in jail long after we know that an al-Qaeda affiliate had targeted our consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi.

Every day of his first term, Barack Obama has overseen $3 billion per day in borrowing, which has added at least $5 trillion to the national debt — with trillions more still to be borrowed. The extraordinary figure is largely a result of unprecedented federal spending. The first 42 presidents ran up about one-third of the present $16 trillion in aggregate debt; George W. Bush in eight years nearly matched their total; and Barack Obama, before his first term is even completed, has already trumped Bush’s total and accounted for the final third of the national debt.

Obama’s current trajectory is not sustainable, and yet the president has not proposed spending cuts that would reduce the annual deficits in any meaningful way. Like Louis XIV, the Sun King, he knows that his spending is bankrupting his country and, if unchecked, will destroy generations to follow — and yet he knows even more strongly that he cannot quit. Instead, he fixates on upping the top rates on the 2 percent who currently pay over 40 percent of all federal income-tax revenues; his proposed hikes, however, would add only $80 or $90 billion in additional revenue, or about 8 percent of the aggregate borrowing each year. Additional income might derive from suggested changes in the nature of deductions, and from raises in capital-gains and inheritance taxes, but would supply only a fraction of what is needed to balance the budget.

The president, however, knows that his vast increases in federal spending, which have helped create loyal constituents, at some point must come to an end. (No doubt, Barack Obama will be as critical of “unpatriotic” deficit spending after he leaves office as he was before he entered it.) There simply are not enough “millionaires and billionaires,” “fat-cat bankers,” “corporate-jet owners,” and people who did not know when to quit profiting, or at what point they had made enough money, or that they did not build their own businesses. What then is the point about the obsession with earners in the top brackets — given that more taxes on them will do nothing to stop the fantastic rate of spending and very little to raise enough general revenue to service it? Answer: Obama’s attack on the upper brackets is a resonant talking point, but otherwise a mere political anecdote that has nothing to do with good governance. Raising taxes across the board or vastly cutting spending or both would start to solve the problem, and so, as real options, must go unmentioned.

The same irrelevancy surrounds the trumpeting of the DREAM Act. There are somewhere between 10 and 14 million illegal aliens currently in the United States. No one knows how many are eligible for the proposed amnesty — how many, that is, were brought here as children, currently are in high school or college or have completed high school and enlisted in the military, are not on public assistance, and have not been convicted of a crime — but estimates range widely, from 50,000 all the way to 1 million. Even the smaller of those is a sizable number, but this all leaves unanswered the question of what to do about the other 90 to 99+ percent of those who are residing illegally in the United States, and who came here after age 16 or do not meet all the other criteria. In other words, the ability to quantify a DREAM Act by definition entails a similar ability to address a non–DREAM Act scenario — the messy, controversial, and nearly thankless task of confronting an issue that has festered for some 40 years, where anyone who offers solutions will earn only acrimony. So in response we are left with Obama and the anecdotal version of the DREAM Act.

The president has made numerous references to the horrific Connecticut school shootings, from a promise to address the banning of certain sorts of semi-automatic assault guns and magazines to citing the killings as a reason for his political opponents to accept his tax proposals. We do not know exactly what causes mentally disturbed suburban youths to shoot and kill innocents in large numbers, but most doubt that simply outlawing semi-automatic assault rifles will stop such evil, at least in and of itself. It is just as likely that post-1960s attitudes about the mentally ill that make it much harder to hospitalize any who display dangerous tendencies, or the recent spate of violent and deviant video games, or the sick culture that Hollywood so often romanticizes contributed equally to the evil of the recluse Adam Lanza. Fixating on assault rifles is an easy thing to do, given the caricatures of camouflaged redneck militiamen blasting away in the Georgia pinewoods, but taking on the mental-health industry, civil libertarians, and the entertainment industry — that would win Obama only abuse from the liberals and from interests far more powerful than the NRA. So we fixate instead on assault rifles.

The Obama presidency is one of anecdotes in lieu of solutions. It might be a comforting thought that jailing a reactionary filmmaker, or raising taxes on the suspect few, or providing amnesty to the college undergraduate, or taking away Ted Nugent’s guns will solve our mounting problems, but such anecdotes mean little in the real world of difficult choices that would offend friends as well as opponents.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


The Latest