Critics of the president are convinced that Barack Obama will do lasting damage to the U.S. I doubt it.
Obama came to power in the third year of large Democratic congressional majorities. In his first referendum, he lost the House and he may soon lose the Senate; in other words, there followed a somewhat normal reaction against a majority party. Obama’s popularity rating is well below 50%, despite an obsequious media and a brilliantly negative billion-dollar campaign that long ago turned Mitt Romney into a veritable elevator-using, equestrian-marrying, canine-hating monster.
In the second term, there is little of the Obama bully pulpit left. “Make no mistake about it” and “let me be perfectly clear” can incur caricature, not fainting. “Really,” “I’m not kidding,” “I’m serious,” “in point of fact,” and “I’m not making this up” often prove rhetorical hints that the opposite is true. When Obama warns about gridlock in Washington, the “same old tired politics,” the dangers of a tyrant or king in the White House, the need for an honest IRS, or the perils of government surveillance, these admonitions have tragically become a psychological tic to warn us about himself. Former jokes about siccing the IRS on his enemies or using Predator drones to go after suitors of his daughters are as eerie as they are comedic.
Each new "historic" speech is by now mostly history repeating itself as farce. The Victory Column oration gave way to a flat vignette at the Brandenburg Gate. The Cairo speech follow-ups were mostly confusion about Egypt and Syria, without the fictions of the West’s underappreciated debts to Islam. The second Trayvon Martin aside on racial look-alikes was even more disturbing that the first. I don’t think Obama’s advisors will allow him to proclaim any more “deadlines,” or “red lines,” or any sort of lines at all in the Middle East.
Aside from Obama himself, no one in the post-Benghazi, -AP, -NSA, and -IRS scandal era references the president any longer as the former “professor of constitutional law.” In Obama’s case even the inflated title has become an oxymoron.
Ever so slowly, the press, albeit still for the most part privately, is learning that it has been had by one of its own. The breach of journalistic ethics turned out not to be a necessary means to an exalted liberal end, but instead was interpreted cynically by Obama as exemption for doing pretty much what he pleased -- like going after AP reporters for leaking national security in a way the administration could only envy, given its own less impressive efforts to divulge what should not have been divulged. How odd that a truly adversarial press is an aid to conservatives in power, in keeping them on their toes about scandal, and how ironic that liberal media obeisance green-lights wrongdoing among those whom they deify.
What does the Arab Spring conjure up? Or “lead from behind”? Or "reset"? (If only Obama could envision Putin as George Zimmerman, we might get real on Russia.) Or an "OK" from the Arab League to act? Or CIA gun-running in Libya? Or the military non-response to Benghazi? Or the incarceration of Mr. Nakoula, the supposedly evil filmmaker? Or “al-Qaeda on the run”? Or the successive flip-flops on Mubarak, Morsi, and the Egyptian military? Or serial “deadlines” to Iran, or consecutive “red lines” in Syria? (If only these threats abroad carried as much weight as Obama’s promises to “bankrupt” coal companies and send our power bills “skyrocketing.”) Or the “peace-process” with the Palestinians? Or closing down the embassies of the Middle East? (If only Islamists were Republicans, they might be on the receiving end of real presidential threats like “punish our enemies.”) What do all these misadventures abroad have in common? I think the answer is nothing and everything: no consistency other than confusion.
In terms of future elections, Obama has created a new racial paradox for Democrats, the ironic wage of his own racial divisiveness. As Obama turns off independent voters of all backgrounds by the now monotonous rhetoric -- from “typical white person” to his racial grandstanding in the Trayvon Martin matter, with help always from the reliably polarizing Eric Holder (“my people,” “cowards”) -- the president grows even shriller to make up the losses of moderate voters. Polls now show that the public is more likely to consider Obama racially divisive than a healer. In the upcoming midterm election, it is still unclear whether minority voters will continue to turn out in record numbers and vote in record lockstep Democratic fashion, a scenario increasingly critical to Obama as he loses independents. When one plays at zero-sum identity politics, each voter energized by racial referencing also means one voter -- or more -- polarized.
Cap and trade is dead. EPA director Lisa “Richard Windsor” Jackson proved a hushed-up embarrassment, a sort of asexual version of “Carlos Danger.” In any case, her quiet departure was no more noticed than was the entire tenure of Hilda Solis. Steven Chu and his hopes for gas prices to reach European levels will be as memorable a wish or prediction as was his sigh that California agriculture would dry up and blow away. Drivers have paid over $1 trillion more in collectively higher gas prices since Obama took office. That fact will be more remembered than the promised wave of new green electric cars and high-speed rail.
When Obama occasionally soars with the old “wind and solar” and “millions of new green jobs” tropes, most associate those references with “Solyndra.” How odd that those in the fracking business -- reducing carbon emissions, lowering electricity prices, reducing dependence on foreign energy sources -- have done Obama far more political good than his often inept and corrupt friends in the green subsidy racket.
One way or another, Obamacare will be repealed. If a House representative in 2009 had suggested that those in the executive branch should not enforce the employer mandate of the newly passed Obamacare, he would have incurred charges of being disloyal to the Constitution. Now the author of the bill calls it a "train wreck," and the president chooses not to faithfully execute elements of his own law, his “signature” legislative achievement. With friends like these, why does Obamacare need enemies?
Why would the IRS, charged with enforcing Obamacare, wish its own employees to be exempt from the statutes it will enforce on others? Beware, Democrats: maybe Lois Lerner & Co. will do more freelancing and punish those who spiked their health care premiums. The more vehemently a group in 2009 demanded Obamacare -- unions, government employees, pro-Democratic businesses -- the more likely they were by 2013 to wish exemption from it. Is the lesson something like: “I should be excused from it, since I promoted it more than others”?
If anyone were to repeat the Obama reform mantra of 2008 -- a new transparency, an end to lobbyists, no more revolving doors -- it would incur laughter. A Larry Summers or Peter Orszag forgot Obama’s promises not to make millions of dollars from the influence gained during their government service. Citibank seems to be bankrolling the retirement plans of all those who worked at Obama’s Treasury Department. I think Obama will do the same when he leaves office, in the fashion of both Hillary Clinton and Lisa Jackson. Expect soon his $1 million speaking fees to lecture Citibank and Goldman Sachs on diversity and green energy.
When we recount Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the IRS mess, the AP/James Rosen affair, or the NSA disclosures, we think not of modern scandals per se, but rather in historical terms: which prior administration was more corrupt and dishonest -- Nixon’s or Grant’s? Is that comparison fair to either of them? Did Obama, in compensation, give us Reconstruction or an opening to China? Has he accomplished as much as Harding?
Americans are always up for a good class war. Obama gave them one, with all the talk of the "one percent," "millionaires and billionaires," and the "pay your fair share" boilerplate. But to be a good class warrior also requires the pretense of populism. Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich were at least not habitués of Martha’s Vineyard, did not make second homes out of tony golf courses, did not have the family jetting to Aspen and Costa del Sol to take time off with those who forgot when to quit their profiting. How can a president so rail at the 1% and yet so wish to play, vacation, and be among those who didn’t build their wealth?
The president’s signature achievement? He has established a precedent that the president can play all the golf he wishes without being caricatured as a distracted would-be aristocrat.
Jimmy Carter’s four years had short-term consequences -- almost all negative -- but little long-term damage. Obama’s eight years in theory should have far more lasting ramifications, given the huge debt, radical appointees, job-killing regulations, and dismal economy of the last five years. Yet we are learning that he is proving even a more inconsequential figure than was Carter. And so likewise in years to come, even his true believers will talk more of an iconic Barack Obama before and after he was president -- but rarely during.