Barack Obama in 2008 won an election on an upbeat message of change amid hopes that the first black president would mark a redemptive moment in American history. Four years later, the fantasies are gone. In continuing dismal economic times, Obama ran for reelection neither on his first-term achievements — Obamacare, bailouts, financial stimuli, and Keynesian mega-deficits — nor on more utopian promises.
Instead, Obama’s campaign systematically reduced his rival, Wall Street financier Mitt Romney, to a conniving, felonious financial pirate who did dastardly things, from letting the uninsured die to putting his pet dog Seamus in a cage on top of the family car.
Obama once had mused that he wished to be the mirror image of Ronald Reagan — successfully coaxing America to the left as the folksy Reagan had to the right. Instead, 2012 taught us that a calculating Obama is more a canny Richard Nixon, who likewise used any means necessary to be reelected on the premise that his rival would be even worse. But we know what eventually happened to the triumphant, pre-Watergate Nixon after November 1972; what will be the second-term wages of Obama’s winning ugly?
The so-called fiscal cliff offers more examples of 2012 dreams giving way to reality. Obama will probably get his long-promised taxes on the rich. But so what? There are not enough caricatured “millionaires and billionaires” even to make a dent in his administration’s fifth consecutive $1 trillion–plus deficit.
Instead, all that is left for Obama is to go over the cliff or wait for Republicans to counter-propose the necessary cuts in entitlements so that he can both reluctantly accept these budget-saving measures and demonize those who so threaten “the most vulnerable.” What will stop the massive borrowing is not the myth of bipartisan cooperation, but the reality of returning high interest rates that will make the current splurging simply unsustainable.
What did we learn from the killings of Americans in Benghazi? So far, the fantasy of securing justice by jailing a single Coptic filmmaker for posting an anti-Islamic video has trumped the reality of holding the administration accountable for allowing lax security and offering only feeble responses to a massacre resulting from a pre-planned attack by al Qaeda–affiliated terrorists on a U.S. diplomatic post.
As the year ended, a deranged 20-year-old killer in Newtown, Conn., shot down 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The nation decried the killer’s access to his murdered mother’s arsenal of semiautomatic weapons to achieve his gruesome toll.
But banning the sale of certain types of weapons will probably not stop another Newtown massacre any more than an earlier ban prevented the Columbine shootings — unless the federal government is prepared to enter American homes and confiscate millions of previously purchased weapons. Steps toward a far more realistic solution — jawbone Hollywood to quit romanticizing gratuitous cruelty and violence; censor sick, macabre video games; restrict some freedoms of the mentally ill; and put armed security guards into the schools — are as much an anathema to civil libertarians as the banning of some guns is a panacea to many of them. So we pontificate while waiting for the next massacre.
In February, the European Union grandly announced a second — and last — 130 billion–euro bailout of Greece and an apparent solution to the southern-European debt crisis. But the year ended with Greece having never been poorer or more indebted. The proper solution was never band-aiding Greece with some German euros, but rather asking why under the EU system Greece — and other Mediterranean EU members — had been allowed to become so indebted for so long in the first place.
On June 30, supposed reformist Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as president of a new democratic Egypt amid grand talk of the Arab Spring. But in November, Morsi, as a good Islamist, hounded out of office his secular rivals in the judiciary and suspended the rule of law. And days ago, by popular vote, Morsi oversaw the implementation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of sharia law as the basis of the new Egyptian constitution. Given the chaos of Libya and Syria, and the murder of Americans in Benghazi, the cruel winter of 2012 has now ended the dreamy Arab Spring of 2011.
As the year ends, there are ominous signs of impending financial implosion at home. Abroad, we see a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, an even more unhinged nuclear North Korea, a new Islamic coalition against Israel, a bleeding European Union, and a more nationalist Germany and Japan determined to achieve security apart from longstanding but increasingly suspect U.S. guarantees.
The year 2012 should have taught us that dreaming is no answer to reality; 2013 will determine how well we learned that lesson.