The Power of Payback
If Richard Nixon had a bad habit of being vindictive and bending the rules for political purposes, so too Obama had believed that glibness, casual acquaintance with facts, and flashy rhetoric were substitutes for accomplishment. Just as Nemesis struck Nixon in 1973 at his apogee for long accrued but previously unpaid sins, so too Obama is now caught and tumbling to or below 50% approval. (Despite the media blitz, the worn racist charge, the glamour, the youth and interviews, the novelty of his presidency, despite all that, one of two Americans, within a few months of his inauguration, simply does not support him or his agenda.)
So Easy Then, So Easy Now?
Daily, his lack of study and prior scholarship come calling to embarrass him. Apparently one can get through Harvard Law and think Austrian is a language or Auschwitz was liberated by Americans— or that there is no difference between a democratic Columbia and Israel and a dictatorial Venezuela and Syria. After the dazzling campaign, the 75% approval ratings at the inauguration, and the nonstop media attention, Obama was at the crossroads. Could he have pondered the choices, “Now is the time for serious study and statesmanship—or wow, that was easy, now more of the cheap path of duping crowds with hope and change banality, and ‘I am the one we’ve been waiting for’ monotony”? He took the latter path, and so summoned Nemesis.
A sober man would have concluded the following: Republicans tanked because of Congressional corruption, deficit spending, natural weariness after eight years with Bush, the Iraq war—and especially the September 2008 meltdown. That latter panic, combined with American good will toward the idea of electing the first African-American as President, and eagerness to have a young Camelot couple in the White House, provided the narrow margin of victory. The win was not because we like debt, more government, the UN, or Van Jones.
Instead Obama, as was his wont, thought “I am so charismatic and the public so easily mesmerized, that I will talk on through the greatest upside-down change in the nation’s history, partly through mellifluousness, partly through my accustomed demagoguery.” It worked—but scarcely for six months.
The Albatross Has Landed
So here we are: a center-right country—looking back with more perspective at what caused the panic, assessing Iraq over time, always uncomfortable with the collective burden of debt, not eager for the DMV people and the post office running health care—is balking. Yet look at the agenda to come soon: socialized health care, cap and trade (a trillion in new surcharges?), immigration reform (open borders and amnesty?), more stimuli (redistributive, not job-creating, influxes?), iconic appointments to czardom who are race/class/gender polarizing figures—and always the class warfare rhetoric of Michelle’s bar-raising “they,” coupled with confessions of American sins abroad.
Sorry, that agenda would take a demi-god to push through. Obama thought he was divine, but he has feet of clay, and now his once hypnotized supporters in the Congress are stuck with a Jimmy Carter / LBJ like albatross around their collective neck. The reason Dick Morris is one of the most astute critics of Obama is precisely because he saw the same tendencies is the less charismatic Clinton, and found the right elixirs to purge him of such suicidal political instincts—just in time to save his presidency.
Time to Repent?
Whereas Clinton tried to coax the opposition, and out-fox them legislatively, Obama, always the even greater narcissist and more sincere ideologue, is choosing the us/them crusade. But defaming critics, assuming that moderates are apostates, redealing the dog-eared race card, gnashing his teeth at legitimate skepticism—all in pursuit of making America Luxembourg or Belgium, all that will boomerang. Just watch—but avoid Nemesis in our “We told you so” moments.
* I hope this is not a "I told you so" moment, since the idea of such an essay was not not just mine: I offered a few thoughts on the Democrats as Afghan zealots, over a year ago, in World Affairs, at the invitation of my friend, the gifted editor Peter Collier, who easily saw through the "Let Me Go Get "Em" tough Obama talk on Afghanistan. Collier was worried that the rhetoric of the future President would get him—and us—in trouble. The more I reviewed the texts of Obama's whistle-stop braggadacio, energized by toss-offs from the Kerrys and Reids of Congress, the more I agreed and wondered whether Obama knew what he was calling down upon himself. In many of the comments posted here during the past three years, many of you readers voiced your own skepticism about this sudden muscularity on Afghanistan--not that you wished it were not true, but rather that you wished it were, but suspected it was not, and that is was a campaign pose. The tragedy is, of course, that the best among us are out there fighting the 7th-Century, and sorely need our support for their magnificent vigilance and the terrible risks they incur. As long as they are in harm's way, we should hold the President to his boasting about his rock-solid determination to give them the tools they need:
Vowing to do what it takes in the good war by leaving Iraq—infusing more troops into Afghanistan, and occasionally invading Pakistan—was for candidate Obama always a rhetorical stance that proved both his anti-Iraq War bona fides and his larger credibility on matters of national security. But President Obama and his mercurial supporters in Congress will soon face a rather embarrassing dilemma. Without the responsibilities of a commander-in-chief, he once demanded we should leave Iraq when leaving would have lost that war. But now, as commander- in-chief he will soon learn that a few thousand more troops will not guarantee lasting victory over the Taliban. And changing strategy from stealthy attacks by aerial drones in Pakistan to open ground incursions across the border risks widening rather than solving the conflict.
“Taking our eye off the ball” was always a dubious campaign talking point. Afghanistan was not the only “ball” in the global war against terror; we never took our eye off it; and we were always binocular. What we may well see instead is that those who wished more of an American commitment to Afghanistan as cover for their opposition to Iraq will now desert President Obama, as anti-war critics take their eye off a receding Iraq and focus it instead on an increasingly violent Afghanistan—especially given the sensational terrorist acts associated with the near-rogue state of Pakistan. In that case, President Obama may well have to revert to his earlier manifestation of candidate Obama, who campaigned on the notion that a surge of military forces into an apparent quagmire was little more than an unsophisticated act of desperation—in a complex landscape that required American forces to exit and to allow indigenous tribal folks to sort out their own affairs.