This week the president’s positive ratings are hovering around 40-42%; in some polls there is a 10% gap or more between negative and positive appraisals. I expect that they will go back up, and then even lower as the year wears on. But the latest nosedive has prompted many on the left to attack Mr. Obama, from a psychological portrait offered by one Drew Westen to unusual carping from Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and E. J Dionne. Cornel West is back again, in rather vicious fashion reminding us that he supposedly helped to introduce Obama to us and now regrets that he did, given the president’s purported ingratitude. Often the critics invoke everything from Jimmy Carter parallels to the unease of European statesmen to emphasize their own disappointment (I think that is a fair and tame term, since I doubt their present disenchantment will result in not voting to reelect Obama).
How Could He?
As I can fathom this August of discontent, it runs something like this: at best Barack Obama is too aloof, professorial and unable temperamentally or unwilling politically to mix it up with Republicans. Therefore he has compromised far too much on various budget deals, which in part explains his sagging ratings and the general laments in the American and European press that Obama lacks leadership qualities. The nearly $5 trillion in new debt since 2009 is a needed, if too timid, “stimulus”; and if it is seen by some as too excessive, it can be easily remedied by new taxes on the wealthy — something Obama talks about a lot but does little to enact, this buskin Theramenes who bends with the wind.
At worst, there is a sort of victimization that might be described as, “Obama mesmerized us and therefore we did not quite appreciate how inexperienced and unaccomplished he was until now when we sobered up — and when it is too late.” Or as Drew Westen put it more bluntly and less kindly in the New York Times:
Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there—the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.
A number of us throughout 2008 and later were criticized for raising just these issues, both about Obama’s lack of experience and his Hamlet-like propensity of hesitation and his academic disengagement. But why this sudden about-face from former disciples?
With Friends Like These…
Politics, of course. The combination of sinking polls to the near 40% range, the stock market nosedive, the Standard and Poor’s downgrade, the tragedy in Afghanistan, the confusion over Libya, the embarrassing golf outings and First Family insensitive preferences for the aristocratic Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, and Costa del Sol have contributed to a general unease on the Left about Obama’s judgment, perhaps to the extent that he might well take the Left down in 2012, both in the House and Senate, whether he wins reelection or not.
But the argument remains incoherent: Obama is being blamed for not being liberal enough — after federalizing much of the health care delivery system, expanding government faster than at any time since 1933, borrowing more money in two and a half years than any president in history, absorbing companies, jawboning the wealthy, going after Boeing, reversing the order of the Chrysler creditors, adding vast new financial and environmental regulations, appointing progressives like a Van Jones or Cass Sunstein, and institutionalizing liberal protocols across the cabinet and bureaucracy, from the EPA to the Attorney General’s Office.
In other words, there is now an elite liberal effort to disentangle Obama from liberalism itself, and to suggest that his sagging polls are not a reflection of Obama’s breakneck efforts to take the country leftward — but either his inability or unwillingness to do so!
Partly, the disappointment is understandably emotional. Just three years ago Obama was acclaimed as a once-in-a-lifetime prophet of liberalism, whose own personal history, charisma, teleprompted eloquence and iconic identity might move a clearly center-right country hard leftward where it otherwise rarely wished to go.
Partly, the anger is quite savvy: if one suddenly blames Obama the man, rather than Obama the ideologue, then his unpopularity is his own, not liberalism’s. There is a clever effort to raise the dichotomy of the inept Carter and the politically savvy Clinton, but in the most improbable fashion: Clinton supposedly was a success not because he was personable, sometimes compromising, and often centrist, and Carter was a failure not because he was sanctimoniously and stubbornly ideological, but just the opposite: Clinton is now reinvented as the true liberal who succeeded because of his principled leftwing politics; Carter like Obama was a bumbling compromiser and waffler.
I think few will believe that implausible narrative, given that Clinton salvaged his presidency after the debacle of Hillarycare and the 1994 midterm bloodbath, only due to Dick Morris’s brilliant and cynical triangulation and his deal-making with Newt Gingrich. In contrast, Carter pretty much stuck to his guns about trumped up fears of communism, the excesses of the wealthy, and the need for more statist control of the economy — and went down in flames for stagflation and an inept foreign policy.
But what are the practical political ramifications of an incipient liberal revolt?
1) Hillary. One can continue to appreciate how brilliant was Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State. It was not just that he diminished her status by outsourcing much of her job to regional and theater czars, or boxed her in with the “reset” diplomacy of the Susan Rice and Samantha Power sort, or even that her appointment suspended Bill Clinton’s lucrative speechmaking abroad, giving up millions in honoraria at the courts of foreign autocrats and strongmen. More clever yet, Obama seems to have anticipated his present bad stretch in polls and wanted no Teddy Kennedy-like distraction. A Senator Clinton right now would be under some pressure to weigh a divisive run for the nomination. But should Obama implode and see his ratings after three years drop to where George Bush’s were after six years — the 32-36% range — she would be under enormous pressure to declare her candidacy. And unlike Kennedy — who was both an inept candidate and had far too many character flaws and past sins—Hillary Clinton remains a skilled politician, with a brilliant political contortionist as her husband and, of course, has been thoroughly vetted and dissected.
2) Is Race Behind the Leftist Criticism? I think the race card will be put away for just a while — even as it was starting to be replayed. When a Cornel West or a New York Times guest op-ed writer offers Rush Limbaugh-type putdowns and nonetheless remains immune from charges of racialism, then most mainstream critics will probably be as well. Quite simply, from now on to suggest that Obama was not thoroughly vetted, was inexperienced and unqualified, or that he is without leadership qualities and conviction cannot be credibly seen as racially motivated — unless prominent liberals are said themselves to be motivated by such impulses. (And they won’t be so said.)
3) They Will Be Back. I predict we will soon see a renewed anti-war movement and perhaps sudden anger about the Obama anti-terrorism protocols, albeit couched at the official level in terms of the budget and defense cuts.
The Left lost credibility that it was principled on such matters, when the chorus of anger about Predator drone targeted assassinations, Guantanamo Bay, tribunals, renditions, preventative detention, wiretaps and intercepts, and Iraq simply stopped around February 2009, at the very moment when Obama— himself one of the prior foremost critics of these policies — either embraced or expanded all of them. And now that far more Americans have tragically died in Obama’s first three years of stewardship of the war in Afghanistan than during the seven of Bush, and we have killed about five times more through airborne assassination missions than was true during Bush’s two terms, and given that we are now in a third war against an oil-producing, Muslim, and Arab Libya, which Obama joined without congressional authorization, the anti-war exemption may be over.
Indeed, if the Left once in 2009 turned on a dime, silencing criticism over these wars and the war on terror, given their worry of damaging Obama; and if they now don’t care much whether they damage Obama; expect then in 2011-12 to see a renewed criticism of everything from Afghanistan and Libya to Guantanamo and renditions. If politics once trumped principles to give Obama a pass, then it can do so again to give Obama a headache. Those who lose their veneer of principle resent most deeply the perpetrator who exploited their partisanship and hypocrisy.
On the idiot beat, last week I dealt with a puerile rant from one Jakob Augstein in Der Spiegel. Here is a more pathetic cry from a Mark Adomanis, again a young blogger whose books and essays I am not familiar with. He titles his hit piece “The eternal wretchedness of Victor Davis Hanson.” From that title, I surely expected something both eternal and wretched, but instead got only the following tidbit. First, he quotes me thusly:
In Britain, politicians contemplate the use of water cannons as if they were nuclear weapons; and here the mayor of Philadelphia calls on rappers to appeal to youth to help ease the flash-mobbing that has a clear racial component to it (is the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division investigating?). His appeal is perhaps understandable, but many of the themes of rap music — violence against the police, racial chauvinism, and nihilism—may well be some of the cultural catalysts behind the flash violence, though to suggest as much would be seen as more racist than the racist profiling used by the flash beaters.
And then he proves my eternal wretchedness with this penetrating analysis:
Now it just so happens that I hail from Philadelphia and that I have actual read a number of articles on the shameful and appalling episodes of “flash mob” violence. If one read Hanson’s post and knew nothing else about what has recently transpired, one would inevitably come away with the conclusion that the city’s mayor was a weak-willed coward, a milquetoast so bereft of leadership that his only answer to the problem of rampaging youths was to appeal to rappers. In other words, you would think that Michael Nutter was a prime example of the rottenness and corruption of contemporary liberalism, and perfectly emblematic of its failure and of the broader “loss of confidence in Western society.”
Note: I was reacting to a CBS news item of August 9th titled “Mayor Nutter Calls On Hip-Hop Artists To Help Battle Flash Mobs.” Of course, I did not write that the mayor was weak-willed, a coward, a milquetoast, etc., but simply thought that his initial appeal as reported on August 9th was “perhaps understandable,” but misplaced. The hyperbole and unhinged adjectives are not mine, but belong to the hysterical Adomanis himself.
I am glad that it was also reported elsewhere (and apparently mostly later) that the mayor in fact had also seemingly dropped his emphasis on rap music, and had also given a courageous speech reminding black youth of their own responsibilities. But that was not the initial news story I was referring to; indeed, one could write a number of posts on all the news items about the flash mobs that were being disseminated at various times. And of course, I retract nothing: it really is most unwise to enlist hip hop and rappers, given that many of the themes of that genre — anti-police bigotry, racial prejudice, misogyny, and violence — are more part of the problem than the solution.
But I do admire Mayor Nutter for his brave address that amplified (and I hope superseded) his strategies. And I expect that he will rely more on such traditional appeals to self-reliance than enlisting the rap community.
So? The only thing eternally wretched is Mr. Adomanis’s inability to make a single, coherent point.
Then there was a similar young blogger, one Conor Friedersdorf, whose books and articles I have also not read, but who continued with the Journolist-like talking points. He makes a silly charge that I am a “chicken-little conservative” in the following way:
Victor Davis Hanson, oblivious to majority opinion, thinks we’ve lost the capacity for upset. “Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th and 20th century Europe and America,” he writes, “but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality.”
…You’ve heard of hawks and doves. These are Chicken Little Conservatives. Every week, as headlines filter in from around the globe, they take the most disturbing as an occasion to strut around with ruffled feathers and cluck that the sky is falling.
Well, I think this week is not quite like “every week” — the crash and death of our best soldiers in Afghanistan, the stock-market dive, the Standard and Poor’s downgrade, the serial burning and looting in London, the disturbing rash of flash mobbing in some of our major cities — and so one might with good cause think things are awry. Yet as readers know, I have mostly written not to lose heart: America is not in decline (a choice, not a fate) and, compared to our competitors, we are uniquely positioned, with the proper guidance, to reassume global leadership and regain national prosperity. It is the Left, and in particular the president himself, who is legitimately associated with “leading from behind,” a “post-American” world, and seeing America as exceptional only to the degree that all countries see themselves as such. But again, I stand by what I wrote. What Friedersdorf does not do, as Mr. Adomanis does not, is to challenge the argument (always preferring the ad hominem “chicken little” or “eternal wretchedness” in lieu of logical rebuttal): While we have always had urban rioting and social unrest in Western societies, more recently the reaction to these accustomed outbursts is somewhat different. We really are much more likely to embed our diagnoses within sociology and psychology, preferring to concede that looting, torching, and random violence can be more expressions of legitimate discontent or understandable oppression that demand introspection from society rather than from the perpetrator.
One can calibrate that confusion in the initial British hesitation to consider using water cannons and various excuses for the violence (but, as I predicted, that hesitation passed when the violence seemed to threaten more of the haunts of upper-middle class, see below), or Mayor Nutter’s initial suggestion of enlisting rappers, soon to be superseded and drowned out by press accounts of stern lectures on traditional morality.
Here is what I wrote that provoked the outcry. It seems both tame and substantiated by events that have transpired since.
Paralytic Western Society
August 9, 2011 1:03 P.M.
By Victor Davis Hanson
It is fascinating to see how postmodern Western societies react to wide-scale rioting, looting, and thuggery aimed at innocents. In Britain, politicians contemplate the use of water cannons as if they were nuclear weapons; and here the mayor of Philadelphia calls on rappers to appeal to youth to help ease the flash-mobbing that has a clear racial component to it (is the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division investigating?). His appeal is perhaps understandable, but many of the themes of rap music — violence against the police, racial chauvinism, and nihilism—may well be some of the cultural catalysts behind the flash violence, though to suggest as much would be seen as more racist than the racist profiling used by the flash beaters. All these incidents are symptomatic of a general breakdown and loss of confidence in Western society. Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and America, but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality.
We seem able to admit that massive federal and state entitlements have created a sense of dependency, a loss of self-respect and initiative, and a breakdown of the family, yet we still seem to fear that trimming the subsidies would lead to some sort of cold-turkey hyper-reaction. We assume that society is to blame for disaffected youth and therefore are hesitant to use commensurate force to quell the violence or even to make it clear that perpetrators are responsible for their own conduct. Yet at some point — when the violence reaches middle-class communities or, in serial fashion, downtown or suburban stores — we likewise assume that sufficient force will be used. Sociological exegesis will go out the window. Reality has a way of dispelling such cognitive luxuries.
On the national level, this sad paralysis, this Hamlet disease, is reflected in calls for more spending and stimulus even as we concede that we have no plan or ability to pay back the massive and unsustainable debt we’ve already run up. The president’s Keynesian technocrats, to whom he outsourced economic policy, have all quit or been fired, or are contemplating leaving soon. He is left fearing that the usual progressive stimulants — near-zero interest, massive federal borrowing, increases in unemployment insurance and food stamps, public works projects, middle-class tax holidays — have not worked, and yet he cannot imagine assuming responsibility, taking the heat, and trying something different. We can’t decide whether the Libyan rebels are noble reformers or — as we learn more and more that Gaddafi’s mercenary forces are as tough as many warned — incompetent and worse, so we sorta bomb, sorta not, sorta follow the French, sorta not. In other words, lancing these boils is seen as worse that letting the boils grow, so on matters of debt and foreign policy, for now we do nothing, though we know that at some point nature will take its course in the form of financial insolvency and humiliating defeat. Then our post facto recriminations will be even more acrimonious than our present loud inaction. We are left with the Roman maxim of the remedies seen as worse than the disease.