What If There’s No There There?

Jay Cost is asking if the clothes have no emperor, in the Weekly Standard:

Toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term, a friend of Vice President Bush encouraged him to think carefully about what a Bush presidency should look like. According to Time, Bush responded, “Oh, the vision thing.” Fairly or unfairly, this phrase came to characterize the Bush 41 tenure. Despite his impressive résumé spanning three decades in government, he seemed not to have a clear view of what he wanted to do.

When Barack Obama campaigned for the White House in 2008, that hardly seemed like his problem. Obama would take in the whole sweep of American history in his speeches to suggest that his candidacy was its culmination. His heavy-handed propaganda​—​from the Greek columns to Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster​—​suggested a man with a vision surplus.

In the sixth year of his presidency, it is clear that Obama does not have much of a vision at all. Sure, he is a man of the left and possesses a commitment to its goals; he thinks government should grow larger and taxes should increase. Beyond that, he does not seem to have a firm sense of the reforms he should implement, how to implement them, how he fits into the constitutional schema, what a sensible U.S. foreign policy should be or how to execute it.

This is not to say that the White House does not offer positions on the issues. We are inundated with Obama positions. We are also treated periodically to longer “think pieces” from sycophantic authors granted extraordinary access to reinforce the point that this is a president deeply engaged in the issues of the day, struggling to bring order from chaos.

Yet the constant positioning and propagandizing belie deep-rooted ambiguities in this administration, which​—​it must be noted​—​has taken flak from left and right for years. Radical academic Cornel West recently suggested that Obama is a corporatist stooge, while Rand Paul fretted about the “socialist nightmare” the president is creating. Some might think these critiques accidentally demonstrate that the president is down-the-center. More likely they point to the absence of “the vision thing.” Sometimes he’s a corporate crony, sometimes a socialist; it all depends on what side of the bed he wakes up on.

Read the whole thing. Of course, corporatism and socialism have been deeply intertwined by their very nature since the days of Otto Von Bismarck, as Jonah Goldberg noted in Liberal Fascism. And as Jonah writes in his latest G-File regarding Mr. Obama's own lack of the vision thing:

The reality, alas, is that Obama is — and has always been — out of his depth on the international stage. Given the prestige of the presidency and the incredible institutional forces behind the office, particularly when a liberal is elected, it takes time to burn through all of the political capital that comes with the job. But Obama has been throwing that political capital on an Oval Office bonfire like so much kindling on a clean and safe Anchorage night. In yet another metaphor that threatens to burn out the dilithium crystals , the credibility inferno is reaching China Syndrome proportions ("You should have said 'literally' a lot! Literally means 'pay attention to how smart my metaphors are.' Wheeeeee!" — Joe Biden). For a depressing but brilliant analysis of this meltdown, see Bret Stephens's piece in the new Commentary coincidentally titled "The Meltdown."

Remember the famous SNL clip where Phil Hartman plays Ronald Reagan? He's an amiable dunce in public, but get him behind closed doors and he's a master strategist? Well, maybe that stuff about Obama being the liberal opposite of Reagan is true. Out in public, he seems like he's the Chess Master (though I never saw it). But get him behind closed doors and he's in the chair next to Biden shouting "I can spin faster than you!"

Unlike Reagan, who was a master orator at the podium, while the introverted GWB was often painfully inarticulate on the world stage (there are many, myself included, who sympathize deeply with his fear of public speaking), as left-leaning pundit Jonathan Rauch noted in the Atlantic back in 2003 in "The Accidental Radical," Bush #43 came to Washington with a clear vision of reform, much of which came from observing the mistakes his father made, and set about executing his plan.

In his new article, Cost compares the distance between Obama's mesmerizing performance on the campaign stump in 2008 and 2012 and behind-the-scenes, his sleepwalking haze as chief executive to FDR and LBJ, who were excellent campaigners and could shape policy behind closed doors. But FDR had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy and governor of New York before becoming president, and LBJ spent decades in both houses of Congress before circumstances thrust him into his own role as an accidental radical.

In sharp contrast to the long careers of both men, Obama made three brilliant calculations to leapfrog so quickly into the White House: One: Since the McGovern debacle, Democrats often nominate a chameleonic newcomer to the national scene onto whom they can project whatever policies they wish to advance that year. Two: Race trumps gender on the left, and a majority of Americans would be thrilled to vote for a black president, provided he wasn't a radical far left bomb thrower in the Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson mold. And finally, even though Obama was precisely that, given the background he marinated in all his life, from his radical parents to his years at the foot of Rev. Wright, that the media would be similarly thrilled to push all of that aside for him. And he was certainly right about that:

As MSNBC's Joe Scarborough told Hugh Hewitt a couple of weeks ago, the memoirs to come from Obama White House insiders will make for astonishing reading, once the former president makes it official and leaves office:

This president wants yes men around him. And again, I hear that from my Democratic friends, I hear that from his own former chiefs of staff. If anybody steps out of line, they’re immediately insulated and pushed out. You know, I said this on set after the cameras were turned off to a couple of people who I knew wouldn’t say it on the air. I said guys, you know as well as I do that the second this administration is over, the books are going to come from former secretaries of state. The books are going to come from former chiefs of staff. The books are going to come, and this president is going to have to deal with 20-30 years of disparagement from his own side, calling him one of the least effective presidents, because he’s one of the most insulated presidents.

I suspect the material that emerges will be alternately thrilling, terrifying, and laugh-aloud funny, often within the same sentence. Not the least of which being when we discover how the famous conclusion of Robert Redford's 1972 movie The Candidate played out in real life, once a real-life far left tyro senator won the biggest political title in the land in 2008: