December 2, 2008
The Obama presidency begins to emergeBy J.R. Dunn
Thanksgiving week marked the first challenge to the presidency of Barack Obama since the donut completed its rise on Election Day last month.
Anyone who thinks I'm rushing the advent of the messianic presidency is invited to take a closer look at recent media coverage. Obama has declared himself president in all but name. He has gone so far as to call for his policies to be put in place even before being inaugurated. The mass media, from Time magazine to barely-hanging-on fish wrappers like the Detroit Free Press have declared the current incumbent to be irrelevant, the "lamest of lame ducks", in the words of Joe Klein. Numerous suggestions have been made that he either be run out of Washington or forced to resign to make way for the Obamiate. The rest of the world is shouting hosannas to the new age of Barack well before the kickoff date. Expatriate Americans are no longer being rolled in front of buses in European capitals, a trend unprecedented since the weeks following VE Day.
So it's no surprise that the Jihadis have taken O at his word. As the massacre in Bombay unfolded, (I'll change usage on that name when the Times of London does) the killers made a particular effort to locate American and British victims. Most of these were evidently murdered out of hand. Make no mistake; the attack had one target, and one target alone: America's acting president-elect. The Australian's Greg Sheridan stole the words right out of this machine when he wrote:
And what was the PE's response? On Wednesday, as the slaughter commenced, he was "handing out turkeys to the poor" in Chicago, and explaining that his daughters would be "required to do chores in the White House". According to Indian media reports he at one point or another said that he "supported" Indian efforts against terror, a statement which could kindly be best characterized as "boilerplate".
His supporters, of course, will insist that nothing more is required of him. And under normal circumstances, with a normal president-elect, they'd be quite correct. But Obama is neither. You can't have it both ways; you cannot run around posing as president-in-being, demand that your policies be adapted by the incumbent, and all but encouraging your following in their attacks on the current administration, and then duck the first challenge the world throws your way.
There are any number of things O could have done. He could have gotten on the phone with a rep of the Indian government. He could have done the same with the White House. He could have made a personal, public statement. He could have outlined what he plans to do when -- and not if -- such attacks occur in American cities. But he did none of this. Instead, he sent out a spokesman. He ducked his first challenge, the same as he did the financial meltdown in the last stages of the campaign. Whatever might be said of John McCain's response back then, it was a response. Mac was acting the way you'd expect a president to act. Obama, on the other hand, had to be dragged off the campaign trail while displaying all the gravitas of a pouting schoolboy. This is the kind of action that we -- that small minority who made the effort of looking behind the "messiah" template -- have come to expect.
And the kind of action that represents the upcoming Obama administration in a nutshell. It is to be a ritual presidency. Plenty of pomp, plenty of ceremony, plenty of rhetoric, and very little else. Problems that possess any form of glamour will get as many words thrown at them as O can pull together. Problems that no human being in history has dared contemplate will be given serious consideration by the messiah-elect -- on the rhetorical level. But problems that have to be handled, have to be confronted in one way or another, problems that at the same time present a possibility of failure -- such as terrorists mowing down Americans on distant shores -- will not even be so much as acknowledged, not by the president, his administration, his party, or the media. In the same sense as occurred with the campaign, this will be an image presidency, to an extent that will make even the previous image champ Bill Clinton's jaw drop open in sheer disbelief.
It will make for an interesting interlude. We have had image governors before -- Jerry Brown and Mario Cuomo jump immediately to mind -- along with image mayors in cities such as New York and Detroit, to mention only two metropolises out of dozens. Typically, these politicians inherited problems so enormous, complex, and overwhelming that they, usually no more competent than they had to be and representing a liberal ideology long on promises and short on performance, had no means whatsoever of addressing. So instead they threw around a lot of rhetoric (Cuomo), or fiddled with projects with no conceivable relevance to their actual situation (Brown's space colonies), and kicked the can down the road.
Of course, much of this occurred over a generation ago, and we've become so used to people who get things done, such as Rudy Giuliani and the current anti-president, that we've begun to take such individuals for granted and treat them with impatience, if not open disdain. It's as if they're a dime a dozen, that there's a constant supply available, a barrel full of capable pols somewhere in the back of the national warehouse that can be rolled out and opened up any time a crisis arrives.
This is not necessarily the case, as a short glance at recent history will reveal. From roughly 1960 to 1980 there was scarcely a single politician in an executive position in this country who could be trusted to successfully tie his shoes as much as twice in a row. We lived through two entire decades of fancy prose, expansive ideas, grandiose programs, and zero performance. LBJ, Lindsey, Brown, Carter -- a generation-long roll call of ineptness. We've lost sight of exactly how incompetent politicians can be. If nothing else, O will change that.
Obama will be an image president because he does not have much choice. Simply put, he cannot provide what he promised during the campaign.
Social revolution is what the true believers, Obama's core, were voting for. The middle class was voting for some vague sense of security, but the core -- the sandal-wearers, the ACORN staffers, the Jeremiah Wright congregation, and every last student of Ayers and Dohrn over the past twenty years -- are looking forward to some unimaginable combination of Woodstock, the October Revolution, the Book of Revelation, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus. A new world in which there are no Republicans, guns, Bibles, or Israelis, in which planning and collectivization work, in which there is such a thing as cheap, effective, and universal health care, in which Al Queda simply want to be good neighbors, in which their own varicose veins, incipient arthritis, and extra ten pounds around the middle have simply gone away, and in which Jerry Garcia never died.
That, purely and simply, is what they voted for. That's what they want, and they will be satisfied with nothing less. So the question of the day is: can Obama provide this? I have my doubts. In fact, I will put my reputation on the line to state that no given combination of Jehovah, George Washington, the Maharishi, and the Good Witch of the West would be able to bring it to life. And Obama, furthermore, is well aware of this, which is why his staff has taken pains to "temper expectations"
The New Eden is on hold, and the true believers are going to have to live with that. They are not going to like it.
More rational heads will be satisfied with the New New Deal, some kind of rationalized, collectivist way out of our current economic dilemma. Apart from the fact that the old New Deal didn't work particularly well (anyone who doubts this can consult Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man), there's the simple truth that no one has any clear idea what such a scheme would look like. FDR's Brain Trusters knew exactly what they wanted: to transplant Mussolini's corporatist economic system root and branch to this country.
But the economic staff O has selected are by no means ideologues of the Tugwell, Berle, and Hopkins school. Summers, Geithner, and Romer are technicians, best suited to maintaining the machinery while the system rights itself. In our state of economic knowledge, this is very likely the best we can do. Despite himself, Obama is going to oversee a conventional recovery. There will be no massive economic revolution remaking the entire country.
(I'm aware that several commentators think otherwise, including Thomas Sowell, Mark Steyn, and Daniel Henninger. These writers speak of a ratchet effect -- a "point of no return" in which Obama's actions will guarantee that the U.S. slides down the same social-democratic chute as Europe, to end up in much the same state -- economic stasis, social disintegration, military nullity, with a falling birthrate and the Jihadis snickering in the new mosque next to the Mickey D's.
Now these three are all men of respect -- they are among the true elite who will never be accused of being RINOs. But I still think they're mistaken. Their thesis appears to be based on the belief that the election embodied a serious national shift leftward. No such shift occurred. Evidence such as the votes against gay marriage and adoption clearly demonstrate the U.S. remains in essence a center-right nation. Obama took the laurels this year not due to any sea-change in the electorate, but because the discouraged center-right simply didn't bother to show up this time around. More on that in a later piece.)
Down the ladder from the impossible to the merely very difficult, we have the prospect of various programs dear to the liberal heart, such as universal health care, a nationwide gun ban, the fairness doctrine, and the like. Obama has suggested that he will bring certain unnamed programs into existence by use of "executive orders", which suggests that he's not quite clear in his mind concerning the limitations of the office he was elected to. Any such attempt to shanghai policy -- even to the benefit of the progressive program in general -- is going to come up immediately against legislative and judicial prerogatives that O probably has no idea even exist. It would be pleasant to think that next Spring will see the Democratic congressional leadership itself spearheading the fight against White House attempts to hijack the legislature's role, but since such an event would be a form of trouble, something that O has demonstrated himself desperate to avoid under all circumstances, it's unlikely to happen.
This leaves few apparent alternatives for the would-be American Augustus. But a conventional presidency will not satisfy Obama's messianic urges. So we will get ritualism instead. What form this will take remains to be seen. We have already witnessed the social-realist posters, the chanting Obama Youth, the hand gestures, and all the other examples of pure cultism. We will no doubt see plenty more of the same.
Will anything more serious ensue? The cult-oriented leader -- the demagogue, not to put too fine a point on it -- has several possibilities in his bag of tricks. The most promising of these, once all else fails, is the "enemy" stratagem. O may very well stoop to this. Such a move will be far from unprecedented. Recall Bill Clinton blaming the Oklahoma City bombing on Rush Limbaugh in the mid-90s. Obama would simply be following a fine liberal tradition.
But -- as Big Bill himself discovered -- something exists in this country today that did not exist in earlier periods of liberal supremacy -- a healthy conservative movement. Liberals seem to have taken McCain's defeat as a sign that conservatism is "over". They will be enlightened in short order. As soon as the wavering members of the Northeastern elite complete their second thoughts and clamber over to the other side (David Brooks and Kathleen Parker have already reached the top of the fence), the movement will be once again unified, as it has not been since the days shortly following 9/11. Once unified, it will be formidable.
If O attempts a direct confrontation -- and his disciples will demand it -- he will learn, as Jimmy Carter did in 1978 when he moved against the Southern evangelicals, that in America one does not attack religion, motherhood, apple pie, or (in the millennial context) talk radio and the blogosphere. Carter's error resulted in the creation of the religious right, liberalism's deepest nightmare. What an equivalent error on Obama's part would give issue to is worth speculation. Liberalism has a record of creating problems for itself -- and opportunities for conservatives -- through such abuses of power. So we should welcome efforts such as the "fairness" doctrine, universal abortion liberalization, even an attempt at creating an Alpha-Omega private army. As occurred in 1964, 1978, and 1993, such gratuitous kicks will serve to bring conservatism back to life, and in doing so will go a long way toward setting the political dynamic for the coming decade.
(O has already taken a step in that direction with his foolish and purposeless alienation of the Catholic bishops.One annoys the oldest and largest organization in human history at one's peril. Obama is going to regret that move.)
So Obama cannot create a new Eden. He cannot revamp the old New Deal with a hybrid engine and make it work, any more than FDR could in the first place. He cannot make the right-of-center goblins disappear. He cannot even make the seas stop rising, sad to say, since available evidence suggests that this took place sometime during Bill Clinton's last term.
So, solid achievements being out of reach, it will be a ritual administration, devoted to imagery and pantomime. Which will suit Obama just fine, because that's life as he has lived it, shifting from one role to the next as soon as the old one began to make concrete demands on his time and energy. Community organizer, journal editor, author, state representative, senator, and now president -- in every role Obama found ever-larger numbers gullible enough to swallow his act.
But there is one group that will never be that gullible, and they were heard from last Thanksgiving week. Bombay has proven, against all rhetoric over the past two years, that the Jihadis are still alive, and still capable of massacre. They have now tested Obama, and have found him not so much wanting as scarcely there, no more cognizant of the threat than the Clintons before him. Today they can only hit the subcontinent, but give them a year or two with FISA and the Patriot Act either canceled or curtailed, facing a demoralized intelligence establishment and an elephantine Homeland Defense bureaucracy, two years of a comic-opera Clinton State Department, and they will be back in force.
Bombay marks the beginning of the second phase of the War on Terror. The messiah's new era will be defined, the same as the old one, by terrorism. The long line of presidents entangled in the Jihadi's war -- Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush.-- will be extended by one. And when the second holiday from history comes to an end, Obama will, in lieu of any other alternative, be forced to fall back on the policies of the lamest of lame ducks. And the story, in every respect, will have come full circle.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.