Learning through Pain
What will history make so far of our five-year voyage with Barack Obama? What will it make of hope and change -- other than a sort of hysteria of 2008 that was a political version of the Pet Rock or the Cabbage Patch Doll derangement? Did we really experience faux-Greek columns and Latin mottoes (vero possumus) as Obama props to usher in the new order of the ages?
What exactly made David Brooks focus on trouser creases, or Chris Matthews on involuntary leg tickles? How could any serious person believe a candidate who promised to change the very terrain of the planet? Why would sober critics declare a near rookie senator “a god”?
Only as America slowly sobers up from five years of slumber can we begin to fathom Obama’s likely legacy -- which is mostly wisdom acquired only from pain.
Liberals always had thought a right-wing bully president would erode civil liberties. How ironic that a charismatic, post-racial, self-described “constitutional law professor” has done more damage to our Constitution than has any president since Richard Nixon. Had the AP, IRS, or NSA scandals occurred during the Bush second term, congressional Democrats would have been calling for impeachment.
The old controversial presidential signing statements of the past are mere misdemeanors compared to Obama felonies of declaring settled law null and void, from the employer mandate to the implementation guidelines of Obamacare to exempting pet businesses and congressional staffs from the requirements of the law. A president can now decide not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, or grant pre-election, de facto amnesties. Why, then, pass laws in the first place? The idea of political opponents being audited by the IRS or critical journalists having their phones monitored will be Obama’s Nixonian legacy. After Obama, one of two things will happen: either the presidency will be redefined as a sort of super-executive that can both make and enforce statutes, or a constitutional reaction will set in, and Obamism will be cited as a danger to the republic that we wish in the future never to repeat.
Another legacy of Obama is the notion that there is no such thing anymore as a scandal. Obama labeled the IRS corruption as “outrageous” and then recently backtracked and berated progressive journalists for even thinking that the Tea Party was treaty unfairly by his administration’s IRS appointees. No one yet in the administration has confessed that a video did not cause the deaths of Americans in Benghazi. Nor is anyone contrite about the AP monitoring. That the president of the United States serially lied over Obamacare earns a "duh." The NSA mess warrants a "whatever." Each time we witness something akin to the NSA, IRS, AP, and ACA machinations in the future, the supporters of the next untruthful or immoral president will no doubt offer in defense, “But Obama did worse and nobody cared.” Obama’s ethical legacy is the doctrine of medieval exemption: declaring that he is seeking exalted ends excuses the tawdry means of obtaining them.
What Not to Do in a Recession
In terms of fiscal and economic policy, quantitative easing, trillion-dollar-plus deficits, massive stimulus, de facto zero interest rates, tax increases and more federal regulation did not lead to a summer of recovery. Instead they have discredited Keynesian economics for a generation, branding it as a sure way to ensure near zero economic growth and permanent 7% unemployment.
Obama logically expected all that liquidity would lead to an economic rebound in 2009, especially given that historically the sharper the recession, the more robust the recovery. Tragically, had he done nothing, he might well have seen an upswing, given huge new energy discoveries and a strong U.S. tech sector. Instead, Obama has taught us that vast expansions in borrowing, public entitlements, sloppy infrastructure spending, huge new federal programs, and the end of passbook interest are ways of institutionalizing 7%-plus unemployment, near non-existent comic growth, and growing collective dependency. Obama’s five-year economic recovery plan will be studied for decades as a textbook example of what not to do in a recession, or immediately following one.
Obamacare likewise offers many lessons. When a government pays far more than the going rate for the construction of a website and receives in return far less than the normal product -- and then must turn to the private sector for help -- we are reminded why federal take-overs of anything are a bad idea. For all the millions of words written for and against Obamacare, for all the presidential sloganeering and the fights in Congress over its birth, we are left with a simple warning: even the most sophisticated ways of masking a vast redistribution scheme do not work.
In the end, Obamacare was a crass effort to extract cash from those who had health insurance and younger people who chose not to buy it in order to give coverage to others -- with a growing federal bureaucracy taking its middle-man percentage cut as the price of adjudicating who should pay and who should receive. Obama may be able to lower the earth’s temperature and lower its seas, but he still cannot give more and better things to more people at a vast savings, or convince those who lost their coverage, lost their doctors, and paid more for the privilege that they are better off.
Obamacare also reminded us of two lessons about socialism: those who were sober and careful to purchase their own plans had to be demonized as callous or stupid for buying “junk.” Those who were without care had to been seen as noble victims without any free choice in the decision not to obtain coverage. The redistributionists could not simply tell the truth about what they were doing because a vast majority would not like what they were doing.
Had Obama just said that “many of you more fortunate Americans with insurance must pay more for coverage that you will not need in order to subsidize those with less resources who will need it,” the plan would have been aborted before birth. Without deceit and propaganda, Obamacare would never have passed on its own merits. Meanwhile, the exemptions to congressional staff, unions, and pet businesses remind us that redistributionists are always exempt from the ramifications of their own ideology. The reward for the brilliance and superior morality of thinking up a coercive redistributionist plan is to be freed from it.
No Grownups, but Plenty of Racial Polarization
Obama reminded us that while we might have once been envied abroad as too muscular a hyperpower, we are now more readily despised as too squishy, unreliable, and sanctimonious. All the euphemisms in the world -- from “man-caused disasters” to “workplace violence” -- have made no impressions on the Arab world. What did affect our reputation was Obama’s appeasement in Syria, incompetence in Libya, flip-flopping in Egypt, and confusion on Iranian proliferation. How odd that medieval Saudi Arabia trusts Israel more than it does the U.S.
No one is fond of a bullying or blustering America abroad, but they like even less an impotent while preachy United States. At the present trajectory, the legacy of Obama’s foreign policy may well be the nuclearization of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, serial clashes in the China seas, an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, and a Russian protectorate eastward from Germany.
Europe always took for granted a U.S.-led NATO for its security and a booming free-market American economy for its exports. Given that unquestioned guarantee, it was easy to opportunistically ankle-bite America. The Euros dreamed that they wanted Obama as a partner in neo-socialism, climate change activism, and non-alignment foreign policy. Well, they got what they wanted, only to discover that the Western world does not work with two European Unions. For an adolescent to dream of cradle-to-grave entitlements and utopian peace, there must be an adult to ensure free markets and military preparedness.
Critics of Colin Powell’s flawed UN presentation were not tarred as racists. Those who tore apart Alberto Gonzales at congressional hearings were not charged with nativism. Mocking Condoleezza Rice did not mean that her liberal critics were bigots.
But Obama changed that calculus and equated his own popularity with a referendum on racial harmony. The result is a creeping racial polarization that we have not seen in fifty years. The president weighed in against the police in the Professor Gates psychodrama, and de facto against George Zimmerman, a defendant in the Trayvon Martin shooting. But he remained mute about the growing targeting of Jews in the faddish and mostly African-American game of knock-out. Eric Holder called the nation racial “cowards” and referred to blacks as “my people” (whose people does the attorney general of the United States think whites, Asians, and Latinos belong to)? The president has talked of “typical white people” and “punishing our enemies” -- so much for race being incidental and not essential to our characters.
Before Obama, the billionaire Oprah Winfrey was a national icon. Morgan Freeman had transcended race and resented identity politics. A Kanye West or Chris Rock made millions of dollars by appealing to suburbanites. All have lost their broad appeal, largely due to some of the most polarizing racial rhetoric in memory.
Oprah warns us that racism fuels Obama’s low polls and shrugs that millions of Americans must die for racism to end. Does Oprah define who should line up for the morgue?
Morgan Freeman had charged the entire Republican Party and the Tea Party with racism for its opposition to Obama. Does that include the 10% of black voters who now voice disapproval with Obama?
A Jamie Foxx or Chris Rock casually derogates “white people”; does that mean either wishes them not to go to their movies or shows? Kanye West thinks it cool to peddle Jewish stereotypes. Does his rich historical knowledge apprise him where such thinking in the past had led?
The net result of the new racialism is an impossible situation of establishing one’s racial fides only by permanent support for Barack Obama -- and because it is impossible, more are resenting those who imposed it.
We have three more years before the mast. By 2016 there will have been a lot of damage to the United States -- but perhaps a lot of painful wisdom as well.
Pathei mathos -- learning through pain -- Aeschylus reminds us.
(Artwork based on a modified Shutterstock.com image, and inspired by this 2009 Michael Ramirez cartoon.)