Politics & Policy

Obama’s Chicago Presidency

(Pool Image/Getty)
What you can do if you don’t care what anybody says.

Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) was a vocal critic both of President Obama’s executive-action opening to Cuba and his nuclear non-proliferation talks with Iran. In the midst of his loud opposition, he found himself suddenly the target of renewed federal charges that had aired much earlier without consequence. I think the message was not that the administration was worried over appearances, but rather that it wished to remind all of Washington that it actually welcomed the appearance of not being worried over the idea of federal prosecutorial power being used for tit-for-tat vendettas. Malice is a valuable political tool for Barack Obama.

Benjamin Netanyahu apparently bothered President Obama. What could that possibly entail, given the historic alliance between Israel and the United States? From the petty malice of Obama-administration aides leaking slurs that Netanyahu was a coward and chickens–t to the fundamental malevolence of community-organizing Netanyahu’s opponents in an effort to defeat him at the polls to leaking previously classified information about Israel’s nuclear deterrent, the message is again Chicagoan. Obama in adolescent fashion put it best in the 2008 campaign when he urged his flock, “I want you to argue with them and get in their face,” and when he later lifted a Chicago line from screenwriter David Mamet’s dialogue in The Untouchables to say to his base, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” No wonder Obama — despite having once been on the receiving end of a racial slur from Senator Harry Reid — recently praised the outgoing Senate majority leader, whose style and modus operandi were akin to Obama’s own.

During the seven years when Obama faced election, reelection, and two midterm elections, he warned on over 20 occasions that it would be neither legal nor ethical to grant executive amnesties to illegal aliens. What was stunning about his refrain was the high-minded manner in which he disarmed his base by warning them that he could not act unconstitutionally. But once he faced no more referenda on his power, he cared little about polls that showed widespread disapproval of amnesty, and simply began issuing the sort of presidential fiats that he had correctly said he didn’t have the power to issue.

The Right was shocked by the brazen hypocrisy of Obama, who once warned the country of just the sort of renegade president that he proved to be. But that again misses the point. Obama was not embarrassed, but emboldened, by the disconnect, as if to say, “I not only bypassed Congress to issue amnesties, but also refuted my own warnings that to do so would be illegal. And so what are you going about it?” If the speeder goes through a red light with impunity right in front of a parked patrolman, what then do we think of the patrolman, the speeder — and the sanctity of traffic lights?

We see the Chicago way with Iran as well. In the midst of negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader chants the tired mantra “Death to America.” The Iranian military builds a mockup of a U.S. carrier to practice attacks on it. The Obama position proves more lenient than that of either the U.N. or our European partners, which is not an easy thing to do. Yet Obama doubles down and continues full bore to squeeze out any kind of agreement he can — even if that means it might be merely oral, not written, and a bastardized treaty somehow designed to avoid Senate scrutiny. The point is not that all this is outrageous, but rather that it is deliberately outrageous, again begging the question, “So what are you going to do about it?” Obama’s Chicago sense appeals to the lowest common denominator: The more brazenly he is making a point, the more he thinks he will earn a certain admiration from his base, a sense of some sort that he is capable of anything and that progressive morality trumps antiquated laws. The full Obama reminds me of a high-school incident when a teacher corralled an aggressor accused of serially bullying another student; when he asked the perpetrator to apologize to his target, the aggressor instead slugged his victim in front of the teacher, and shouted, “What are you going to do about it?”

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Some thought Obama’s serial untruths about Obamacare would doom the ill-fated program: Millions really did lose their plans; they lost their doctors as well; Obamacare proved not to lower but to raise costs; it did not shrink the deficit but caused more federal expense. When Obama picked and chose which parts of the federal law he would enforce, others objected that it was patently illegal for an executive not to faithfully execute laws on the books. But again, that is exactly the point: If a president can lie about a program to secure its passage and, when it proves flawed, select elements to discard or delay, then he can do almost anything — and we should appreciate that he can do almost anything.

If the president believes that, after all the shenanigans of Lois Lerner, there is still not even a “smidgen” of corruption in the IRS, then the shot across the bow is not that the IRS is now politicized, but that it is hopelessly politicized. Again,what are we going to do about it?

In the old Clinton–Gingrich formula of budget give-and-take, when the national debt was about a third of the present $18 trillion, Republicans agreed to defense cuts and tax increases, and Democrats conceded budget freezes, and eventually for a time there was a balanced budget, gimmicks and all. Under Obama, Republicans are to agree to defense cuts and tax hikes — while Obama increases social spending, runs $600 billion annual deficits, laments frugality and austerity, and lets others worry about the crushing debt incurred on his watch, the diminution of national security, and the stifling effect of tax hikes. What is the next president going to do — raise taxes higher, cut popular entitlements, disband the Marine Corps, and scrounge to pay down the debt?

Obama has chosen to skip various widely attended anniversaries, including the liberation of Auschwitz and the Battle of Gettysburg. He passed on the commemorative march of world leaders who condemned the terrorist killings in Paris. Critics pounced. How does the president have time to meet with GloZell, do his March Madness NCAA-tournament basketball picks, or banter with Internet bloggers if he cannot meet with the current chief of NATO? Why does he jet out to California to do Jimmy Kimmel, but refuse to fly to Paris to show solidarity against Islamic violence? Why would Obama fly all the way to Denmark to lobby for a Chicago Olympics, but not attend the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Again, those are the wrong questions.

Whether Obama avoided these events out of lassitude or by intent matters little: The point is that it was his pleasure not to attend any of them. The full Obama cares nothing about appearances. Indeed, he feels that such disdain magnifies his godhead, as someone absolutely immune to tradition, protocol, and criticism. Say that he golfs too much, and he will golf even more. You object that he sermonizes on global warming while setting records for use of Air Force One, often on a parallel track with his wife’s jumbo jet, or lectures farmers on the California drought for a few minutes on his way to hit the Palm Springs irrigated golf courses? All that is not the disconnect, but the point.

It is distasteful for a president to weigh in on a local, ongoing, and racially charged criminal case. Obama not only did just that with the Trayvon Martin shooting, but in such a way that could only exacerbate racial tensions — and in a reactionary fashion of expressing solidarity with critics of George Zimmerman on the basis of his own shared skin color with the deceased. If President Clinton had editorialized in mediis rebus about the O.J. trial with something like “Nicole might have looked liked the second daughter I never had,” then we would have assumed not just that he was a racist, but that he wanted us to think he was a racist — and that we could not do much about that fact.

Susan Rice on five televised occasions lied about Benghazi when she serially insisted that the deaths of four Americans were due to a spontaneous demonstration over a video — a deception she never later corrected. More recently, she insisted that Bowe Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction” when she knew that most of the evidence clearly pointed to his being a deserter at best and a traitor at worse, and that the five Afghan terrorists we freed in the exchange from Guantanamo were the worst of the worst in captivity there. Just as Rice was promoted to national security adviser after the Benghazi untruth, so too she knows there will be no fallout over her flat-out distortions about Bergdahl. Obama’s point, again, is not that Rice has a problem with the truth, but that the fact of a national security adviser’s disingenuousness is of absolutely no consequence.

What then is the full Obama presidency? It is the quest for extralegal power not just by ignoring the law, tradition, or custom, but by doing so flagrantly and without concern, to the point of rendering critics impotent — and thereby accruing even more power to enrage and embarrass them. In similar circumstances, the Roman biographer Suetonius noted of the Twelve Caesars that the offense itself was not so much the point, but rather the demonstration of committing the offense with impunity and disdain.

Once that pen-and-phone threshold has been crossed, anything is possible — and even the critics of Obama now belatedly accept that. In brilliantly diabolical fashion, the president of the United States has all but ruined the Democratic party in Congress and the state legislatures, but has also confounded his Republican opponents by not caring a whit about his own nihilism — as if he is supposed to worry about ending the congressional careers of his supposed allies?

After all, if someone is going to ignore the law or what tradition demands, then why does he need a legislative majority to do it? Obama is more powerful in defeat than he ever was in victory. Like a seasoned Chicago pol, he reminds his auditors and critics that not only does he not care about the appearance of his actions, but also that no else does either. He all but says, “Each time I issue an illegal executive order, my polls go up, and the more my enemies howl and my friends cringe.” It becomes more hazardous — ask Senator Menendez or an audited Tea Party group — to object to an Obama abuse than for Obama to commit the abuse, which makes further abuse only more certain.

Given media obsequiousness, Obama feels that little scrutiny of his actions will follow. A move toward impeachment he might even hope for, given his iconic status and the community-organizing chance to smear anyone foolish enough to try it as a racist or bigot. If his conduct hurts the future of Hillary Clinton, who cares? Or rather, perhaps there is a hint that the damage was by intent. If Obama’s executive-order presidency weakens the stature of the U.S. abroad, then maybe it needed to be weakened. In a country where almost any law can be contravened by an executive order, where any statute can die through selective non-enforcement, where the IRS can hound opponents, where Israel is the enemy and Iran the friend, and even a senatorial ally can face indictment, anything is now possible.

And was not that the point all along?


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