Politics & Policy

Cynic-in-Chief

President Obama ran against cynicism — and defined his presidency by it.

‘My rival in this race,” President Obama announced early in 2007, “is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.” Sadly, it’s now evident cynicism won.

In a much-hyped speech at Knox College on Wednesday, Obama sought to pivot back to the economy — as the journalistic cliché goes — and shape the issue environment for the 2014 congressional elections.

Because of an “endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals,” the president said, “Washington’s taken its eye off the ball.” The ball here is the economy, in case you didn’t know.

It’s an odd claim. Elected twice, Obama is in the fifth year of his presidency. During his first two years in office, his party controlled both houses of Congress and rammed through its agenda. Largely as a result, Democrats lost the House in 2010, but they have retained the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has been playing the Igor to Obama’s Dr. Frankenstein ever since (though reporters have yet to catch Reid actually saying “Yetthhhh master” on tape). At Obama’s bidding, the Senate failed to pass a budget for four years and refused to take up any meaningful legislation passed by the House.

That’s not the narrative you usually hear, because for most of Obama’s presidency, the Washington press corps was enthralled with him. It wasn’t until the dawn of his second term that most reporters stopped asking questions like “Can you create a boulder too heavy for you to lift?”

It’s also odd that Obama has pivoted back to the economy when, depending on whose estimates you use, he’s made similar “pivots” on average once every two to four months since he’s been elected. As one wag told The Weekly Standard, “You do that on the basketball court, you get called for traveling.” But the more apt image is of a basketball player with one shoe nailed to the floor, constantly pivoting in a circle.

But it’s not just odd, it’s deeply cynical. For starters, it was the reelected president — not “Washington” — who took his eyes off the economy to exploit a tragedy for new gun controls that would not have prevented the tragedy itself. His unilateral crackdown on carbon emissions isn’t exactly a full-throated effort to create jobs either. When Congress took its eye off the ball by taking up immigration reform, the White House cheered.

Even now, the Cynic-in-Chief admits that his “highest priority” is neither economic growth nor job creation but reducing income inequality. In fairness, he says he wants to reduce inequality through something called “middle-out” economic growth by taxing the wealthy (again). But my hunch is that the highest priority for those without work is . . . work. While the president’s highest priority is to exploit resentments.

But most cynical of all is Obama’s contempt for the “phony scandals” that have plagued him. Which ones are phony, exactly? The Justice Department’s monitoring of journalists was sufficiently outrageous that Obama ordered the attorney general to review DOJ policies. Why do that if the concerns were phony? When a few rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati were alleged to have deliberately targeted conservative groups, Obama said it would be “outrageous” if those allegations were proven true. But when that cover story is proved a deliberate lie from an IRS official in Washington, and it’s revealed thanks to congressional oversight that the policy actually went all the way to the office of an Obama political appointee, the scandal suddenly becomes “phony.” Odd how that works.

On the NSA wiretapping revelations, I agree with Obama that it is not necessarily a scandal but a significant policy dispute. Then again, many of the people who do think widespread secret electronic surveillance is scandalous happen to be members of Obama’s base. He can have that argument with them.

Finally, there was last year’s September 11 attack on our Benghazi compound and the president’s response to it. The White House has long said this was a phony scandal. They also said that the deadly attack was sparked by a YouTube video, until that was proven to be a lie. That deliberate deceit sparked a national conversation about whether we needed to give savages a heckler’s veto on American free-speech rights.

But that’s the theme of this entire presidency. Others — Washington, the Republicans, the Constitution, the global economy, Bush, et al. — are always to blame. In 2014, alas, cynicism won’t be on the ballot. He’ll be in the White House.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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