Once Upon a Time . . .
Whatever happened to the old Barack Obama?
Once upon a time, a fresh new politician, Barack Obama — black, young, eloquent, and hip — soared with rhetoric about hope and change. The people were mesmerized. What a contrast with the tongue-tied outgoing president, George W. Bush, and his unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!
Presidential Candidate Obama sensed their ecstasy, and so he made two great promises: 1. Whatever Bush was, he would not be, and 2. despite the right-wing slander about his former intimacy with Bill Ayers, the Reverend Wright, Father Pfleger, Rashid Khalidi, and all his other old Chicago radical friends, Obama would be a centrist, a cooler version of Bill Clinton. There were to be no more red/blue state divides. The most partisan politician in the Senate promised a new era of bipartisanship. He who had profited from identity politics would suddenly be beyond race.
The people were considering voting for this unknown, fresh, hope-and-change candidate — a decision made easier after the financial meltdown of mid-September 2008. They decided then that they wanted a new-frontier moderate, a JFK for the 21st century, who would put competence and style over ideology — and clean up the financial mess left by Wall Street and the greedy Republicans.
Obama also promised that he would craft a foreign policy from the bipartisan center, while making us liked abroad once more. During the campaign, to reassure the doubtful, he name-dropped at length Republicans with whom he would consult: old centrist pros like Dick Lugar and Bob Gates, as well as four-star generals.
But having been elected, President Obama sensed that, just maybe, the United States was part of the problem rather than the solution. So he shunned Israel and warmed up to Syria and the Palestinians. He cut off relations with Honduras. He ignored our ally Colombia while reaching out to Castro, Chavez, and Ortega. Putin’s Russia received more deference than did most of Russia’s old vassals in Eastern Europe. The British were snubbed in gratuitous fashion.
When hundreds of thousands of Iranian dissidents went out in the streets to protest their theocracy’s rigged voting, Obama voted present — or perhaps accepted beforehand that the reformers would fail. After all, dealing with a lunatic revolutionary Iranian government would showcase far better his own singular multicultural finesse.
Meanwhile, Obama went on an apology tour abroad. He inflated the accomplishments of the Islamic world, magnified his own country’s sins, and once again blamed Bush for America’s global unpopularity. In short, it was not intrinsic differences in ideology and objectives, but the prior president, that explained the tension with Europe, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
A common theme was that the new president, Barack Obama — suddenly referencing his family’s Muslim roots and his African lineage in a way that others dared not during the campaign — was as skeptical of America’s history as were its critics, who likewise doubted there was anything “exceptional” about American democracy.
During the campaign, Nominee Obama talked of fiscal sobriety. He damned the Bush deficits. And he warned voters that his comprehensive agenda might have to wait a bit while we put our financial house in order. From time to time, Obama brought old Paul Volcker out of the closet and proclaimed him a key adviser — the subtext being that Obama, too, was an inflation fighter, a budget balancer, and a fiscal hawk of the first order. The likes of Warren Buffett assured us that all this fiscal seriousness was authentic. So the people were relieved and found another reason to vote for the moderate — only to be shocked when he submitted a budget nearly $2 trillion in the red, with plans to add $9 trillion more to the soaring national debt.
In the spring and summer of 2008, when gas soared and right-wingers started chanting “Drill, baby, drill,” Barack Obama replied to his rival, John McCain, that all America’s energy cards would be on the table — oil, gas, nuclear, and new sources of petroleum in tar and shale. The wavering voters were once more relieved, and encouraged that their would-be president was an American nationalist who wanted to use our own energy as we transitioned to wind and solar.
But then gas prices dropped. Obama was elected — and there would be no new offshore drilling after all, no promise to use clean coal, and little if anything planned about nuclear power. Instead, Americans got one Van Jones, some sort of environmental “czar,” who had a long history of ritually trashing the American economy, American agriculture, and American coal producers — while derogating George W. Bush as a “crack-head” oilman as addicted to petroleum as an addict is to cocaine. (Presumably Mr. Jones does not fly to his many conferences on carbon-spewing jets and is not picked up by gasoline-burning taxis.)
“Distortions!” Candidate Obama screamed, when charged with wanting a Canadian-style health-care system. All he wanted to do, Obama swore, was lower our costs and insure the uninsured. But then President Obama somehow demanded that a 1,000-page blueprint of a proposed government takeover of the nation’s health care be voted on before August recess — as if even one more month of treating patients the way we have for the last 100 years simply would be too much.
Once upon a time, Candidate Obama also assured skeptical voters that he would show us how to transcend race. He was no Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, who used skin color and white guilt for careerist purposes. The Reverend Wright, “typical white person,” Michelle Obama’s “downright mean country,” and the Pennsylvania “clingers” remark were mere aberrations of the exhausting campaign, hyped by the shameless right wing.
But soon the people got the attorney general of the United States calling them racial cowards and dismissing voter-intimidation suits against club-wielding Black Panthers who had swarmed voting booths. Cambridge police were relegated to Neanderthal profilers who stereotyped the innocent, such as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Environment czar Van Jones warned of white conspiracies to pollute the ghetto and bragged that blacks, unlike whites, did not go on public-school shooting sprees. The nation’s most powerful politicians, like House Ways and Means chairman Charlie Rangel and New York governor David Paterson, for some strange reason, were suddenly victims of racial bias, which alone explained their travails. All this was not supposed to happen in the age of Obama.
Bush trampled on the Constitution, Candidate Obama alleged. Without a major terrorist attack against the homeland in seven years, the voters had the luxury to consider those charges. They seemed to agree that Bush and Cheney were nearly as much a threat to our freedoms as was Osama bin Laden.
But soon President Obama read the classified intelligence briefings. Suddenly military tribunals, renditions, the PATRIOT Act, Predator assassinations, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not just Bush conspiracies after all, but serious, necessary tools of American overseas contingency operations to thwart real man-caused disasters. The media, Hollywood, and the intelligentsia agreed, and thus Code Pink, Michael Moore, and a screaming Al Gore either quieted down or dropped out the news.
No lobbyists, Obama thundered during the campaign — not one! — would serve in his administration. Impending legislation would appear on government web sites for the people’s perusal. White House logs would be available from Day One to enlighten the voters about who did and did not enter the people’s house.
Cabinet nominees and officials would be beyond ethical reproach. Speaker Pelosi would “drain the swamp,” end the “culture of corruption,” and ensure the “the most ethical Congress ever.” There would be no more plants at news conference; no staged questions from administration hacks; no serial presidential addresses hogging the airways at prime time; no constant press conferences of a media-hungry president; no direct talks to school kids on state television screens.
Barack Obama, you see, had felt the pulse of the people. He was an old-pro community organizer, a street-savvy politician who had encouraged dissent and vocal protest.
But then President Obama appointed lobbyists. For months he forgot all about the White House logs and websites. His cabinet nominees had strange habits, such as not paying their taxes despite advocating higher rates for everyone else. Obama’s face was everywhere; he held more press conferences in eight months than did Bush in eight years. Questions and questioners were on occasion planted or staged.
The community organizing and protests of others now became regrettable, even unpatriotic. Criticism of the establishment was the work of brownshirts, mobs, Nazis, and the selfish, who had no moral or religious concern about the health of others and were envious of the success of their president. Insurance companies wanted even more astronomical profits. Doctors were greedy and took out tonsils needlessly for profit. Surgeons rushed to lop off diabetics’ limbs for princely sums of $50,000 and more.
The new town-hallers and tea-partiers who went to meetings and press conferences and protested their government were not Chicago-style hoi polloi, but counterrevolutionaries or insurance toadies who feared real reformers. The dissidents were, of course, also racists. These inauthentic Astroturfers simply could not tolerate a black president and so, like the doomed dinosaurs, they mindlessly bellowed out at the new landscape that they could not live within.
Once upon a time the people deluded themselves into thinking a suave extremist was to be their nuts-and-bolts centrist. Now they don’t know whether to be mad at him or themselves — or both.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.