Looking Back: Politics 2009 – A Second Perspective
Because people (even Christians) often have varied opinions and outlooks on political issues, we thought we’d give both Ben Bartlett and Adam Carrington a chance to write a political-year-in-review article for 2009. You may want to read Ben Bartlett’s post, to which much of this post is responding, first.
Ben’s analysis of politics in the past year provides good material from which to respond and to speak about other issues of the 2009 year in politics. Some of it I agreed with, some I did not. I wish, therefore, to take up the discussion of President Obama’s first year and what it might mean going forward. He really forms the fulcrum of political discussion as both President and a person. The Tea Parties, rise of Talk Radio, and the struggles of the Republican Party also formed great points of interest in ’09. Grassroots movements void of direct party control took the lead in opposing Democratic hegemony. Finally, I hope to put my neck on the line with a quick, short set of predictions for the coming year. Things seem much less clear as to power and position than they did a year ago.
President Obama – More a Professor than a Pragmatist
The Obama Administration certainly arrived with the highest of expectations. He was the savior of the economy, American dignity, and all who were left out of the American Dream. Therefore, falling short of expectations was to be expected.
How short should realistic expectations judge him? On the policy front, President Obama has managed to disenchant most of the country, depending on what issue is discussed. Liberals are furious over his escalating the war in Afghanistan and his seemingly slow movement on the issue of gay marriage. Conservatives resent his support for Congress’s health care reform, his increasing of the national debt beyond any President in history, and his cap and trade policy.
None of these should be a surprise. President Obama pledged to do all of these things in some form. Those moderates and independents experiencing buyers’ remorse paid too much attention to his moderate demeanor and not enough to his agenda.
What has proven more surprising has been President Obama’s ability to persuade and lead. This year has shown him to be a mediocre persuader at best. The more he speaks about health care, the lower the poll numbers go against him. Several times this year he has called for national addresses to attempt to quell opposition and regain the upper hand. Such a move would make sense; his rhetorical skills, after all, are his strongest point. Yet one cannot lead merely by rhetoric. President Obama’s overexposure of himself in part led to the precipitous drop in his support both personally and for his policies.
The lack of effective rhetoric does not merely rest in overexposure; President Obama thus far lacks the ability to lead in other intangible ways that do not involve television cameras and a teleprompter. Every major bill he has thus far sent to Congress has quickly gotten out of hand. The stimulus package, supposedly banned from any pork, became a glutton’s dream of special interest handouts targeted toward congressman hungry for electoral security. President Obama did little to address this problem as the bill progressed and signed it despite meaningless comments about its deficiencies. A President normally works as an organizing force for his party in the House and Senate. On this issue, as with health care, the President seems pulled along for the ride.
President Obama’s lack of leadership seems to stem from both a dearth of experience and his personal demeanor. The President had zero executive experience coming into the Oval Office and not much formal political background, either. His demeanor is one more suited to a law professor (which he at one point was) than the executive officer of the world’s most powerful nation.
He also needs to adjust his demeanor if his leadership results are to improve. Attacking opposition as merely stupid or evil will not work. Always blaming problems on previous Administrations or apologizing for America abroad also have been problematic. Nor will petty attacks on Fox News work, something well below Presidential dignity. In short, President Obama has been flat-out petty and not a little self-absorbed. Such ways of acting will not make you an effective leader.
For me, the absence of effective governing was the biggest surprise of the last year. I thought President Obama’s skills would produce much greater success. It could be just beginner’s mistakes but he needs to learn on the job quickly if he plans to keep it in three years.
Therefore, President Obama seems less the pragmatist Ben describes and more confused. I doubt it stems from confusion in his own political thought. Instead, it comes from leading like a professor and not like a President.
Tea Parties and Radio Talk Shows
The growth of the Tea Party movement exposed problems within both major political parties. The Democrats made the classic mistake of misreading their mandate. They believed their electoral victories in 2006 and 2008 revealed an America moving decidedly to the Left. The new Progressive era was upon us and they must willingly obey its call for more expansive government.
The Tea Parties formed part of refuting this analysis. The political middle of America—those who decide elections—did not move to the Left in any fundamental manner. They are not ideologues, hard-core conservatives or liberals. Instead, they are mostly mildly engaged pragmatists. They seek effective leadership and workable answers to their problems. Republicans in the last two election cycles were deemed incompetent, and with good reason. They, therefore, were thrown out and the Democrats given a chance to govern. Yet Democrats inability to see this as the main reason for their election has led them to act in ways that already puts their majorities at risk. Instead of pragmatic moves, they have run with a religious zeal toward huge changes in our economy with mostly condescending disdain for any opposition. Opponents were racists, money-grabbers, evil, stupid, or rednecks—usually anything but principled but different opposition. If they keep it up, they will face huge trouble in 2010.
The Tea Parties and the huge rise of radio talk also exposed weakness within the Republican Party. Republicans, battered in the last two elections, were a party unsure of itself and woefully lacking national leadership or direction. They therefore could not form a coherent political opposition to President Obama. Enter, then, the Tea Party movement, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. These and other movements/personalities like them tapped into a vision different from liberal Democrats by pushing for liberty instead of security and by playing up the populist/elitist divide. The Democrats were painted as the Ivy League elite, disdainful of the people. Beck and Limbaugh tapped into this populist pride with great success, accompanied by the Tea Partiers whose essential argument is opposition to greater government in the name of fiscal responsibility and freedom of choice. They did so with a flair for entertainment, making them huge successes who often fell into the same rhetorical traps as their liberal opposition. Michael Savage and Keith Olbermann were the worst offenders on the Left and Right, and thankfully some semblance of civility remained in less extreme examples.
In contrast to Ben, I don’t see any of these marginalizing themselves. They will become less of the face of conservatism as the Republican Party rebuilds. As that happens, these groups and persons will maintain their ability to organize and motivate the conservative base. However, it will be elected Republicans who form the front and unite conservatives with moderates, as Bob McDonell did so well in Virginia. Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia this November already show a new crop of GOP leaders who are slowly finding how to communicate a conservative message to a new generation. Further, the intellectual wing of conservatism will also look to regroup as it gets over its Ronald Reagan hangover and the loss of founding giants like Bill Buckley.
Democrats suffer severe setbacks in the mid-term elections, though they maintain their majorities in Congress. Republicans win less because of who they are as opposed to who they’re not (much like 2006 in reverse). President Obama will have to wait till 2011 to find a stride, if he ever does. Issues of Health Care, fiscal responsibility, and the economy continue to dominate.
I’m not an Obama supporter by any means, and I started off extremely skeptical of his agenda and his willingness to lead. I have to say, though, I’m not sure I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here.
I think most thinking liberals AND conservatives realize that Obama was in a difficult political situation in Afghanistan and appreciate his relatively reasonable decisions in the face of it.
It seems to me that the economic solutions, though to my libertarian mind repugnant, seem to be working – or at least it’s not clear that he’s truly “bankrupted” our nation with no real benefit.
The gay marriage debate is one that has yet to see its moment to shift – and Obama is wise enough to pick his battles.
I have to admit, I’m kind of stunned that you refer to Obama as a “mediocre persuader at best.” You don’t mention the incredibly important Nobel speech anywhere, which I think did more for the world’s view of our country than Clinton or Bush combined.
One thing that strikes me about all of these things is that he’s able to persuade people that the unpopular thing is actually the right thing. That’s a powerful, and helpful trait and certainly something I want in a president.
When has he attacked opposition as merely stupid or evil? Can you provide a source for this? All I’ve seen is a reasoned consideration of opposing sides followed by either an acknowledgment of reasoned differences or an in depth attempt to persuade them of the truth.
Blaming previous administrations? You must mean his reference to “the problems we’ve inherited.” Do you mean to tell me that the recession and the war on terror was not inherited? Because that’s the only claim he makes. I haven’t heard him mention a previous administration in this context, have you?
Honestly, the bulk of complaints you have with Obama I’m pretty sure I heard for 8 years coming from the mouths of liberals concerning the Bush administration. And before that about Clinton, all the way back. I think this is just what it’s like to be president.
Rich, I appreciate you response. I’ll try to speak to what you said as best I can.
On President Obama’s spending packages, the results have been flat, it seems, though we don’t know what the unprecedented debt increase will do to the dollar yet. I actually think it will be a lead weight on recovery but we’ll have to see.
I agree about the Nobel Prize speech being very good, President Obama’s finest moment thus far, actually. He defense of just war and building up troops in Afghanistan is as good as anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman could muster. I certainly should have included it at least in passing, so I’m glad you brought it up.
My point about being a mediocre persuader didn’t deny his ability to speak well. Far from it; he remains a very good communicator. The problem is that he has leaned too much on his talent for talk and not nearly enough on the necessary but dirty work of executive leadership–most notably leading his party and Congress in effective ways. As he has overexposed himself by his rhetoric, that rhetoric, left mostly by itself, has proven less and less effective. I think this is one big reason why the health care issue is now a huge loser for the President and his party. He made lots of speeches but did little to move the debate in Congress. He and just about everyone else seems to have lost control over the situation and the American people see that. Think of it this way: Michael Jordan was known for his high-flying dunks. But such a slasher/scorer game would, left to itself, eventually be stopped. Jordan to be truly great had to cultivate a complete game, including many other intangibles of basketball. President Obama is too much a one-trick pony right now. Unless he becomes a better executive, his magic speeches will continue to be good but get diminishing returns.
This problem is actually the opposite of President Bush, who could be an effective executive but a very poor communicator.
As for proof of his straw-manning the opposition as stupid or evil, let me be more exact in description. President Obama tends to acribe arguments to his opponents that don’t exist and to pain them as void of principle. Though most politicians do this, he does so in a way more pervasive than any President I’ve seen. This makes him look worse because he said he would be a “post-partisan” president. As Charles Kessler said in his great essay (find it at Claremont.org), what he really seems to have meant is not getting past the conservative/liberal divide, but defeating conservatives. Nothing wrong about that in principle. I want the opposite to occur. Just not post-partisan in any sense.
Example one: Stimulus debate. Consider his press conference in February on the issue (the nationally televised one). He said regarding his opposition “that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.”
The problem is, no one said that. John McCain had a health care plan. President Bush pushed for energy reform. Just not the kind President Obama wanted. Further, in the same address “In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis — the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems…”
Once again, looking at the debate then, no one said tax cuts were a magic bullet. His opposition had multi-faceted plans, just not as government-centered as his own.
Let’s look to the stem-cell debate. He was going to ensure that, contrary to his opponents “that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” That is also not true. It is not pure science-lover Obama versus ideological opposition. Also recall that in his inaguration, he said he would put science back “in its rightful place.” He spoke similar disparaging language against President Bush’s bioethics council(Peter Lawler, of President Bush’s bioethics council, has a good article about all of this, especially regarding his being fired http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/016/647lsgni.asp).
Or let’s take health care. In his address to congress, he all but named opposition in the Republican party and Congress as liars (before inappropriately being called one himself).
Or consider this from September: “But this is the hard part. This is when the special interests gear up. This is when the folks who want to kill reform fight back with everything they’ve got. This is when they spread all kinds of rumors to scare and intimidate Americans. This is what they always do.” As if the opposition to health care is nothing more than evil corporations who have no principle. I actually found tons of quotes like this, painting all his opposition as nothing more than scare-mongers with moneyed interests. Maybe I’m more bothered by him doing it than President Bush (who did it less, I think) because President Obama was a better communicator, and thus should be less prone to these kind of things.
As a side note to this, I think part of the problem comes from President Obama’ attempt to meld scientific/technocratic bureaucracy with populism. It really turns into pandering and a nanny state (See Ivan Kenelly’s fine article in the New Atlantis http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/technocracy-and-populism). This part is the most problematic for me, because it goes beyond typical politics that come and go with each administration. What I think President Obama desires is to reconfigure the electorate like FDR did in 1936. Don’t read into this that he is some tyrant. I just mean he wants fundamental changes in our self-understanding that, while typically progressive, I find repugnant and the path to soft despotism.
I’ve already been long, so the rest I’ll say briefly. President Obama blaming past administrations just looks like flat-out whining. In doing so to other countries, he posits a position of weakness and an elevation of the man above the office (he certainly can act diffently than his predessor, but typically Presidents have changed policy but kept silent on heaping blame on the past executive).
The fact is I do have fundamental disagreements with our President over the the role of government, the nature of our Founding, the best kind of economy, the protection of life, the definition of liberty, among many others. I won’t ever claim impartiality. But I’ll also continue to pray for President Obama, to continue what I think he does right and to change what I feel he does wrong. He is my President, no matter how much I disagree with him.
Adam, I appreciate your thoughts. Lot of good stuff lately.
On a seemingly random note, Is the president gargling mouthwash in this picture?
Chase, thanks. I think the President swallowed a bug, or the teleprompter broke. It’s equalivalent to President Bush nearly perishing when consuming a pretzel.
Comments are now closed for this article.