The Right-Wing Complaint of 2008
In 2008, the following was the general right-wing argument against Obama’s candidacy:
a) The self-professed “uniter” Obama had, in truth, little record of uniting disparate groups. From community organizing to politics, his preferred modus operandi was rather to praise moderation, but politick more as a radical, and sometimes go after opponents as unreasonable or illiberal. Thus the most partisan voting senator in the Congress, who talked grandly of “working across the aisle,” also urged supporters to “get in their faces” and “take a gun to a knife fight.” Acorn, Project Vote, and SEIU were not ecumenical organizations.
b) Obama knew very little about foreign affairs, or perhaps even raw human nature as it plays out in power politics abroad. At times, he seemed naive about the singular role of the U.S. in the world, especially his sense that problems with Iran, the Middle East, Venezuela, Russia, and others were somehow predicated on American arrogance and unilateralism (and neither predating nor postdating George Bush) — to be remedied by Obama’s post-racial, post-national diplomacy.
c) In truth, Obama, for all his rhetorical skills and soft-spoken charisma, had little experience in the private sector outside of politics, academia, foundations, and subsidized organizing. Consequently, he did not seem to understand the nature of profit and loss, payrolls, how businesses worked and planned, or much of anything in the private sector.
d) Obama at times seemed to lack common sense, and perhaps even common knowledge. He appeared confused about everything from the number of U.S. states to the idea that air pressure and “tune-ups” might substitute for new oil exploration. He seemed assured when reading a teleprompted script, and yet lost much of his eloquence when it came to repartee and question and answer.
e) Obama saw race as essential to his persona and his success, rarely incidental. Collate the writings and rantings of his triad of pastors and friends — Rev. Wright, Rev. Pfleger, and Rev. Meeks — and one sees a common theme of racism (sometimes overt), anti-Semitism, and class warfare. It was considered irrelevant to remind voters in 2008 that Michelle Obama had alleged that the U.S. was a downright mean country, or that she had confessed to never heretofore being very proud of her country until it gave consideration to her husband as a presidential candidate — though both sentiments would seem rare for a potential first lady.
f) Obama, it was also felt, counted on a sense of entitlement. His admissions to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard were alleged not to have been based on the usual competitive test scores or grades — and such charges were not refuted, but considered ancient history. As Harvard Law Review editor, he seemed to assume, quite rightly, that he did not have to publish an article. As a University of Chicago Law School lecturer he also rightly assumed that Chicago — and later Harvard as well — would, if he had wished, granted him tenure, again, despite nonexistent publication. Sen. Clinton argued, without much refutation, that as a state legislator Obama had both authored very little legislation and voted present on any vote that might be considered problematic for a higher political office — a charge that later disappointed supporters would come to echo, along with admissions of prior inexperience on Obama’s apart.
g) Obama, like many on the elite left, had an ambiguous attitude about affluence and its dividends. The more, as a community organizer, he had railed about bankers and unfairness, the more he had enjoyed a mini-mansion and dealt with the soon-to-be criminal Tony Rezko. The current Wall Street protests take their cue not just from presidential anger at “millionaires and billionaires,” but also from the idea that affluent young people are exempt from their own rhetorical charges.
Yet in 2008, to suggest “spread the wealth” meant anything important was to be either racist or a rank partisan. But Obama in 2001 in a Chicago public radio interview could not have been clearer about the need for government to redistribute income and his unhappiness that the Constitution seemed to prohibit that. Here is a telling excerpt in all its half-baked Foucauldian vocabulary:
But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in the society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. … I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.
Again, to refer to all of the above in 2008 was considered not so much unfair as improper.
The Proving Ground
Then came the election, and a perfect storm of events. The general unhappiness with Bush over deficits and Iraq, the recession that had started in December 2007, the absence of any incumbent vice president or president in the race for the first time since 1952, an unusually unenergetic McCain campaign, and a nakedly partisan media — all that by early September still had not given Obama the lead. But the mid-September 2008 financial crash did. And so what in the last fifty years was usually considered improbable — the election of a northern Democratic liberal — soon seemed foreordained.
The Reality of 2011
We are now nearing the third year of the Obama administration. Were those worries of 2008 at all justified? Let us briefly review them in the same order:
a) Uniter? The country is divided, perhaps more so than in 2006 — except to the extent of gradually unifying around opposition to Obama, who now polls around 40% approval and is heading to Bush levels in three rather than seven years. “Get in their faces”transmogrified into “punish our enemies,” a lawsuit against Arizona, “stop the smears”/ JournoList/AttackWatch.com, and a shellacking in 2010 that led the president to abandon any pretense of “bipartisanship” in favor of revving up the base with them/us rhetoric. Let me juxtapose these two quotes that sum up the current weird Obama atmosphere:
- “I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic.” — Hillary Clinton in 2003 objecting to the Bush administration.
- “These are not patriots, people who love this country want to see jobs created. They don’t love this country. … I don’t think they love this country. They’re not concerned about the economic well being of the country as a whole.” — Rep. Linda Sanchez, in 2011, in response to congressional opposition to President Obama’s job’s bill.
Could now-Secretary Clinton address Rep. Sanchez’s charges?
b) Abroad? Obama soon began treating allies and enemies alike as near neutrals: outreach to Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Cuba, while petty slights and sometimes serious rebuke to Israel, the UK, and eastern Europe. Once the most vocal of Bush’s critics, Obama ended up copycatting all of his predecessor’s anti-terrorism protocols – but without a gesture of gratitude. As Predator in chief, Obama quintupled the number of targeted assassinations, on the apparent theory that dead suspected terrorists would cause fewer problems than incarcerated confessed terrorists. Reset and outreach faded and are now terms of yesteryear: China is as anti-American as ever, more so Pakistan. Iran allegedly now tries to kill inside Washington. Putin is still Putin. “Leading from behind” proved that a thug like Gaddafi could resist NATO’s big three for eight months. The Arab Spring may become a winter of anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism, and anti-Americanism. The Arab Spring also suggests so far two tragic truths: the Middle East changes only when the U.S. removes a psychopath, and then spends lots of blood and treasure fostering a new government — something that has zero political support after Iraq; and two, Middle East dictators are sometimes more liberal than the masses to whom they deny freedoms. In general, we still have Afghanistan and Iraq, plus Libya and now a small force in Africa. Israel, Cyprus, Taiwan, North Korea, and the former Soviet republics are more volatile, not less.
c) Economy? Obama’s EU-like economic plan is in shambles. Prior to Obama, Keynesians had argued that no one had given them a fair shot since the Depression. But borrowing nearly five trillion in less than three years, near zero interest rates, vastly expanding food stamps and unemployment benefits, absorbing private companies, and issuing vast new financial and environmental regulations turned an anticipated recovery into another near recession. In any case, Obama’s economic architects of such policies — Goolsbee, Orszag, Romer, Summers — mysteriously did not last three years.
d) Common sense? 2008 campaign “slips” prefaced things like “corpse-man” and speaking Austrian — perhaps understandable, but not in the media climate of zero media tolerance for “nucular.” Presidents I suppose in the future will have to be taught by handlers not to bow to emperors and kings. Going to our ally Germany to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall was apparently less important than jetting to Copenhagen to lobby for a Chicago Olympics. The 2009 Cairo speech was one of the most factually incorrect speeches in recent presidential history, as almost every assertion was demonstrably false. Well before Solyndra, the secretary of energy quipped that gas prices should reach European levels, that California farms would some day blow away, and that Americans, in essence, could not be trusted to buy the right light bulbs. From “man-made disasters” to “overseas contingency operations” to “my people” and “cowards” to videos assuring that immigration laws will not be enforced, the Obama cabinet is about what one could have predicted back in 2008.
e) Racial healing? All these earlier bothersome tidbits like “typical white person” reappeared with an entire litany of them/us calumnies, none of them in isolation of any importance, but in toto quite disturbing. Do we remember them all — from the beer summit and Eric Holder’s “my people” and “cowards” to “wise Latina,” “punish our enemies,” “moats and alligators,” the faux-southern black preacher cadences and condescending addresses to “bedroom slippers” African-American audiences, or the video appealing to constituents by racial categories? Few imagined in 2008 that the Congressional Black Caucus in 2011, in the new period of post-racialism, would be accusing opponents of wanting a return to lynching and Jim Crow laws.
f) Political savvy? Why federalize health care in the midst of a recession with 10% plus unemployment? Obama promised the public in November 2010 not to raise taxes in a recession, in 2011 to raise them a lot. Solyndra seems far worse than Enron, but Fast and Furious perhaps as bad as Iran Contra — except that Americans died in the former and not the latter. In 2010, potential Republican opponents and the Democratic base were worried that Obama would triangulate as Clinton had in 1995; in 2011, most observers are exasperated that he thinks more of what failed in 2010 is the remedy in 2011.
g) Hate or love of the elite? The hints of the 2008 attraction and distrust of wealth only magnified by 2011. In the midst of “at some point” we have made enough money, of not the time for profits on Wall Street, of “millionaires and billionaires,” of “corporate jets,” of going after everyone from guitar factories to Boeing — in the midst of all that, where do all the all elite vacation spots and golf resorts fit in — along with massive donations from Goldman Sachs and BP? How strange that the more one demonizes the good life that unimaginable riches provide, the more one seems comfortable with the good life that unlimited government subsidizes?
The skeptics of 2008 proved prescient; those who demonized them should be embarrassed. And we should remember that candidates, of both parties, will govern mostly as they campaign. Slips are not indiscretions, but often will prove in hindsight windows of the soul.
The End of Sparta. After the battle of Leuktra, and the defeat of Sparta, the Thebans parley with Lichas, who remains as defiant as ever:
“I said hear your Lichas. You won a battle. A big one. But not this war. A bigger war—megas kindunos. That you will have in days. Then my men from the coast get here with our other king’s son. Or now we march out home. Then go home. Or will we stay here? And kill you all?”
Whether he smiled or grimaced, few could tell. So far his talk was nonsense. “We go in the night. It is written by the gods that Sparta survives Leuktra. You do the second thinking; Lichas does the first killing of the enemies of Hellas. No, you won’t kill me, the last true Hellene. You’d miss, need me too much. Kill me? Then you would kill Sparta. Then who would protect you weaker ones from the wild men from the north and east?”
Pelopidas came up and raised his spear, but he was checked by the hand of Epaminondas. Still, Pelopidas thought it better to kill this man now. Ainias nodded to him and grasped his hilt. Never again would such men as their own be together to get this close to the Spartan. If it was not done now, both sensed that this man would bring them and their own catastrophe upon catastrophe in the year ahead. But it was the softer Proxenos who already had his spear out. He was lowering it in the shadows for a groin stab, for a foul black mood had come over him as Lichas and his brood neared. He was a man of vast lands and black soil and halls with marble columns, while these lords of Sparta lived in hovels and knew not a plum from an apricot. Proxenos did not believe Nêto’s prophecies about a bad end across the Isthmos, but he did sense that one day he would march safer in the Peloponnesos without the evil of Lichas and his tribe.
Epaminondas stepped even closer, to within five palms’ width of the Spartan’s face. “You claim to be Lichas? You carried the dead king out. I apologize— for not killing you myself. But we had others of the royal blood today to deal with first. You yourself have lived too long, old man.”
Lichas blustered at that. “None of us ever explain what we do. We do all for Hellas— make her free. I keep the good on top to take care of the weak like you on the bottom. You only talk of making the bad equal to the good so that we all end up bad. Yes, what you cannot be, you would tear down. But we are the Hellenes, you its polis destroyers. Sparta is Hellas, Hellas Sparta, nothing more, nothing less.”
Lichas spat out some of the dried goat meat he was gumming on. Then he continued, looking at Mêlon. “Is it to be more war? Or do my Spartans march out under truce? No difference to me. I killed ten of you today, and got back Spartan armor from the babe in diapers who thought he could wear it.” Then he laughed at all that and stepped a pace closer….