What Might Have Happened
Remember Obama’s initial signature speech (e.g., “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America”), and all the subsequent conciliatory talk of no blue state, no red state America? Obama won, of course, because he captivated the tiny, but influential left, registered vast numbers of new minority voters, raised a billion dollars, and reconstituted the liberal base. But the key margin that got him from 45 to 53% were the independents and old Reagan Democrats. And what put them on board was not just their weariness with George Bush, but rather their flawed hunch that Obama was another Clinton rather than Carter, a realist and centrist rather than an ossified ideologue, who could talk well, bring factions together, and govern from the center.
Had Obama just continued his charade of the campaign in which he reassured centrists on taxes, defense, energy, and spending, he would now be in a far stronger position with Congress, and not falling in the polls.
Imagine not that in his first six months Obama had acted like a conservative (he could not since he won on a liberal agenda), but simply as a more moderate Clinton-like Democrat, albeit with more humility and skepticism:
1) Financial. Barack Obama rallies the nation in January to hang tough and await the natural upswing after the bust that followed an unusual boom period of a near decade. There is no wasted stimulus. There is no $2 trillion deficit. Instead, he promises to hold spending to an annual rise of 2%, and reassures the country that balanced budgets are on the way. Markets steady on news that we won’t be adding another $11 trillion to the debt, and Obama gets credit for the natural cyclical upsurge.
2) Taxes. Obama says he ran on the Clinton-era tax rates—and so must keep his word. Top rates go to 39.5%, but there is no further talk of a healthcare surcharge, much less a lifting of the FICA caps on income over $106,000. In other words, Obama is a classically liberal tax-raiser, who salivates over a 50% state and federal combined rate— but not one approaching 70% in some states. The public accepts that he is a Democrat of the tax and spend sort, but is assured he is no socialist.
3) Reconciliation. After the obligatory two to three weeks of throat-clearing and liberal trashing of his predecessor, Obama by March goes quiet on Bush. To the extent he mentions him, he praises the prior President for keeping us safe for seven years, but promises to do far better on the budget. He taps into independents’ and moderates’ dissatisfaction with the previous deficits, but wins points for magnanimity by not serially evoking “he did it”. In other words, he is not a “they raised the bar on me” / “he did it, not me” / “his mess, not mine” whiner.
4) No apologies. When abroad, Obama makes few apologies. He promises to listen anew, even suggests that there is a new era in American diplomacy—but eschews all the ‘reset’ button jargon. He never mentions all the past tropes about Native Americans, the atomic bomb, colonialism, racism, insensitivity to Muslims, and all the other ways in which he has apologized for an apparently embarrassing America—convinced that unapologetic Russians, Chinese, Germans, Japanese, and others have far more to atone for than does his own country. Instead, in his first six months we hear of things like Shiloh, Guadalcanal, Midway, Inchon, Chosin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, and lions like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, in addition to his de rigueur citations of slavery, racism, sexism, class strife and all the other sins of America.
5) Go slow. Obama regrets that the financial meltdown of autumn 2008 has slowed his agenda. He will reform but not reinvent health care; he will strive for more autonomous energy sources—wind, solar, bio—but also more domestic natural gas, oil, shale, coal, and nuclear to improve our independence and balance sheet. He will encourage green power, but show hesitation about cap-and-trade, until issues of cost and international compliance are solved.
6) Race. As was the case of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Obama will let his own expertise and competence speak about his race. In other words, he will evolve beyond the constant referencing of his own diversity, non-traditional profile, post-racial heritage, transracial blah, blah, blah. When he speaks to African-American audiences it will be in the same cadence and accentuation that he employs when talking to white audiences or vice versa. He will make plenty of so-called diversity appointments but not the sort who constantly self-reference themselves as “Latinas” or dress down the nation as “cowards” on matters of race. Being part African will be incidental not essential to his public persona as he lets others, not himself, make of it what they wish.
7) The Democratic House. Obama quickly sizes up Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank as, well, crazy and polarizing, and in 1994-Clinton fashion begins to triangulate. Like Truman, he talks of social justice, but always juxtaposed with references to strong national defense, American exceptionalism and the need for fiscal sobriety. Those whom Frank and Pelosi turn off don’t see Obama in quite the same league.
8) Low Profile. Instead of hourly appearing on television and engaged in non-stop travel, Obama is seen only weekly, and his speeches are unique and much anticipated in part due to their very rarity. The first person plural “we” is used instead of “I”—as in the unfortunate “my team”, “as I have ordered,” “let me be perfectly clear”, “it isn’t about me”, etc.
9) Truth. Obama gains a reputation for honesty and consistency. If he says he will shut down Guantanamo, we know that he shuts down Guantanamo. If 95% of Americans are told that they will see no new taxes, they will not. If he promised during the campaign to drill offshore, explore for shale and natural gas, build nuclear, then he will. Obama really will have no earmarks, lobbyists, or ethically-compromised tax cheats in his cabinet. He gets the reputation of a stubborn ethicist, rather than a charismatic Chicagoan Blagoan. When he talks of history, Obama has his facts, and is accurate, and so cites its tragedy of bad and worse choices, rather than make it up as you go, in the therapeutic fashion of ‘if we were not perfect then we were not good.’
10) Allies. Obama is immune to third-world romance and sees nothing but thuggery in the Castros, Chavezes, Ortegas, and Ahmadinejads of the world. He is to the left of Bush, but understands that a Uribe, Maliki, and Netanyahu are closer to American values than the alternatives. As a liberal, he talks of empathy with those who support democracy in Iran, Iraq, and central America, and is an advocate for human rights without ambiguity.
I say all of the above not because it is at all believable, but only because that had he taken such a path he would have continued to mesmerize the country. In contrast, most of us (but not all) realized that the above is completely ridiculous and the real story is the rush to neo-socialism either to beat the impending popular backlash or in hopes of a massive-deficit-driven inflationary upsurge that gives us a year of recovery before the tab of stagflation comes due.
In 1968 a divided country elected Nixon “to bring us together” in the mistaken notion that he was a Reaganesque conservative rather than a vindictive partisan. So too forty years later, mutatis mutandis, the country wanted to go a notch left, and ended up instead with a European socialist nursed in the politics of Chicago—and like Nixon, unless he changes, doomed to implode.