The fall from grace has been as sudden as it has been spectacular. Exactly a year ago, Barack Obama was anointed (inaugurated is too tepid a word) president amid expectations that soared in the stratosphere that he would shortly bring world peace, usher in an era of prosperity, reverse global warming, and perhaps even produce a Cubs World Series victory. After a year of rhetorical flourishes and mindless spending, peace is as elusive as ever, prosperity more elusive than it could have been, and the Cubs missed the playoffs. It is, though, a colder than expected winter across the United States.
The media pumped up Obama, as now they trumpet the charisma of the new junior Senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who may save both the nation and Obama himself from the excesses of liberal governance. Americans, like residents of democracies generally, are fickle (see under : Israeli elections), but America has always had a powerful streak of individualism and personal responsibility that made the “welfare and nanny states” either anathema or necessary evils – but evils nonetheless. The pendulum swings back: Americans resent high taxes that simply re-distribute wealth from the productive to the non-productive; Americans desire freedom of choice that makes mandated health insurance distasteful, and reject the payment of higher premiums in order to subsidize the irresponsible and neglectful; Americans chafe under any restrictions on speech, especially political speech, and never quite understood why corporate financing of campaigns was limited but not union financing of campaigns. (Corporations would at least use company profits they earn in the free market; unions use the dues they forcibly extract from their members. Citizens who resent the political choices of the corporation can take their business elsewhere; union members cannot).
The saddest conclusion is one that could have been anticipated during the campaign but was clouded by the smokescreen of lofty rhetoric, Bush-bashing and racial-triumphalism: Obama is in over his head. That he could freely admit that he was “overconfident” about the feasibility of Mideast peace shows that he was not well schooled in the essentials of that conflict. That he could recklessly promise to close the Guantanamo detention camp– that has worked well in keeping terrorists incarcerated and Americans safe, despite (and maybe because of) the global propaganda campaign against it – within a year (that has just passed), and ban the water boarding that had been successful in extracting information from several murderous thugs, reveals a naiveté about the nature of the enemy we face and the tools we have in facing it. That he confuses words for deeds shows a distorted approach to governance. After a year of little else than speeches and spending, Americans are dissatisfied, and blaming President Bush for everything is wearing thin. (I don’t recall Reagan blaming Carter after inheriting an even worse economy, marked by high inflation, interest rates and unemployment. Memo to President Obama: there are business cycles. Get used to it.)
Leaders in trouble will often seek scapegoats, and President Obama has this week set his sights on the bankers and their “obscene” profits and bonuses, a convenient and populist but misplaced target. Since I am not a banker nor beholden to them, I can speak freely. Profits are the objective of any business, and bonuses should reward those who contribute to the production of profit. It is harder to understand the eagerness to tax the bonuses because the banks took federal (TARP) money as part of the BUSH (not Obama) bailout, for two reasons: The banks that are paying bonuses have largely paid back the Treasury plus interest for those loans, so why should there be any further liability ? Secondly, the bonuses received by the bankers are already taxed as income, so why should there by a second, special tax levied against these particular profiteers ? The Constitution would seem to prohibit that as a “bill of attainder,” and a policy that burdens successful businesses more than unsuccessful ones will stifle free enterprise, kill jobs, and move businesses – and banks – overseas.
Of course, the Obama treasury needs a quick infusion of cash because of the reckless, mindboggling spending of the past year. Bush, too, was harshly – and rightly – criticized for deficit spending, but a quick equation is in order to dramatize the desperate situation the President faces: Obama in one year equaled the total Bush deficit of eight years. That is spending. Or this: the number “trillion” has lost its sense of remoteness and inaccessibility. We speak of spending money or running deficits in the trillions as if it were a figure we can truly grasp.
Obama’s future is bleak, although by no means does that portend an electoral defeat in 2012. Politics is not like that at all. He can certainly rein in his excesses, govern from the center (in the cliché of the week, although that would undoubtedly offend his liberal base), and let the markets freely and fairly dictate economic winners and losers. He can put the endless Middle East conflict on the back burner, and let Israel grow, build and defend itself. The next election will be shaped by a still unidentified Republican challenger – and Republicans too should avoid the growing tendency to showcase celebrity rather than substance – and by events yet to happen. The economy will undoubtedly bounce back, as will jobs, unless business is further encumbered by stifling taxes and regulations that make hiring unprofitable and unwarranted.
“Bleak” in this context refers to Obama’s ability to influence events, to lead rather than just talk, to speak in specifics rather than just the generalities to which he has become accustomed. It will require a shift in personality and character. (He should lose the “black” accent he affects when speaking to the “common man,” droppin’ his gee’s and praisin’ everybahdy; it is unbecoming a person born in Hawaii, raised by a white mother and white grandparents in white society, who attended Columbia and Harvard. It is worse than phony.) Many of his policies will be adjusted to fit the needs of the Democratic candidates in the 2010 elections, and then adjusted again to meet his own needs. That itself is problematic, a state of affairs in which everything – but everything – is guided by the goal of winning the election, and not at all about governance or statecraft. And that is how he got elected in the first place, and we – and the world – are suffering for it.
Every president has to learn on the job, but no one should have to learn everything on the job. When that happens, it is not the fault of the candidate but the fault of the electorate.