Why did George H.W. Bush lose to Bill Clinton in 1992? Doubtless you could adduce several reasons, including “it’s the economy, stupid.” But there was also the matter of a broken promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Enterprising observers have compiled an illuminating collage of President Obama promising not to negotiate health care “reform” “behind closed doors.” He would bring “all parties together,” he said in one of his exhibitions of campaign foreplay, “broadcasting those negotiations on CSPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are.” During the campaign, CSPAN was his mantra: the objective correlative of his promise to make his administration the most “open and transparent” ever. It was Andrew Breitbart, I believe, who first connected these dots:
In fact, as the contrast between candidate Obama’s repeated invocation of CSPAN and President Obama’s repeated recourse to secrecy reveals, the only thing “transparent” about this administration is its dishonesty, which, like Falstaff’s, “is gross as a mountain, open palpable.” Even the circumspect Brian Lamb, CEO of CSPAN, was moved to lament Obama’s poaching on the prestige of the network to further the Democratic political agenda.
Left and right, the public has reacted badly to this blatant failure to honor a campaign promise that was made not once, not twice, but at least eight times. The President’ Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, has made a bad situation worse by his hostile tergiversations.
“I covered that yesterday,” he said, but a look at his comments then shows that he didn’t.
What does it all mean? For one thing, it means that Obama’s deficit spending extends to the spiritual exchequer of political credibility. Economists tell us the United States will be in hock some $12 trillion by the time Obama gets done with us. How overdrawn will he be in the public trust department? Rightly or wrongly, the epithet “tricky Dick” clung like a limpet to Richard Nixon. What nickname will Obama earn? “Blaguing Barack”? “Hustling Hussein”? “Obfuscating Obama”?
Politicians are not saints. But like saints they depend for their authority on a species of charisma. In the case of saints, it is the odor of sanctity. In the case of politicians it has something to do a reputation for integrity, or at least plain dealing. A year ago, observers were agog at the electric panoply of Obama phenomena. For susceptible souls, the man radiated charisma and character, promise and panache. Has an U.S. administration ever lost the countenance of heaven so precipitously? I cannot recall a competing instance. I do not just mean Obama’s performance in the polls.
No doubt that steep declivity is something that troubles the slumbers of Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. But seen in context it is merely one symptom of more profound decay. Obama’s administration is still in its springtime, but an element of rancidness is abroad. With the loss of charisma comes a loss of seriousness — not, I hasten to note, that Obama has ceased taking himself seriously. On the contrary, he takes nothing more seriously than himself. It’s just that the rest of us — foreign leaders, news reporters, fellow politicians, the American public at large — we have trouble taking him seriously. A curious feature of this administration is its flickering quality — its tendency to oscillate between the appearance of blithe incompetence at one moment and power-hungry arrogance the next. The two are not unrelated, indeed the former feeds the latter. What Governor Mitch Daniels called Obama’s “shock and awe statism” has shocked, has awed us. As the evidences of incompetence mount, however, not even the “Rahm-it-through” arrogance of Obama’s cavalier disregard of critical campaign promises can distract an alarmed public from recoiling from this monumental assault on on its credibility. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, invoking the authority of CSPAN when talking about a government takeover of medical care. How bad could it be, people thought, if Obama is willing to have an open, televised debate in which the public was a partner, not just the recipient of diktats from above? Well, now we know, or at least are beginning to know.
That hissing noise you hear is the air going out of the Obama bubble. It will be interesting for some future historian to mark the date when his administration became posthumous, a “dead man walking.” I suspect that the name “CSPAN” will enter into the calculation.