Obama in Two Acts… or Not

Anchor Rising readers who share my reading habits have surely come across Charles Krauthammer’s warning to opponents of President Obama not to underestimate him:

The net effect of 18 months of Obamaism will be to undo much of Reaganism. Both presidencies were highly ideological, grandly ambitious, and often underappreciated by their own side. In his early years as president, Reagan was bitterly attacked from his right. (Typical Washington Post headline: “For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over” — and that was six months into his presidency!) Obama is attacked from his left for insufficient zeal on gay rights, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo — the list is long. The critics don’t understand the big picture. Obama’s transformational agenda is a play in two acts. …
The next burst of ideological energy — massive regulation of the energy economy, federalizing higher education, and “comprehensive” immigration reform (i.e., amnesty) — will require a second mandate, meaning reelection in 2012.

Readers may also have encountered Jonah Goldberg’s simultaneous exposition of a seemingly contrary view:

In 2008, American liberalism seemed poised for its comeback. The pendulum of Arthur Schlesinger’s “cycle of history” was swinging back toward a new progressive era. Obama would be the liberal Reagan.
Now that all looks preposterous. Of course, considerable blame can be laid at a White House that seems confused about how to relate to the American people when the American people don’t share the White House’s ideological agenda. Indeed, the White House seems particularly gifted at generating issues that put it crosswise with the majority of voters — from the Arizona immigration lawsuit to the cotton-mouthed explanations about whether or not it considers NASA’s primary mission to be boosting the self-esteem of Muslim youth.

Goldberg’s central objective, with that piece, is to convey his vague sense that something in the rules has changed. Difficult economic times are not making Big Government more popular, but less; an environmental tragedy has not caused the American people to throw caution to the wind in a burst of zeal for alternative energy.
The cultural dimension will be important to explore, but on the political point, Goldberg subsequently took up the juxtaposition of his piece with Krauthammer’s:

Obama’s ambition creates opportunities that wouldn’t have existed if he opted for a more cautious approach. The risk reward is high for him — and for the opposition. In football, war, or poker, or plenty of other imperfectly analogous situations, when one side goes for broke it creates vulnerabilities the other side can exploit. If Obama had stuck with short passes and a running game, he might not have run up the score so high but he would be in better shape politically.

Goldberg is not convinced that there’s a grand political plan — or at least one that Barack Obama is competent to execute. Even during his campaign, he was too apt to slip into rhetoric about rubes with their religion and guns and about economic redistribution, forcing him to rely even more heavily on his showmanship. On the other hand, he proved a master showman.
I’d suggest that, while underestimating the man is inadvisable, focusing on him is even more so. Obama was elected, ultimately, as a centrist healer, and he managed his “historic” achievements only because he had the bare majority of both houses of Congress, with compliantly leftist co-partisans, to ram them through. And the president owes those majorities to the concerted and cynical trashing of his predecessor by the Democrats and by the forces of media, both news and entertainment.
What all of those forces — the president and his allies — have accomplished in the past two years is to remind the American people that they have no good options in the voting booth. The principle of the lesser of two evils has returned with a vengeance, and it may just be that the partisans have revved up public emotions to the degree that a majority of voters will not accept mere incremental loss of their autonomy from government as the “lesser” evil.
So the question isn’t whether the president will attempt to rework his presentation in response to a new political reality, after November. He’ll surely try, although a period of lame-duck gift-giving by exiting Congressional Democrats will make his efforts more difficult, even if he plays off them as a moderate only reluctantly complicit in the scheme. The question is whether he can play the Republicans and the American people so well that they return to him his one-party government.
But even that goes too far in crediting Obama as the sole actor on the stage. The one question is actually two:

  1. Can Republicans control themselves sufficiently to move with the mandate of popular disaffection, rather than attempt to swim against it for immediate political and personal gain?
  2. Will the American people be fooled again by The One?

On neither count am I confident in the preferable outcome, but while we oughtn’t underestimate Obama, neither should we forget that history doesn’t really divide into a series of strong personalities. The story isn’t the main characters, but the tides that they ride.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
13 years ago

As Justin points out, the times make the president. For anyone who doubts that Obama was riding a tide, reflect on this one:
I have often wondered who actually directed this one, even the faces in the crowd of parents are so perfect, so starry eyed.

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