Work and Days

Our “Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain” Moment

Straws and the Camel’s Back

At some point in late 2010 once optimistic independent voters, moderate Republicans, and centrist Democrats stopped listening. They abruptly concluded that their 2008 Barack Obama proved not to be the great uniter, the great communicator, and the greater humanist who was to bring the country together around “centrist” values.

At about the same time, a once ecstatic liberal base began to worry that President Obama was not the brilliant postracial social organizer, the brilliant progressive explicator, and the brilliant big government architect who would take a center-right country with him hard to the left.

Stop it, Toto!

The result has been a sort of political implosion, the proverbial “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moment when the omnipotent wizard’s face projected on the screen becomes exposed as a rather frightened Frank Morgan, busy with levers and gears—or, in our morality play, a deer-in-the-headlights Barack Obama relieved to sub out his White House press room to a designated president Bill Clinton at last back on his home turf.

In a number of ways, we can see how the Obama administration has been reduced to a sort of virtual administration. The messianic spell of 2008 ended with the largest midterm rebuke since 1938. Whereas in 2009 it was considered racist for a conservative to question the president’s wisdom at a Tea Party rally, by 2010 Democratic congressional representatives were vying with each other to find creative ways of using the F-word to belittle the president. Since his inauguration, the president has lost a point in the polls about every three weeks of his presidency, without much deviation.

There is little presidential stature left. When Barack Obama addresses the Sen. minority leader as “Mike” McConnell or claims the U.S. motto is e pluribus unum rather than “In God We Trust,” this is by now a non-news story—not after “57 states” or “corpse-men” or Austrian-speaking Austrians. Proclaiming that at some point individuals have made enough money raises no eyebrows either—not after “spread the wealth,” “redistributive change,” and claiming that the purpose of capital gains tax hikes was not to increase federal revenue but to ensure “fairness.” If the president were to go on another riff about “fat cat bankers,” limb-lopping surgeons, or Vegas junkets, eyes would roll—in the manner that today’s students start text messaging when their aging 60s hold-over professors keep ranting about Halliburton. Martha’s Vineyard and Costa del Sol helped see to that.

Been there, done that

An Obama speech echoing boilerplate themes such as “there are no red states, there are no blue states” today simply could not be given—the laughing in the audience would be far too much. After Eric Holder’s “cowards” outburst, the beer summit, Van Jones, the slurs against Arizona, and the video appeals targeted at particular racial groups, the public takes for granted that a Rev. Wright, the clingers speech, “typical white person,” and Michelle’s angst (e.g., “downright mean country,” “never been proud,” “raise the bar,” etc.) were disturbing premonitions rather than rightwing racialist paranoias.

For a while, “working across the aisle” delivered in mellifluous tones assured millions that their soon-to-be president had not compiled the most partisan voting record in the U.S. Senate (to the left of the nation’s only self-avowed socialist senator). Now? We yawn when Obama goes off on Republicans as “enemies” who cannot sit in the front seat of the car. Chicago-style target the enemy has gone from shocking to de rigueur to banal for this president.


Them/us—so what?

Until 2008-9, the rubric $250,000 was just an arbitrary number. Now it is a sharp ethical divide in a strange new class war in which those above are veritable parasites who “do not pay their fair share”, while the 50% of the population who pay no income tax ipso facto are suddenly moral and patriotic. In sum, no president in 78 years has done more to incite class resentment, envy, and polarization—and that fact is as shocking as the sun rising in the morning. “Oh, more of Obama’s class warfare? So what else is new?”

Abroad, there is now not a reset foreign policy but a reset, reset foreign policy. The president could not give another straight-faced speech about the Islamic roots of the Western Enlightenment, why Guantanamo has to be closed this year, how KSM will be tried in a civilian court, or why Harold Koh is stopping renditions, tribunals, and predators in worry over their constitutionality. Either no one would believe him, or they would snore half way through at the boilerplate, or they would point out that Obama 1.0 and Obama 2.0 do not even share the same operating system. If an American diplomat were to give another “we are not Bush” reset speech, the audience would respond with a Jon Stewart type ironic look. A bow to another Saudi prince would be as shocking as Obama on the golf course. We live in an age in which Iraq is Obama’s “greatest achievement”.

When a Paul O’Neil, Scott McClellan, or Colin Powell left the Bush administration, critics saw a crisis and looked for whistle-blowing juicy tell-alls about Bush incompetency. Now we sleep when Obama officials plan to flee halfway in a first term, the fixer Rahm Emanuel, the architects of the $3 trillion borrowing that was supposed to ensure that unemployment did not go above 8%—Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, and Larry Summers—the wartime team of a General McKiernan, General McChrystal, and soon to be gone National Security Advisor Gen. Jones, and Defense Secretary Gates.

I do not think President Obama is our “worst” president, as the Left said often of George W. Bush (who of us is all that familiar with the administration of a Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan? And are not we all tired of such empty superlatives?). Much less do I think Obama has ruined the United States, or has done such damage that it cannot be undone. But I do feel that after only 23 months, the presidency is becoming a caricature of a presidency—and, scarier still, is being recognized as such abroad. Whereas Bill Clinton triangulated to save his administration from descending into Carteresque liberal irrelevancy, the choices of Obama seem much starker—perhaps understandable given the vast lacunae in his resume.

In sum, Obama will either insidiously ignore everything he once preached about (e.g., the seas endlessly rising unless we have cap and trade, the evil rich who make $250,001, the Constitutional-shredding Bush-Cheney nexus), or he will simply give the same empty platitudinous sermons that now come off as convincing as an Al Gore thundering about carbon offsets, John Edwards pontificating on “two Americas” or John Kerry lecturing about the need for higher taxes—or he will at times do both.

The crowd fainting at the sound of our “hope and change” Oz is over. We are already at the end of the movie when Toto pulled away the curtain—witnessing the nuts and bolts of how it once was all projected onto the screen.

And it isn’t pretty.