Obama Then and Now: the Rashomon Effect (first in a series)

Sometimes it is worth stepping back from the fray to gain a little perspective. A shipped tossed about in a mighty gale looks one way to the passengers aboard, quite another way (as Lucretius pointed out in his great poem) to the lucky person watching from the comfortable safety of the hilltop overlooking the bay.

I suspect that, for many observers, a material change has lately stolen over the metabolism of political life in America.  A shift in the existential light illuminating events makes what is happening and, retrospectively, what has happened appear differently. The shadows are longer now, a blinding glare obscures things that used to be clearly outlined, and surprising new features of the objects populating the landscape are suddenly in sharp relief.

I believe that we are witnessing the gradual, or possibly not so gradual, decomposition of the emotional consensus that put Obama into the White House in 2008 and, not without a struggle, returned him in 2012. On every front, domestic as well as foreign, statements that seemed apposite a year or two or three ago suddenly, ominously, have acquired new and less pleasing valences.  A few days ago, I expatiated briefly on candidate Obama’s 2008 declaration that he and his followers were only “five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” At the time, Obama’s promise (or should I say, "his threat"?) was greeted with wild cheers.

Now that the transformation is well underway, there are fewer if any cheers.  The economy is moribund.  Obamacare is more unpopular than ever. Racial tensions are far worse now than when Obama came to office. Everywhere one looks, Obama’s domestic agenda is in shambles. And when it comes to international affairs — well, let’s just say that Obama must be rueing the day he drew that red line about Syria or heard the name Vladimir Putin. Has there ever been a more cringe-making presidential  speech than the incoherent bilge that oozed out of Obama’s mouth last Tuesday? Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise speech” is the only thing that even comes close, and at least Carter’s speech had the intelligence of Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism as a source.

There is a certain painful fascination about seeing an elaborately wrought structure shudder and then collapse. It always seems to take place in slow motion, but the actual destruction, once it begins, is generally quite rapid. It’s hard to say exactly where we are in the process of the great Obama dégringolade. Events of this past week, especially the masterly performances by Putin and his foreign minister, lead me to suspect we are pretty far along in the process of dissolution. But wherever you put the marker,  we are certainly far enough along in the Great Unravelling that Obama’s past statements and behavior appear in an utterly new light.

As I say, the significance of “fundamentally transforming the Untied States of America” is one example.  There are many others, and in the weeks and months to come I intend periodically to offer up some choice Obama quotations for a “before and after” consideration. “Fundamentally transforming the United States of America” appeared to mean one thing in October 2008.  It means something quite different now, in 2013. The words are the same, but the meaning has changed, changed utterly.