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Works and Days

America 101 With Dean Obama

May 15th, 2010 - 1:42 pm

America is now a campus, and Obama is our Dean

This is the strangest presidency I have seen in my lifetime. President Obama gives soaring lectures on civility, but still continues his old campaign invective (“get in their face,” “bring a gun to a knife fight,” etc.) with new attacks  on particular senators, Rush Limbaugh, and entire classes of people—surgeons, insurers, Wall Street, those at Fox News, tea-partiers, etc.

And like the campaign, he still talks of bipartisanship (remember, he was the most partisan politician in the Senate), but has rammed through health care without a single Republican vote. His entire agenda—federal take-overs of businesses, near two-trillion-dollar deficits, health care, amnesty, and cap and trade—does not earn a majority in the polls. Indeed, the same surveys reveal him to be the most polarizing president in memory.

His base was hyper-critical of deficit spending under Bush, the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, and government involvement with Wall Street. But suddenly even the most vocal of the left have gone silent as Obama’s felonies have trumped Bush’s misdemeanors on every count.

All this reminds me of the LaLa land of academia. Let me explain.

That Was Then, This is Now

Last week, Obama was at it again. He blasted the oil companies and his own government for lax regulation in the Gulf, apparently convinced that no one in the media would consider his last 16 months of governance in any way responsible for, well, federal governance. (I don’t have strong views on the degree of culpability a president has for lax federal agencies amid disasters, only that I learned from the media between 2004-8 that a president must accept a great deal of blame after most catastrophes [at least Katrina was nature- rather than human- induced].)

Obama also trashed, inter alia, Halliburton for the spill, as he had done on other matters ritually in the campaign (“I will finally end the abuse of no-bid contracts once and for all,” “The days of sweetheart deals for Halliburton will be over when I’m in the White House”). Obama seemed to assume that few cared that his administration just gave Halliburton a $568 million no-bid contract.

Standards for Thee, But Not …

When a Senator Obama a while back weighed in on the ill-fated Harriet Miers, he quite logically predicated his skepticism on a dearth of publications (though I found that embarrassing at the time since Senator/Law Professor Obama was essentially without a record of scholarly work), and an absence of judicial experience—both legitimate concerns. So, of course, are we now to expect Obama to talk up his recent Supreme Court nominee Ms. Kagan, and ignore her relative lack of scholarly experience without a judicial past (sort of like being secretary of education without having taught anything)? Does the president, who as a senator voted to deny a court seat to Alito and Roberts, think Kagan is better qualified than either, and, if so, on what grounds—more scholarship, more judicial experience, a more diverse upbringing, intangible criteria like once recruiting Barack Obama?

I once wondered during the campaign whether such serial contradictions in the Obama narrative ever mattered. During his denials of ever hearing Rev. Wright engage in the pastor’s trademark hate speech, I recalled Obama’s 2004 interview with the Sun-Times when he was running for the Senate and wanted to boast of his religious fides. When asked, “Do you still attend Trinity?” Obama snapped right back, “Yep. Every week. 11 o’clock service.” Every week, but mysteriously not one in which Wright did his customary race-bashing?

When for the first time since 1976 a presidential candidate reneged on promises to participate in public financing in the general relations, I remembered Obama’s early promise to do the opposite. The press slept on that.

The list of his blatant contradictions could be multiplied. I’ve written here about the past demagoguing on tribunals, Predators, Guantanamo, renditions, Afghanistan, Iraq, wiretaps, intercepts, and the Patriot Act, and the subsequent Obama embrace of all of them, in some cases even trumping Bush in his exuberance.

The Never-ending Story

We could play this game with the entire health care debate—all on C-SPAN, will save billions, not cost billions as the CBO now attests, etc.—the pledge not to hire lobbyists or allow earmarks, the pledge to post legislation for a specified time on the government website, the pledge to prohibit his team from returning within 2 years to the private lobbying revolving door, and so on.

The blatant hypocrisy and untruths are superimposed on a constant (it has not yet begun to let up in his second year) refrain of either “Bush did it” or “the opposition won’t let me be bipartisan.”

Where does this disregard for the truth arise? On the most superficial level, of course, Obama realizes that the media is obsequious and sanctions almost anything he does.  He knows that his base was always interested in power, not principle (has anyone seen any war protests the last few weeks against Afghanistan or Iraq, or Guantanamo, or the quadrupling of Predator attacks? Or for that matter, are there anti-Obama Hispanic protests over the increased crackdown on employers and greater deportations than during the Bush era?).

America 101

Yet again, neither the press nor his chameleon followers quite explain what is going on. Instead, I think we, the American people, are seen by Obama as a sort of Ivy League campus, with him as an untouchable dean. So we get the multicultural bromides, the constant groupthink, and the reinvention of the self that we see so often among a professional class of administrator in universities (we used to get their memos daily and they read like an Obama teleprompted speech).  Given his name, pedigree, charisma, and eloquence, Obama could say or do almost anything—in the way race/class/gender adjudicate reality on campus, or perhaps in the manner the old gentleman C, pedigreed rich students at prewar Princeton sleepwalked through their bachelor’s degrees, almost as a birthright. (I am willing to apologize for this crude analogy when the Obama Columbia undergraduate transcript is released and explains his next rung Harvard.) In other words, the public does not grasp to what degree supposedly elite universities simply waive their own rules when they find it convenient.

In academia, there are few consequences for much of anything; but in Obama’s case his legal career at Chicago seems inexplicable without publications (and even more surreal when Law Dean Kagan laments on tape her difficulties in recruiting him to the law school—but how would that be possible when a five- or six-book law professor from a Texas or UC Irvine would never get such an offer from a Chicago or Harvard?).

What You Say You Are

On an elite university campus what you have constructed yourself into always matters more than what you have done. An accent mark here, a hyphenated name there is always worth a book or two. There is no bipartisanship or indeed any political opposition on campuses; if the Academic Senate weighs in on national issues to “voice concern,” the ensuing margin of vote is usually along the lines of Saddam’s old lopsided referenda.

In other words, Obama assumed as dean he would talk one way, do another, and was confident he could “contextualize” and “construct” a differing narrative—to anyone foolish enough who questioned the inconsistency. As we have seen with Climategate, or the Gore fraud, intent always trumps empiricism in contemporary intellectual circles. Obama simply cannot be held to the same standard we apply to most other politicians—given his heritage, noble intention, and landmark efforts to transform America into something far fairer.

Like so many academics, Obama becomes petulant when crossed, and like them as well, he “deigns” to know very little out of his field (from Cinco de Mayo to the liberation of Auschwitz), and only a little more in it. Obama voiced the two main gospels of the elite campus: support for redistributive mechanisms with other people’s wealth; and while abroad, a sort of affirmative action for less successful nations: those who are failing and criticized the U.S. under Bush proved insightful and worthy of outreach ( a Russia or Syria); but those who allied themselves with us (an Israel or Colombia) are now suspect.

The Intrusions of the Real World

How does our tenure with Obama as dean end?

I have no idea other than I think at some point Obama’s untruths, hypocrisies, and contradictions will, in their totality, finally remind the voter that he is a citizen and not a student.

After all, America is not a campus. It has real jobs that are not lifelong sinecures. Americans work summers. There are consequences when rhetoric does not match reality. Outside of Harvard or Columbia, debt has to be paid back and is not called stimulus. We worry about jobs lost, not those in theory created or saved. We don’t blame predecessors for our own ongoing failures. Those who try to kill us are enemies, whose particular grievances we don’t care much to know about. Diversity is lived rather than professed; temporizing is not seen as reflection, but weakness.

And something not true is not a mere competing narrative, but a flat-out lie.

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