Politics & Policy

What Obama Has Taught Us

(Photo Illustration: NRO; Pool Image/Getty)
Obama has built a legacy, all right: appeasement, staggering debt, racial animosity . . .

President Obama last week spiked the ball on the Supreme Court’s decisions to legalize gay marriage and to ratify the Affordable Care Act.

Yet it is difficult to see quite how Obama had much to do with these decisions — or, to the degree he did, that they are earth-shattering. He twice ran for president expressing opposition to gay marriage while emphasizing the religious element of holy matrimony, which, he argued, precluded same-sex marriages. Is he delighted that the Court ignored his prior views?

On the Obamacare front, all the Supreme Court did was to clean up the Affordable Care Act, in a postmodern ruling that the administration’s poorly worded law actually meant something other than what the text as written actually said. The Court’s intervention was an act of partisan salvation, not disinterested legal reasoning.

Obama’s trade pact passed only with Republican votes. Apparently free-traders in Congress wanted the deal more than they worried about the president’s taking credit for their eleventh-hour rescue of what otherwise would have been a strong rebuke from his own party.

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Nonetheless, Obama still talks of his “change” legacy, as if altering something necessarily meant improving it. Pulling all U.S. peacekeepers out of Iraq certainly changed the dynamics there, as ISIS can testify. The current talks with Iran will change Iranian ideas about how best to get the bomb. Normalizing relations with Stalinist Cuba also changes — as in increases — that regime’s viability.

Jimmy Carter was asked to evaluate President Obama’s foreign-policy record. He concluded that it was hard to identify any improvement in our relations with any nation since Obama took office, defining change as change for the worse. Carter for once is probably right. Some of our outright enemies — Vladimir Putin, for example — have changed by showing even more contempt for us than they did in 2008, apparently on the Munich pattern that appeasement wins, not praise for magnanimity, but rather contempt for obsequiousness. Hitler, remember, vowed to stomp on his benefactor, Neville Chamberlain, after the latter gave him what he wanted in 1938. “Worms,” the Führer scoffed of his appeasers.

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Iran so far has repaid Obama’s indulgence by blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier in military drills, de facto running affairs in three other Middle Eastern states — Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen — and brazenly renouncing almost all the basic elements of prior nonproliferation understandings, from on-site inspections to cessation of enrichment to kickback sanctions in the event of noncompliance. Iran embraces change, and looks forward to a nuclear future.

Apparently, the theocracy sees Barack Obama and John Kerry as hell-bent changers, willing to achieve their own legacies at the expense of the interests of their country and its allies — and thus as bewildering and worthy of contempt in a world where leaders are expected to promote their own people’s interests. Expect the geriatric Castros to share the same contempt for American outreach, and to double down on their anti-Americanism and their ruthless suppression of freedom to add spite to the embarrassment of U.S. appeasement. They see U.S. recognition as a big change that will further empower their police state.

What allies we have left in the Middle East seem either tired of the U.S. change or baffled by it.

What allies we have left in the Middle East seem either tired of the U.S. change or baffled by it — especially Israel, Jordan, the Gulf monarchies, and Egypt. All that can be said for a changing U.S. foreign policy is that our friends see the Iran deal as a framework for changing ideas about their own nuclear acquisition — on the logic that the institutionalization of American nonproliferation models makes it fairly easy for anyone to get a bomb. Not since Israel got the bomb has any other ally or friend of the United States gone nuclear. (China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea were hostile to the U.S. at the time of their nuclear acquisitions.) Obama may well change that trend too, as we see all sorts of former allies and friends. both in the Middle East and in the Pacific region. creeping toward becoming nuclear powers — fearing either that they are no longer protected by the U.S. or that, on Obama’s watch, too many crazy neighbors may go nuclear.

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Our friends have come to resent American change, especially the Obama administration’s sense of self-righteousness that judges partners on impossible standards that it does not apply to enemies or neutrals, such as Iran, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. Obama’s smugness turns old allies off — as by defining ISIS as a jayvee organization, or psychoanalyzing Putin as a class cut-up bent on a macho shtick when he gobbles up neighboring countries, or lecturing Israel on Obama’s rare insight on what is really in the Jewish state’s self-interest.

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If one wants an exemplar of change-failure, then look to Iraq or Libya. The abrupt pullout of all U.S. peacekeepers changed postwar Iraq, just as, if we had left Kosovo in 2001 or South Korea in 1955, the result would have been utter chaos. The logical outcome of bombing Libya without worry about what would follow on the ground was ISIS’s beheadings and “what difference does it make?” lies about Benghazi. Libya and Iraq are the faces of change.

The Europeans are flummoxed. Why that is so is another Obama lesson. In just six years, Obama’s defense cuts, his recessional from world leadership, and his abdication of a strong presence in the volatile Middle East — in other words, a changed foreign policy reminds our EU and NATO allies to be careful of the change you wish for. Socialist pacifism in Europe was always predicated on the presence of America’s friendly free-market military muscularity. What the Europeans wanted was not change but the continuance of an America quite unlike themselves, willing to subsidize their indulgences and to serve as a scapegoat for their fits of envious venting. Instead, they got a president who is a fellow democratic socialist who likewise believes in reducing Western military power and influence. Now they are baffled if not terrified about their wishes for change coming true.

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By bringing this about, Obama reminds us that European anti-Americanism was mostly a psychological tic, arising from dependency and a sense of inferiority — and always predicated on strong U.S. military and political leadership contextualizing European angst.

Obama, in truth, is not much interested in Europe, ancient or modern. For him, it is not the cradle of a singular Western civilization that brought consensual government, freedom, and rationalism into the world, but a once imperial and colonialist incubator of race, class, and gender oppression, quite dependent on the underappreciated discoveries and genius of the Islamic world. Why a bunch of privileged foreigners thought that their sophistication and traditions might win them exemption from an administration bent on exposing privilege and ensuring fairness is perplexing. In the eyes of the Obama administration, Europe is to the rest of the world what the 1 percent at home is to the 99 percent — a “you didn’t build that” elite in need of some Obama redistribution of power.

Obama’s most notable change legacies at home are debt, indifference to the law, and racial polarization. He is on schedule to have borrowed more money than all previous presidents combined. Debt can trump the gift of record U.S. oil production, which came about despite, not because of, Obama. Debt can hamper even natural recoveries from recessions. Debt can nullify the stimulus of endless near-zero interest rates.

Obama has taught us that the government can slash defense spending, hike income taxes, and still end up with half-trillion-dollar annual deficits, in a way unthinkable under the old Gingrich–Clinton paradigm of budgetary compromise. For the next two decades, American presidents will be paying down what Obama has squandered through jacking up social spending and not addressing entitlement and tax reform. Let us pray for continued near-zero interest rates — the only thing that will have allowed Obama to reach $20 trillion in national debt by 2017 without a Greek-like implosion. Obama’s changes have managed to make the deficit-spending George W. Bush administration seem fiscally timid.

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Obama does not much care for settled law. For him, enforcement of statutes hinges on the election cycle. Once there would be no more referenda, then Obama simply started interpreting immigration law or health-care mandates as he has seen fit. In theory, the next president could more or less do what he pleases, given that the media are on record that they have no objections to a president’s simply ignoring legal statutes. Not since Richard Nixon has a president so predicated enforcement of the laws on political expediency.

Not since Richard Nixon has a president so predicated enforcement of the laws on political expediency.

Little need be said about racial relations. They have changed too. Here the Obama legacy is twofold: The president has editorialized on the nation’s racial fault-lines, both trivial and fundamental — from the Professor Gates psychodrama to Trayvon Martin and Ferguson — and usually gotten it quite wrong. No other president would take the case of a Harvard professor being arrested for trying to break into a locked house (in fact, it was his own house, and he was quickly released) and turn it into a national metaphor for racist, stereotyping police. Nor would any other president use his sense of racial solidarity with the victim of a shooting to editorialize about an ongoing capital trial, or traffic in mythologies like the “hands up, don’t shoot” Ferguson fiasco, or claim that one deranged racist killer is proof that white America is still racist in its DNA. After nearly seven years, we know the Obama racial paradigm: Quite wealthy and privileged elites will lecture the members of the struggling middle class on their inherent “white privilege,” while the crises in the black community — high urban crime, escalating black-on-black murdering, epidemics of illegitimacy, drug use, and family disintegration — remain taboo subjects, given the need for record minority turnout and block voting at the polls. No president since Woodrow Wilson has so set back racial relations.

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Obama also has reminded us that “big government” is by nature incompetent and scary, given that the larger and more politicized it becomes, the more it will be bored with its assigned tasks. A growing government is a parasite whose reason to be is to expand at the expense of its host. Hiring people, not auditing what they do, is now the federal government’s aim.

Try a thought experiment about changes in government. Say “the ______ under Obama” and then fill in the blank with what follows: IRS, VA, NSA, GSA, EPA, TSA, DHS, ICE, Secret Service, NASA. Have these agencies “changed” and do we have more “hope” because of their evolution? Are any of these bureaucracies more transparent or efficient than in 2008? Do we associate their directors with skilled and honest leadership? Or do we see these alphabet soups corrupted by cronyism and politics, immune from audit and accountability, led by incompetents, and now mostly social-welfare organizations bent on patronage and redistributive engineering?

All this may be “the face of change,” but change is a neutral term that can be as calamitous as it once was welcomed.


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