Sunday, November 4, 2012

The President Behind the Myth

Pay no attention to the President behind the myth!
Over the weekend, Peggy Noonan attempted to put her finger on the nation's political pulse, as is often her wont, by detailing President Obama's meeting with reality over the past four years. Here are some key bits (though the whole thing is worth reading):
All of his stars were perfectly aligned. He could do anything. And then it all changed. At a certain point he lost the room... 
Why did the president make such mistakes? Why did he make decisions that seemed so unknowing, and not only in retrospect? Because he had so much confidence, he thought whatever he did would work. He thought he had "a gift," as he is said to have told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He thought he had a special ability to sway the American people, or so he suggested to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But whenever he went over the heads of the media and Congress and went to the people, in prime-time addresses, it didn't really work. He did not have a magical ability to sway. And—oddly—he didn't seem to notice. It is one thing to think you're Lebron. It's another thing to keep missing the basket and losing games and still think you're Lebron. And that really was the problem: He had the confidence without the full capability. And he gathered around him friends and associates who adored him, who were themselves talented but maybe not quite big enough for the game they were in. They understood the Democratic Party, its facts and assumptions. But they weren't America-sized. They didn't get the country so well. It is a mystery why the president didn't second-guess himself more, doubt himself. Instead he kept going forward as if it were working.
Now, some readers might question Noonan's objectivity. After all, she was a speechwriter for the first President Bush who has written positive books about President Reagan and, to top it off, writes for the conservative opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. All true. But here's what she said about then-candidate Obama in 2008:
He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.
Noonan's opinion on the President, then, has gone from fervent praise to thorough disappointment in just about four years. One cannot fault her buying into the myth of Barack Obama - that he was a preternaturally gifted politician and leader. It was, in fact, quite in keeping with the spirit of the times. A sampling of opinion from journalists - who are supposed to "speak truth to power" and "afflicted the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" as part of an anti-authoritarian ethos that seems never to activate when a Democrat holds the White House - shows this quite plainly. Here's Ezra Klein, now at the Washington Post:
Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.
And Evan Thomas, then of Newsweek:
Well, we were the good guys in 1984, it felt that way. It hasn't felt that way in recent years. So Obama’s had, really, a different task We're seen too often as the bad guys. And he – he has a very different job from – Reagan was all about America, and you talked about it. Obama is ‘we are above that now.’ We're not just parochial, we're not just chauvinistic, we're not just provincial. We stand for something – I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God...
And Mark Morford, SF Gate columnist
Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.  
Now, the point of these selections is not to demonstrate an attitude held only by certain members of the media. Indeed, to deny President Obama's appeal to a vast swath of the electorate in November 2008 and early 2009 is to deny history. But to deny that the he has come a long way since then is equally foolish. Let us tackle each part of this myth, in turn.

1) Barack Obama is a great leader. Obama's supposedly incredible ability to inspire and orate was and remains the root of this view, still held by many of his adherents and partisans. It has, to put it lightly, remarkably little evidence. While some conservative critics of Obama often unfairly claim that the President never held a real job before being president, the truth of the matter is that he did have several jobs before being president, but demonstrated no exceptional quality of leadership in any of them; most of them, rather, barely involved executive responsibilities at all. Here is a list c. 2005:
  • Student, Occidental College/Columbia University, 1979-1983
  • Business International Corporation, 1983
  • New York Public Interest Research Group, 1984
  • Community Organizer, Developing Communities Project (Chicago), 1985-1988
  • Student, Harvard Law School, 1988-1991
  • Editor, Harvard Law Review, 1988-1989
  • President, Harvard Law Review, 1990-1991
  • Summer Intern, Sidley & Austin law firm, 1989
  • Summer Intern, Hopkins & Sutter law firm, 1990
  • Illinois Project Vote, 1992
  • Lecturer - Consitutional Law, Chicago Law School, 1992-2004
  • Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland law firm, 1993-2004
  • Illinois Senator, 13th District, 1996-2004
  • U.S. Senator, Illinois, 2005-present
Add in "Presidential candidate, 2006-2008," and "President 2008-2012," and that's it. The closest Obama gets to a position of leadership is President of Harvard Law Review, an admittedly prestigious post, though an academic one. He spent the rest of his professional life as a "community organizer," an intern, and a politician who sure liked to vote "present" (i.e., "no opinion). In the last presidential campaign, candidate Obama's lack of executive experience emerged as an issue even among mainstream outlets, he said that his leadership of his presidential campaign itself was sufficient evidence that he would be a good president.  

To be fair, the country in 2008 decided that experience wasn't a necessary qualification, and John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his VP candidate undercut that narrative significantly anyway. Obama became president, in part, by assuring the country that his lack of experience was a qualifier, that he was so untainted by Washington that he would be able not merely to cross but rather to transcend partisan lines. So how did he do? 
2) Barack Obama is a great politician.
President Obama's rise to prominence in the early 2000s did not result entirely from a great leftward lurch of the country starting near the end of the Bush years, as many of his supporters like to think. It was, if anything, more from his bipartisan tone, which he often struck back in those days. Here's what he said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.  
Obama skeptics in 2007 and 2008 pointed to his liberal voting record (his ranking as 2007's most liberal senator, for example) as evidence that he would not govern as he spoke. But this myth of Obama persisted, though it began to fade away in the face of the push-and-pull of politics. In early 2009, as President Obama tried to negotiate the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Congress, he replied to Republican objections by simply saying: "I won." Not long after that, when Sen. John McCain began to argue calmly with President Obama at the Healthcare Summit (remember that?), President Obama struck down McCain's objections by reminding him that "the election is over." Both bills ended up passing with scant Republican support. In the summer of 2011, during the heat of debt ceiling negotiations, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had neared a deal when the President called for more tax increases; Boehner backed away, and Obama was furious. (And though this post is already too long to address it fully, let us not forget his striking inability to move public opinion to his side, as with the healthcare bill, which remains unpopular to this day despite dozens of speeches.)

The obvious rebuttal to the above paragraph is that the Republicans are simply so extreme that compromise with them was - and remains - impossible. But in 1994, the previous occasion on which "angry white men" voted conservatives into a large House majority, there was also a Democratic President: Bill Clinton, a favorite of this blog (not really). Clinton had to contend with a feisty group of Republicans led by Newt Gingrich. But in his contentions with Newt, Clinton always came out ahead. He outmaneuvered Gingrich in that era's government near-shutdown; and he famously "triangulated" to earn himself most of the credit for the the popular budget-balancing, trade-liberalizing, and welfare-reforming legislation of the era. So, what's the difference?

Bill Clinton, for all his faults, governed a red state for many years. He actually had to discover what Republicans were like, what they believed, and what they wanted well before he went into Washington. President Obama never had to do that. He has spent nearly all of his professional life in leftist habitats - academia, community organizing, Illinois - and so never had to deal with legitimate Republican opposition before becoming President; upon becoming President, he dealt with it poorly. That is unlikely to change.

So what has President Obama become on the eve of the election? No longer is he a post-partisan healer. No longer is he a Platonic philosopher-king. No longer does he even inspire much adoration from supporters; many 2008 Obama voters are weakly voting against Romney, an amazing recalibration. The myth of Obama has collapsed with the ecstasy of his supporters and support four years ago; the era of hope and change is over. What remains is nothing more than a conventionally liberal politician with inadequate leadership experience.


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