Politics & Policy

Epitaph for Hope and Change

(Alex Wong/Getty)
Obama has fundamentally transformed America, all right — but not as he intended.

A perfect storm brought into power Barack Obama, a previously little-known Illinois community organizer. He had at best a mediocre record as a state legislator and rookie senator. Yet he quickly dazzled the liberal establishment. Joe Biden and Harry Reid were wowed by his sounding and behaving like a white liberal, while retaining the ability to turn on his supposedly authentic black persona when needed. That he had no record of achievement was seen as an advantageous clean slate. Teleprompted glibness was preferred to ad hoc repartee, as if an entire presidency could be scripted and Photoshopped with backdrops of Greek columns and Latin mottos.

In general, since World War II the American electorate has not voted into the presidency Northern liberals like Obama — or any Democrat (except JFK) without a Southern accent. A drawl apparently offered voters in the past some superficial reassurance of centrism. In the last five decades, Northern progressive candidates — Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis — all failed, whereas Southerners like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore all won the popular vote.

But the events of 2008 were exceptional, and were hyped as 1932 all over again: as evidence of the failure of market capitalism and the need for a neo-socialist correction. The McCain–Palin lead late in the campaign collapsed after the September financial meltdown, as Wall Street excess was, fairly or not, tied to the supposedly rich, uncaring Republican establishment. John McCain, we were told, did not even know how many houses he owned. The successful surge in Iraq was still dubbed by the media a failure and did not assuage American anger at the costly war. After Iraq, Katrina, and the failed reform of Social Security, incumbent president George W. Bush had grown abjectly unpopular.

McCain, in the manner that Adlai Stevenson had distanced himself from an unpopular Harry Truman, ran as much against Bush as he did against Obama. In 2008, there was no incumbent president or vice president on the ticket; it was the first orphaned and wide-open election since 1952.  

Obama ran on his iconic status as the would-be first black president. For the most part, he hid his spread-the-wealth agenda. A plumber did better than establishment journalists at prying out a smidgen of Obama’s worldview. The media helped reduce Obama’s Chicago friends such as Bill Ayers, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Tony Rezko to complete strangers. To evoke them was tantamount to racism.

The result was a full-fledged liberal presidential agenda of a sort not seen since the New Deal. Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy were more centrists and realists than progressive true believers. In other words, since the 1940s voters have not trusted the left wing of the Democratic party to run the country. And for good reason. Barack Obama’s signature achievements — rammed through a Democratic Congress or enacted by questionable executive orders — now lie in ruins.

A therapeutic foreign policy, adorned by apologies for and contextualization of past American conduct, has turned the Middle East into Somalia and empowered Vladimir Putin, the Chinese apparat, and soon-to-be nuclear Iran. The defense budget will reach record lows, as money still shifts from military deterrence to more social programs and entitlements.

Old allies either are ignored or put under suspicion, while new ones such as Turkey seem to resent the U.S. more deeply the more that they are courted. After Obama, the American idea of a red line, step-over line, or deadline will be comic. The war against terror has been reduced to a war against unnamed individuals who sometimes commit workplace violence or cause manmade disasters. In Obama Farm, waterboarding three confessed terrorists at Guantanamo Bay is a crime against humanity; blowing up 3,000 suspected terrorists and anyone nearby through Predator drone assassinations is the stuff of presidential joking at Washington banquets.

At home, a natural recovery after a deep recession was aborted by massive government borrowing that was wasted on abetting crony capitalists and shoring up collapsing union and pension funds. Before he is through, Obama may well have borrowed more than all previous presidents combined. In the surreal context of the present, slashing defense and raising taxes to reduce trillion-dollar-deficits to half-trillion-dollar deficits — still higher than any other before Obama — are dubbed fiscal progress.

Never has a modern president been so pampered by the press, and never has the press been so disrespected for its obsequiousness. After Obama, what will the press do? Will it investigate some future Republican abuse of executive orders, deplore serial crippling deficits, complain of a government hostile to the media, expose scandals in the IRS or VA, lament the decline of U.S. prestige abroad, tally up “illegal” Predator assassinations, chronicle bombing without congressional approval, talk of a McCarthy-like administration tapping reporters’ communications and computers, whine about an anemic “jobless” recovery, chart how a president deliberately misled the country about health care, amnesty, or dangers in the Middle East? Will it demand that the next presidential candidate release his college transcripts and medical records or details about his associates?

Near-zero interest rates have shifted hundreds of billions of dollars in lost passbook-interest income from the middle class to Wall Street and the big banks. The Affordable Care Act gets worse each month. Its embarrassed architects must lie about their own authorship of the law. Its congressional supporters, at least those still in office, rue their votes. Everything that was once branded a lie about Obamacare — you’ll lose your doctor and your health plan, you’ll pay more, doctors will opt out — has proved all too true.

Illegal blanket amnesties have nullified federal immigration laws, which for now apply only to those who do not speak Spanish, are not from south of the border, and wish to enter the U.S. legally. Cabinet secretaries such as Eric Holder, Kathleen Sebelius, Hilda Solis, Lisa Jackson, and Timothy Geithner will be remembered at best as monumental failures; lesser appointees and consultants — Anita Dunn, Jonathan Gruber, Van Jones — are the stuff of late-night comedy.

To the extent that Obama enjoys some successes, they largely came despite, not because of, his efforts. Enacting cap-and-trade and canceling the Keystone Pipeline did not come to pass, nor did the attempts to realize Steven Chu’s dream of European-level gas prices or Obama’s own hope for skyrocketing electric rates; banning new fracking and horizontal drilling on federal lands did not stop private entrepreneurs. The completely unforeseen bonanza of new gas and oil production on private lands has lowered energy prices and for a while mitigated the effects of Obama’s economic plan. How ironic that what he tried to stop is countering what he succeeded in implementing.

The promised most transparent presidency in history turned out to be the most hostile to journalists and the most corrupt since Richard Nixon’s. Old standby bureaucracies — the IRS, the GSA, the VA, the CIA, the NSA, and the Secret Service — are mired in scandal or suffering from public mistrust. The suspense is not over whether such scandals will tarnish Obama’s legacy, but only over how long after he leaves office will it take before the full picture of his ends-justifying-the-means way of governance becomes known. There is something like a Bill Cosby aura around this administration — a feeling that when the media and the liberal establishment are no longer invested in the day-to-day operations of the Obama administration, only then we will learn things that we would rather not. When Al Sharpton no longer visits the White House, will he be sent to jail for tax fraud?

Obama won election to the presidency twice by skillfully slicing up the electorate into aggrieved groups, all supposedly warred on by rich, white, heterosexual men. But after the constructed wars against minorities, women, the environment, and gays, we are left mostly only with psychodrama. The war on women sputtered out with the buffoonery of failed candidates like Wendy Davis in Texas and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a.k.a. Senator Uterus. In the age of the Duke lacrosse scandal, if there were not fantasy rape allegations at the University of Virginia or in Lena Dunham’s mythographic memoir, then they would have to be invented, given the McCarthyesque climate created on our campuses.

Race relations have not been worse in over a half-century. For some reason, liberal polemical arsonists never quite figured out that each time they stooped to heated racialist rhetoric about a new coalition of noble minority voters sweeping away a tired old culpable white electorate, they turned off another working-class white Democratic voter — all on the suspect premise that blacks and minorities would turn out in droves for liberal white candidates and their elitist agendas, as they once had for Barack Obama. They assumed that Obama was building them a permanent new coalition; instead he took for granted that he was building a one-time movement only for himself.

Of course, amid the wreckage of hope and change, Obama complains that racial animosity now fuels hostility to his administration — this from a president who garnered more white votes than most previous white Democratic presidential candidates. Only in the age of Obama could racism be defined as 40 percent of the white vote going for a black candidate, while 5 percent of the black vote went for a white candidate.

Such a climate should not have been unexpected, given that the Obamas entered the national scene with rhetoric and associations like “downright mean country,” “raise the bar,” “for the first time [i.e., when Obama was elected] . . . I’m really proud of my country,” Jeremiah Wright, “typical white person,” and the clingers speech. The natural result of all that was soon to be the stupidly acting Cambridge police; Trayvon Martin, the boy who looked like the son Obama never had; and slamming Ferguson at the U.N. — while black unemployment, graduation, illegitimacy, and crime rates were either unaffected by Obama’s presidency or grew worse despite his often racialized rhetoric. We now witness an entire grievance movement highlighted by a slogan — Hands up, don’t shoot — that is most certainly untrue.

The above symptomology is not a partisan tirade, given that the Americans who voted Obama into office twice, and ensured a Democratic Congress from 2006 to 2010, have now come to the same conclusion. The president’s approval ratings hover at 40 percent. Almost single-handedly, Obama has done to the Democratic party far more damage than Herbert Hoover did to the Republican brand. Not in 70 years have Democratic numbers in the Congress been so bleak. State legislatures and governorships are more Republican than at any time in a generation.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this liberal implosion is that the Republicans have done little to earn such prominence, given that they have no national program and have failed entirely to offer a populist counter-agenda. Instead, they needed only to watch in glee as Obama created a new alliance between the 1 percent who were to be immune from the ramifications of their own destructive policies and a growing subsidized underclass — with utter disdain for those in between who did not have either the Martha’s Vineyard taste of the liberal elite or the romantic empathy of the poor.

How odd again that just being against Obama has so far led to a Republican renaissance. In the end, the epitaph of the Obama administration will be written that it really did “fundamentally transform America” — though in ways that Barack Obama would have hardly wished.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.


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