A rule of the modern age: all confident, reelected presidents trip up in the second term. LBJ was sunk by Vietnam. Reagan faced Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton had his comeuppance with Monica. George W. Bush was overwhelmed with the Iraqi insurgency and Katrina. And Obama will have his as well, obsequious media or not.
Supposedly fundamental partisan swings of an era usually prove transitory: LBJ’s landside led to Nixon four years later, whose landslide then led to Carter in 1980, whose supposed new politics of humility and apology led to Reagan, whose small government-paradigm shift nonetheless by 1992 gave us Clinton, whose “middle way” after only eight years gave us Bush, whose “compassionate conservative realignment” ended with Obama. And so on until the end of the republic.
Why these second-term reckonings? Partly, presidential hubris leads to a natural correction, as Nemesis kicks in; partly, one can dodge mishaps for four years, but the odds catch up after eight; and partly, the media and voters grow tired of a monotonous presidential voice, appearance, and manner, and want change for the sake of change. To the degree a president walks softly, understands his second-term dilemma, and reaches out, he is less vulnerable.
But Obama either has misread his reelection as a mandate (e.g., Republicans maintained control of the House and the majority of state governorships and legislatures; Obama, unlike most second-term presidents, received fewer votes than in 2008), or he believes that his progressive legacy lies in ramming through change by any means necessary to obtain results that are neither possible through legislative compromise nor supported by majorities of the American people.
Consider the reckoning Obama will soon have in the following areas:
Americans are as outraged over the Newtown shootings as they are baffled by how to stop such mass murders -- given the difficulty of legislating away human evil. They have a vague sense both that someone should not be able to fire off 30 rounds in seconds, and yet that prior assault-weapons bans and comprehensive gun control have not done anything to curtail the incidents of gun violence. The more the Obama legions try to push curtailments of the Second Amendment, the more pushback they will encounter. Voters sense rightly that ultimately Obama is angry not so much at the “clingers” and their guns, but at the Second Amendment itself.
And yet they sense that Obama himself -- and most celebrities -- quite rightly count on the guns of their security guards to protect them from evil.
James Madison did not write that amendment just as a protection for hunters or to ensure home defense, but rather as a warning to an all-powerful federal government not to abuse its mandate, given that the citizenry would be armed and enjoy some parity in weaponry with federal authorities. That is why a militia is expressly mentioned, and why the Third Amendment follows, emphasizing further checks on the ability of the federal government to quarter troops in private homes (made more difficult when, thanks to the Second Amendment, they are armed).
For Obama to win over public opinion following Newtown, he would have to make arguments that strict gun control leads to decreased shootings in places like Chicago, or that a prior assault weapon ban stopped Columbine, or that Connecticut’s strict gun control mitigated the effects of Newtown. The president would also have to explain, if he were to go ahead with executive orders curbing gun access, why not equally so with knives -- which are used in more killings than assault weapons -- or ammonium nitrate fertilizer that can lead to something like Oklahoma City. And he must demonstrate that playing a sick video game for hours in a basement, or being part of a pathological culture that produces schlock like Natural Born Killers, or expanding the First Amendment to such lengths that the violently insane cannot be forcibly hospitalized are minor considerations in comparison to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.
In lieu of all that, for now Obama is fueling liberal outrage over Newtown, locating it against a demonized gun-owning class, and hoping to start another us/them war (in the fashion of the 2012 wars of feminists versus sexists, greens versus polluters, gays versus bigots, Latinos versus nativists, blacks versus racists, unions versus capitalist parasites, and the young needy versus the older greedy) of the educated and civilized against the supposed rednecks in camouflage.
Jack up outrage, identify the “enemy,” demonize him, and then lead the mob to a new law. But most Americans value the right to buy guns; they are not convinced that new laws will abate violence; and they will resent any effort to prune the Second Amendment by executive order. If I am wrong, then we will see purple- and red-state Democratic senators and representatives, up for reelection in 2014, jump onto the Obama-Biden-Feinstein-Pelosi-Reid restrictionist bandwagon.
In 2013, there will be new taxes levied, from charges on medical devices to Medicare tax hikes on the culpable who make more than the dreaded $250,000. Already insurance premiums are rising in anticipation of Obamacare implementation in 2014, when health care exchanges begin, and employers and the uninsured will be forced to either buy health insurance or to pay a fine -- the details of which are unclear even to the architects of the law. If Obamacare were car insurance, you could buy it retroactively after a major collision, and could not be charged too much due to your prior driving record -- facts that will make premiums for others soar.
So far, Obamacare has been just a rhetorical topos. In 2013 it will cost people real money, and in 2014 it will change the way millions of Americans deal with and pay for their doctors. Those who will like the new entitlement are natural Obama supporters; those who will not like it may have been in 2012 but might not be in 2014.
Americans want as many government freebies as possible as long as the distant fat cats pay for them. But there are two problems with Obama’s cynical attempts to created an even greater constituency of dependents, reliant on the taxes from a demonized upper wealthy class. First, there are not enough rich to squeeze out sufficient funds to pay for the vast increases in federal spending. We saw that with the 2013 payroll tax hikes on the middle class and the president’s willingness to go over the cliff, which would have raised taxes on everyone.
Obama’s war has never, as he claimed, been between the 1% and 99%, but rather is an existential struggle of the 47% who do not pay federal income tax and receive lots from the government against the 53% who dread April 15 and receive less. That divide will become clearer as the economy sputters along, the debts mount, and the government searches for revenue.
Second, while the majority of those who make above $250,000 probably voted for Obama, they did so on the premise that the super-wealthy (e.g., those who make more than $1 million a year), not themselves, were in Obama’s crosshairs. In 2013 they will come to learn that new Obamacare taxes, a new loss in deductions, new blue-state income tax hikes, and changes in Medicare taxation are aimed at themselves -- and that Obama prefers a Bill Gates, Jeffrey Immelt, or Warren Buffett to a middle-level executive, doctor, or lawyer making $200,000. It is one thing to blast the Koch brothers and claim that news coverage of Obamaphones is a racist trope; quite another to pay another 10% of your income for others to have free things that are superfluous -- and be derided in the process.
Jack Lew can insist that borrowing $1 trillion a year is not adding to the deficit. Paul Krugman can demand that we borrow even more to achieve the proper Keynesian stimulus. Obama can maintain that spending is not the problem. But $16 trillion is $16 trillion, and the trajectories of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, disability, and unemployment insurance suggest that there is no end to the borrowing in sight. The economy is not growing much; unemployment has been higher in every month of the Obama administration than in any one month of his predecessor’s eight years. Not even slashing defense and upping federal and state income taxes on the fat cats will bring the solution, since it is mathematical and not political. Even Obama cannot issue an executive order outlawing the laws of physics.
The public very soon will see that there is to be less free stuff and lots more taxes -- and yet that will still not be enough, as the new regulations, higher taxes, and constant demonizing of the private sector hamstring the economy.
There is still only a vague appreciation that Obama has contradicted much of what he said in the past -- to a degree more manifest than what was normal for a Reagan or Clinton. He no longer thinks deficits are unpatriotic as they were under Bush, and he most surely never planned to cut them in half by the end of his first term. He voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006 when the debt was much smaller than it is now, and he now claims that for others to do what he did is little short of subversive. Obama once loudly and in detail warned against doing away with the filibuster that his lieutenants now seek to stop -- and he once warned in the process about the sort of partisan abuse behind such an effort that he now embraces. He derided recess appointments that he now employs, and railed against the abuse of the executive order that he now has used to avoid legislative opposition on immigration, environmental regulations, and perhaps soon the Second Amendment.
Obama has praised public financing of presidential campaigns, and yet was the first candidate in the history of the law to renounce it. Renditions, tribunals, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, and preventative detention at one time or another were all demagogued by Obama as either useless or illegal -- and all embraced or expanded by him without either a nod of thanks to Bush or a small admission that he had reversed course. He has blasted big-money fat cats on Wall Street for both taking federal bailouts and receiving huge bonuses for their incompetence, and yet nominated the very emblem of that hypocrisy -- Citigroup’s Jack Lew -- as his new Treasury secretary. An act analogous to lecturing about the need for the well-off to pay “their fair share” while appointing a tax-dodger as the prior Treasury secretary.
Obama’s past sermons about transparency, the revolving door, and the abuse of big money in campaign donations are now at odds with his practice. He blasted the waterboarding of three confessed terrorists, and then had nearly 3,000 suspected terrorists vaporized by Predator drones, apparently on the rationale that an OK from former Yale Law Dean Harold Koh and reading Augustine and Aquinas while selecting the hit list made it all liberal and thus correct.
All of the above is mostly unknown to the average voter and ignored by the media. But the untruths and hypocrisy hover in the partisan atmosphere and incrementally and insidiously undermine each new assertion that we hear from the president -- some of them perhaps necessary and logical. Indeed, the more emphatically he adds “make no mistake about it,” “let me be perfectly clear,” “I’m not kidding,” or the ubiquitous “me,” “my,” and “I” to each new assertion, the more a growing number of people will come to know from the past that what follows simply is not true. Does this matter? Yes, because when the reckoning comes, it will be seen as logical rather than aberrant -- and long overdue.
Most Americans are tired of Afghanistan, as they were of Iraq, as they were of Vietnam -- the cost in lives and money, the lack of clear victory, the endlessness of the commitment, the ingratitude of our allies, and the barbarity of our enemies. But as in the case of the withdrawal from Vietnam, with time comes reflection that after a huge investment of blood and treasure Americans had won the peace in Iraq, and could have ensured it with a small watchdog force, and the same might have been true of Afghanistan.
Obama will be credited with ending both wars that George Bush started (though the violence in Iraq was mostly over when Obama assumed power), but the ultimate fate of both countries will be in his hands -- and they may not be pretty when the Taliban starts taking reprisals on female doctors, gays, and any who are seen as Westernized. (Vietnam at least had a coast for the boat people; Afghanistan is landlocked). Expect serial interventions of the sort we now see with the French in Somalia, when Afghanistan returns to an Islamist state that harbors al-Qaeda, hangs women in its soccer stadium, and begins murdering thousands who were tainted by the West.
For now we talk of the hyper-sensitive “Jewish” or “Israeli” lobby that “went after” Chuck Hagel. We are assured that the new distance from Israel is just a neocon talking point. But soon we shall see the multiplying effect of Obama/Kerry/Hagel/Brennan upon our strategic relationship with Israel, and it may well be during a war rather than mere talking points about settlements at a time of peace. The Arab Spring was sold as one thing; but should Syria and Egypt, along with Libya, end up as Sunni versions of Iran, then Americans will begin to ask why and how. (Who “lost” not just North Africa, but the entire Middle East?)
In short, this is the time when a careful Obama should be calling for bipartisan implementation of the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, redoing a Gingrich-Clinton compromise, seeking non-polarizing appointments of the Panetta/Gates sort, and cooling his presidential partisan rhetoric.
Unfortunately, he had done the opposite, and so a reckoning is on the near horizon. Let us pray it does not take us all down with his administration.