Politics & Policy

Autopilot Nation

(Pool Image/Getty)
Conservatives lament, and liberals brag, that Obama has fundamentally transformed America.

Six years of slumber later, a surging America finally is transcending even the effects of hope and change. For the last few years, most Americans have tuned out their president’s no-time-to-profit rhetoric. They just kept slogging away at what they always did as the most productive people in the world, and waited for the natural up-bound of a moribund economy.

Obama himself understands that America is prevailing despite his efforts, and the evidence comes from his own admissions. In a recent National Public Radio interview, Obama took credit for the fact that the deficit was falling — as if, suddenly, fiscal prudence is a good thing and red-ink stimulus is not. But that change of heart came only after five years of disastrous trillion-dollar budget shortfalls that no one any more believed had jump-started the economy. The European Union is stagnating and America is working, not because Obama championed the U.S. model of free-market capitalism, but because his efforts to emulate Europe proved politically and culturally impossible.

The populist backlash against reckless spending — spurred on by the caricatured grass-roots Tea Party — cost Obama the House of Representatives in 2010. The next year the new Congress forced sequestration and mandatory cuts. Gridlock followed, and Obama’s agenda was fossilized after the enactment of the disastrous Obamacare.

Gridlock ensured that the government’s share of the gross national product is falling to traditional levels. Apparently Obama now looks back at that as a good thing. Is the logic that Obama deliberately and diabolically so turned off the electorate that it voted Republicans into office to thwart his huge borrowing, so that he could take credit for declining deficits?

Obama feels he has new leverage with Iran and Russia. But if that is true, the opportunity did not derive from his heralded reset policies, which offered outreach while blaming the prior administration for the tense relations with those two countries. Instead, the oil-price crash of late 2014 — brought about by private American drillers and conniving Middle East oil sheiks — robbed Iran, Russia, and Venezuela of hundreds of billions of dollars in income.

That shortfall meant internal instability, smaller subsidies to terrorists, fewer cut-rate arms sales, and less direct aid to America’s enemies. In contrast, as far as his own initiatives go, Obama does not brag much about the bombing of Libya, the pullout of all troops from a once-quiet Iraq, supposed red lines and deadlines in the Middle East, or the expected calm in Afghanistan after he has sent home all U.S. constabulary troops.

Perhaps Obama believes that he jawboned against new energy production in hopes of enraging domestic producers to the point where they would double up their efforts on private lands, which in turn would help lower oil prices — all as part of a grand Machiavellian plan to weaken our petro enemies. If so, bravo.

Obama takes credit for the fact that gas prices at home have crashed, which when he entered office he would have labeled a bad thing because it would spike the driving of carbon-spewing vehicles and heat up the planet. He apparently assumed, however, that the private sector would keep drilling when he predicted in 2012 that it could not lower prices much by doing just that.

Again, maybe that twisted logic was part of a brilliantly convoluted plan to discredit green wind and solar subsidies, whose corrupt crony capitalism had weakened his administration. In any case, suddenly there is no more administration talk of hoping gasoline prices climb to European levels or that electricity costs skyrocket. Steven Chu’s mutterings and the ideal of a family of five packed into a Prius on the way to the high-speed-railroad station seem like yesteryear.

Obama talked a lot about obstreperous Republicans blocking his legislative agenda. But, since 2011, congressional opposition has actually helped Obama. Even Democrats hope that he will stop his current spate of executive orders, not so much because the edicts are probably unconstitutional, or because they are ideologically unwelcome, but because they are unpopular and may make life more difficult for Democrats in Congress. It is much wiser to damn Republican reactionaries while allowing them to make the necessary changes that will enhance Obama’s final two years in office. The mystery is not that Obama the consummate politician takes credit for something that he had nothing to do with or in fact opposed, but rather the thought processes necessary to explain how opposing energy recovery is proof of support for its effects or how his thwarted new spending proposals prove his fiscal sobriety.

Conservatives complain that Obama spends too much time on the golf course. But Obama’s ups and downs in the polls reflect the fact that the less the public sees or hears of him, the more it likes the idea rather than the reality of the president. The logic may again be deliberate and perhaps something like the following: “The more that my opponents stop my progressive agenda, and the more that I disappear from Washington in shorts and polo shirts to head for the putting greens, the more the nation moves ahead and credits whoever happens to nominally occupy the White House.” Some polls have shown a recent upsurge in Obama’s persistently weak ratings; if so, they coincide with the collapse in gasoline prices, the decline of unchecked federal spending, the long holiday when Americans were too busy to worry much about politics, and Obama’s own long absence golfing in Hawaii, when he was neither seen nor heard.

Cheap energy, a falling deficit, a roaring stock market, and the fact that America still survives as the freest and most open economy in the world explain why the U.S. is belatedly resurgent after six years of stagnation. It is hard to Europeanize America in six years; and the Obama effort to do so will make it difficult for progressives to see it attempted again for some time.

So there is no longer talk of Obama ushering in a new age of progressive politics, given that on his watch the Democrats lost both Houses of Congress and turned out to be the best thing for the Republican party in 86 years. In polls on his major initiatives — immigration amnesties, Obamacare, the Keystone pipeline, race relations — the public is opposed to the administration’s record. The next year may well see Congress or the courts — or both — neuter many of the Obama executive orders and presidential memoranda on the Affordable Care Act and immigration. Nothing could be better for Obama’s popularity than to cry crocodile tears for his pruned-away agenda.

A supposedly permanent Obama coalition of minorities and progressive elites is hemorrhaging for two simple reasons. First, the divisive talk that the Obama team engaged in to gin up block minority voting apparently turns off one old voter for each new one it energizes. Moreover, it is hard to make the case that America is racist, when people of color the world over are crashing the U.S. borders by any means necessary. Second, while there is plenty of evidence that in 2008 and 2012 Obama galvanized new voters, there is little evidence that they voted — or will vote in the future — in such record numbers for a liberal candidate other than Obama himself. Again, the result of the Obama electoral strategy seems to be that he has empowered his opposition in a way unseen in eight decades — and allowed himself to become a nominal president who will take credit for all that transpires contrary to his intentions. Maybe he has accepted that empowering conservative opposition would allow him to boast of an unworkable agenda in theory, while in fact seeing it quietly shelved.

All this is not to say that Obama did not make major changes in American life. Health care is in turmoil. The national debt will have nearly doubled during the Obama tenure. Racial divisiveness is worse than at any time in the last three decades. The number of those on federal and state entitlements is also at a record high. Defense spending in real terms is lower than at any time since the 1930s — and we know how that turned out. America is seen abroad as hesitant, unreliable, and confused.

The next president will probably not talk of borrowing $1 trillion a year to stimulate the economy. Shovel-ready jobs will be a bad joke, along with Cash for Clunkers and not losing your existing health plan. The next president will not lecture abroad about America’s supposed failings or the need for radical reset, other than to disown Obama’s aberrant foreign policy. She will not belittle the effect of new oil drilling on gasoline prices.

Democrat or Republican, the next president will praise, but then ignore, Obama the iconic president. The president in 2017 will assume that a defiant America on autopilot kept working despite, not because of, Obama’s policies.

And Obama himself? He will probably enjoy a lucrative post-presidency deriding his opponents, whose opposition ended up helping him, while praising his own failed policies, which neutered his presidency.

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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