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.
It is the same with so many of Obama’s declarations. It would be easy to present an entire list all at once. But multiple entries would dull the effect of the statements. It’s better to take just one or two at a time and savor the discrepancy between the semantic valence when they were first uttered and how they appear to us now. Consider, to take today’s sample, Obama’s statement from a speech about the future of America’s economy in September 2010:
We can't tell them [i.e., other nations], don't grow. We can't — drive our SUVs and you know, eat as much as we want and keep our homes on you know, 72 degrees at all times, and whether we're living in the desert or we're living in the tundra, and then just expect that every other country's going say OK.
I know that that speech was widely criticized on the right back in 2010. But somehow it just slid down the memory hole. “We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes [at] 72 degrees at all times and then just expect that every other country's going say OK.”
How does that sound today? We can’t drive our cars, eat what we want, and heat our houses because other countries may not like it. That’s what the president of the United States said. “Other countries” tell Americans whether and what they can drive, eat, and to how warm or cool they can keep their houses.
It was meant to be a “Green” speech, a “leading-from-behind" speech, a speech that would reinforce the idea that America was not special, not “exceptional” (just as Obama, and now Vladimir Putin, said!), not in charge of its own destiny because, whatever advantages we enjoyed, “You didn’t build that.”
There is a species of the anti-American left, consisting of about 95 percent of the professoriate and miscellaneous other elements, who find such rhetoric inspiring. The rest of us find it irritating, alarming, and irresponsible in varying degrees. What I find interesting, though, is the extent to which such statements — and they are legion — have suddenly mutated in their significance. There were plenty of critics of Obama’s hectoring statement in 2010 — I probably wrote something about it myself — but the reaction to it today is far different, and far less generous, because the atmosphere, the background of affective assumption, is so different now than then.
There was a time when everything Obama said was given the benefit of the doubt, when a presumption of good will and competence bathed everyone in an exculpatory light. Those days are long past. The atmospherics now are decidedly less cordial, less forgiving, and the problems, foreign as well as domestic, that Obama’s ineptitude has compounded become ever more pressing and exigent. For an observer safely ensconced on shore, a dramatic show is in the offing. Alas, the man from nowhere, the chap nobody knew, whose college records we still cannot see, whose exiguous political record was a masterpiece of nonentity (“Present”), and whose political mentors (Bill Ayres, Rev. Wright) subsist on the furthest fringes of anti-American hatred, this helmsman of the American dream compasses us all in the impending storm-tossed voyage. Hold on. It’s likely to be a rocky ride.