Obama and the Big, Messy, Tough Democracy

Earlier this month, explaining how the fierce-urgency-of-now became the intense-need-for-patience, President Obama effectively blamed the system — not him and his big ideas. Speaking on August 3 to a DNC event in Chicago, he said:


When I said, “change we can believe in,” I didn’t say “change we can believe in tomorrow.”  (Laughter.)  Not “change we can believe in next week.”  We knew this was going to take time, because we’ve got this big, messy, tough democracy.

Technically, he was correct. He did not say change “tomorrow” or “next week” — he said “right now.” In his New Hampshire primary speech — the one immortalized in the “yes we can” video — he asserted change is “what’s happening in America right now.” The night he effectively won the nomination, he told the crowd it was a “defining moment for our nation”; a “moment that will define a generation”; a “moment when … the rise of the oceans began to slow.” In virtually every speech, the moment was “now.” The change he was talking about was electing him; he was not simply the man from Hope, but Hope itself — the one-word slogan below his picture.

In 2008, the big, messy, tough democracy actually went quite easy on him. It elected an inexperienced first-term senator, with no record of accomplishment, who announced for president two years into his term and then spent most of his time campaigning (he missed the debt ceiling votes in 2007 and 2008). In 2004, Democrats made an issue of the college grades and military service of a sitting president; in 2008 their untested nominee had no military record, refused to disclose his college transcript, and had less executive experience and fewer achievements than the Republican vice-presidential candidate.


He had a talent for speaking well, and for making voters believe that if they voted for him, it would speak well of them too. His election itself would be the change we were waiting for. He promised a post-partisan, post-racial politics, and people believed him without any evidence for the belief — certainly not from his two years in the Senate, where he was ranked its most liberal senator, further left than Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist serving there. What Obama provided instead was a hyper-partisan politics in which opposition was increasingly deemed racist.

In his first month, he shoveled nearly a trillion dollars of Democratic pet projects into the federal budget, producing a populist rage in the form of the Tea Party. He sought to transfer trillions from the private economy to the federal government by raising tax rates on the “rich,” but could not convince a Democratic Congress to do so — even in a lame-duck session where 50 Democrats no longer cared about the political consequences of their votes. He pushed through a huge new entitlement, on a purely partisan vote, ignoring opinion polls, electoral warnings in Virginia and New Jersey, and the stunningly negative judgment of the Massachusetts election. He barely got cap and trade through the House, over bipartisan opposition, and then could not get the Democratic Senate even to consider it.

After less than two years in office, he suffered a historic shellacking — and responded by proposing a budget with an increased deficit (defeated 97-0 in the Senate), gave a budget speech the Congressional Budget Office could not score, demanded a “clean” multi-trillion increase in the national debt, and then engaged in endless debt-ceiling negotiations with Congress without producing a public plan of his own. Speaking Monday about the S&P downgrade, he said he would have some recommendations “over the coming weeks.”


As his term of office proceeded, his rhetoric turned increasingly testy. He told his political opponents they should shut up and pick up a mop. He advised people who wanted tax relief that he already provided it and they should be thanking him. In response to substantive objections, he asserted elections had consequences and he had won. He held few press conferences after the blowback from the one in which he told the Cambridge police they had acted stupidly in arresting his friend. He said those who refused to endorse his programs were simply standing around “sipping Slurpees.” He lectured Congress to eat its peas and turn in its work, just like his daughters did with their homework.

On the left, his supporters searched for an explanation for how Obama had become the sort-of-God that failed. On the front page of its “Sunday Review” section, the New York Times published a 3,300 word opinion essay by an Emory University professor of psychology (and “messaging consultant”) venturing five “hypotheses” about what happened to Obama: (1) he had “succumbed” to a belief that electoral success requires “centrist” politicians; (2) he was “simply not up to the task,” having had no experience and few accomplishments before running for president; (3) he doesn’t know what he believes, or will change his beliefs to whatever he thinks he needs for re-election; (4) he has been corrupted by the system; and (5) he ran for president on two platforms (reformer and unity candidate) that contradicted each other.


Put a little more concisely, the professor’s theories were that Obama was unqualified, corrupt, had no core beliefs, ran for president on contradictory promises, and succumbed to centrism. The New York Times effectively endorsed those views by putting them on the front page of its Sunday opinion section, which Paul Krugman and other liberal priests promptly seconded.

The right never believed in Obama; the left has been increasingly disabused of its belief; independents oppose him by lopsided margins. The percentage of likely voters who do not simply “disapprove” but “strongly disapprove” of him requires a chart to fully appreciate. The things he could do to improve his electoral chances next year are things he cannot do: (a) bring in a new team of economic advisers not invested in the failed philosophy of borrow, spend, and tax; (b) repeal ObamaCare, which hovers over every employer contemplating a new employee and includes a huge tax increase on investment income to take effect after the next election; and (c) adopt an “all-of-the-above” energy policy to replace the endless blather about “green” jobs.

After his 1994 shellacking, Bill Clinton abandoned HillaryCare, adopted Republican ideas on welfare reform, and reduced the capital gains tax, producing an economic surge and restoring his popularity in time for the 1996 election against a lackluster Republican opponent. This is not a strategy Obama can likely emulate, and next year no one will faint at his rallies; no tingle will go up the leg of a TV pundit; no New York Times columnist will project presidential greatness from the crease in his pants. He will have to run on a record, rather than rhetoric.


The big, messy, tough democracy will have its say, having repeatedly tried to send him a message in multiple elections and recurring opinion polls. Only a lackluster Republican nominee can save him now.


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