Reality is catching up to the president. He has lived in a world of media adulation and campaign spin ever since he announced his run for the White House. He has not had to face hard decisions and, instead, had the luxury of dismissing them as “false choices.” But now, both on foreign and domestic policy, the real world has intruded and it is not at all clear how — or if — the president will respond.
On foreign policy, he campaigned as if the world’s problems were attributable solely to the cluelessness and arrogance of George W. Bush. Obama told us that Bush had been insufficiently solicitous of other countries and too prone to see the world in terms of “good and evil.” With a sophisticated, multiculturalist like himself at the helm, America would enjoy the adulation of the world and our foes would be lured out of their crouch. (As the Wall Street Journal editors put it, “the American left claimed [Iran and North Korea] were ‘evil’ only because Mr. Bush had declared them so.”) At the very least he could keep the world at bay so he could pursue his domestic agenda without interruption.
But it turns out a speech on non-proliferation didn’t open doors to better relations with North Korea. As missiles flew, a nuclear test was undertaken, two journalists were nabbed, and threats of nuclear war ensued, it became obvious that the problem wasn’t in Washington, D.C., but in Pyongyang. Sterner stuff than U.N. finger-wagging and pleas to return to the failed six-party talks might be in order. And maybe, just maybe, now would not be the time to cut back on missile defense.
And on Iran, a televised greeting on al-Arabiya akin to an eHarmony video didn’t do much. Genuflecting to the Supreme Leader as demonstrators gathered to protest a rigged election wasn’t very effective. And suggesting once the uprising had begun that there wasn’t much difference between the mullahs’ man, Ahmadinejad, and the leader of the protestors, Mousavi, didn’t make the desired impression. It turns out that the despotic regime is, well, despotic. And a regime which brutalizes its own people, declares itself to be a revolutionary Islamic state, and repeatedly calls for Israel’s annihilation might, after all, be evil.
And if that wasn’t enough cold water splashed on Obama’s worldview, it turns out that much of Bush’s national security policy was downright sensible in light of the realities facing us. Obama’s own director of national intelligence fessed up that George W. Bush’s administration got lifesaving information from enhanced interrogation techniques. And there is no viable alternative to Guantanamo which, lo and behold, detains some very dangerous people in very safe and humane conditions. What’s more, the American people aren’t outraged even by interrogation techniques which rise to the level of torture if they save American lives, nor do they want the current administration going back to prosecute the previous one. Not at all the portrait which MoveOn.org and their fellow netroots had painted, and which formed the basis of much of Obama’s campaign rhetoric.
In short, it wasn’t all Bush’s fault. Many of Bush’s anti-terrorism decisions and national security architecture have proven to be entirely reasonable and politically popular to boot. He actually had the North Koreans and Iranians pegged pretty well (although he arguably hadn’t dealt effectively with either’s nuclear ambitions before he left office). By contrast, the rainbow and ice cream vision of the world which entails sitting down with mullahs and North Korean crackpot dictators is quite unreasonable and entirely ill-suited to the world in which the president finds himself.
Then there is domestic policy. On this front, Obama is confronted with Economics 101 and Politics 101.
Just as his economic advisor Christina Romer had researched, we see that Keynesian spending schemes rarely work. And sure enough, the trillion dollar (interest included) stimulus boondoggle has failed, unemployment is soaring, and all that spending has stoked inflationary fears.
And as for the politics, it turns out that the economic crisis did not permanently shift the electorate to the left. The public is no more predisposed to big government plans than they were before the collapse of the housing and financial sectors. Poll after poll show discomfort with government spending, huge deficits, and takeovers of car companies.
Meanwhile, on health care — Obama’s signature domestic policy priority — the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) broke the spell. Wow — it seems that covering millions and millions of uninsured people costs a huge amount of money. Liberal blogger Ezra Klein dubbed CBO’s report “fairly devastating.” Sen. Linday Graham calls it a “death blow,” while Democrats now suffer from “sticker shock” we are told. And then it turns out, not even moderates like Sens. Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad think the “public option” is going to fly. What is the president’s plan? It seems he doesn’t have one — at least not one he is ready to unveil.
Whew! What happened? Well, that, no doubt, is what the Obama team must be wondering. It is not merely the president’s poll numbers which are crumbling; it is the premises which formed his world view and domestic agenda which are disintegrating. The world is a dangerous place with despots immune to even “smart diplomacy.” Governments really can’t spend their way to prosperity. And even in an economic recession America remains a right-of-center country.
Obama, it seems, never confronted a critical media or a viable political opponent who could effectively quiz him on his assumptions and policy prescriptions. He waltzed through an election on essentially a “not Bush” campaign and a cloud of feel-good messages ungrounded in the real world. But once in office he finds the world — filled with rogue states, recalcitrant laws of economics, squirrely citizens, and cold, hard budget numbers — is not so easily charmed. Facts are stubborn things, after all.
The challenge now is whether, as Bill Clinton did after the bruising 1994 mid-term elections, Obama makes a course correction or whether he plunges ahead unwilling to cast aside his ideological blinders. He is, of course, only six months into his term, and he enjoys a tremendous reservoir of goodwill. There is plenty of time to develop robust national security policies and moderate his far-left domestic agenda.
But if he does not perceive what is amiss and adjust accordingly, he may well join the list of failed, one-term presidents.
That is the price to be paid for ignoring reality when it knocks on your door.