By Lauren Gillespie
“The degree to which Barack Obama is now phoning it in – sleepwalking perfunctorily through his second term, amid gold rounds and dinner parties – is astonishing,” writes Matt Lewis for the British Telegraph. “The only thing that makes sense is that he is exhausted and, perhaps, has checked out of the job early. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, then Obama is dining out, golfing, and raising money while the world collapses.”
It’s a pretty damning indictment, and just one of the many pieces written in the last month expressing concern at our commander in-chief’s bizarre detachment from the serious problems flaring up around the world and at home.
Now I don’t claim any special powers of clairvoyance; I’m just a humble historian who believes in using past experience to predict future behavior. In the timeless words of Sublime, “I ain’t got no crystal ball.” But I hope you will excuse me in saying that I am not at all surprised. In fact, we really should have seen this coming.
Most people seem to have forgotten this, but when Obama first took office, his 68% initial approval rating was the highest since Eisenhower. Even Republicans and conservatives were afraid to say anything overly critical about the first African-American president. You didn’t want anyone thinking you were a pessimist or, worst of all, a racist.
But even as the talking heads predicted Obama would govern from the center and enjoy success in office, I had a strong feeling that Obama’s presidency would be just as liberal as the rest of his political career, and that the goodwill so much of the country had extended to him would not last.
I knew Obama would fail to live up to the hype because at a certain point he would have to stop talking and actually start governing. This means making decisions and taking actions. Candidate Obama presented himself as a blank canvas upon which diverse groups could project their often-conflicting dreams. He appealed to a broad swath of the electorate by speaking in vague terms of hope and change. But where words can be general, actions are concrete. They invite judgment. There is no way to please all people at all times, except by doing very little. Even this will offend someone, somewhere, who wishes you had done more. And then there was the matter of Obama’s past.
In his two autobiographies (seriously, who else is this narcissistic?) Obama confessed to a certain degree of laziness in high school and college. He was ambitious for sure, but lacked focus. Yet he was able to get himself elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, the first African-American to hold this honor. Obama took the notoriety and book deal that came with the position, but contributed none of his own work to the publication. There is even credible evidence to suggest that much of Dreams from My Father was actually written by Bill Ayers.
After a stint as a community organizer in Chicago, a job that doesn’t come with a great deal of accountability, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. He voted “present” 129 times. For those of you who might be understandably confused as to what this means, Obama could not bring himself to vote “yes” or “no,” so he simply stated that he was there.
Obama launched himself into the national spotlight in 2004, not with any meaningful policy or achievement, but with a speech – the DNC Keynote Address. When his opponent was forced to withdraw in disgrace, Obama cruised into the United State Senate. He failed to sponsor any major legislation, seeming to find the whole political process boring and beneath him.
2008 provided a magical opportunity for Obama. George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular. The country was craving a breath of fresh air, and Republicans – ever attuned to the mood of the electorate –chose John McCain. Suddenly, Obama’s lack of experience became an asset. He may have had few accomplishments of which to speak, but neither did he have much of a record to defend. Clinton had to explain her decision to vote for the Iraq War, but Obama could point to a speech he made as a state senator opposing it.
Obama won enough early primaries and caucuses to seal the deal, but not before the first serious challenges to his narrative were finally raised. The Jeremiah Wright story broke, along with other questionable connections to shady characters (Ayers, Rezko). Obama refused to actually condemn or support his former mentor, but once again delivered a speech about unity as he threw his octogenarian grandmother under the bus. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
Democrats had almost started to realize their error, but too late. He was the candidate, and the pro-Hillary folks in the media who had once challenged his experience rallied to protect him. John McCain was gaining in the polls until the entire financial system crashed just weeks before the election. While McCain came off as erratic after suspending his campaign and rushing in to broker a deal, Obama appeared cool and collected on the sidelines.
The Nobel Committee decided to award Obama the Peace Prize just days into his first term, based on the incredible accomplishment of not being George W. Bush. (They now want it back.) But simply looking and sounding different than his unpopular predecessor was never going to achieve meaningful results. Obama squandered his initial goodwill from Republicans and moderates on an unpopular and ineffective stimulus package. He promised unemployment would not top 8% if Congress passed the bill, and it soared past 11%. He later joked about the whole idea of “shovel-ready,” but a trillion dollars in new debt is no joke. I guess he couldn’t bother to verify the facts of his own law before selling them to the American people?
Obama didn’t reach out to Republicans because he didn’t need them—he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Then, with the country still reeling from the Great Recession, he decided to tackle healthcare. He gave speeches, and speeches, and more speeches. Then he turned over the actual crafting of the bill to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who presumably delegated the responsibility to Democratic staffers and lobbyists. The country hated it, but Obama signed it into law. Perhaps we just needed him to explain it to us one more time.
After the “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, Obama refocused his energies on his greatest political skill: campaigning for president. While 2010 seemed to signal an uphill battle for Democrats, it also provided Obama with a new tactic – denouncing Republican “obstruction.” Yes, from the same people he refused to listen to for the previous two years. (“I won,” and so on.) His lack of attention to the business of governing continued. The day after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Obama delivered a few obligatory remarks before jetting off to a Las Vegas fundraiser.
Again, he benefitted from Republican division and unforced errors. No one of any real stature rose to challenge him except for Mitt Romney – a great man for sure, but not a great campaigner. Romney suffered from being a moderate Mormon millionaire who had passed a mini-Obamacare in Massachusetts. I’m mostly happy we escaped a President McCain, but I still regret that our country passed on such a capable and serious leader as Romney. Apparently, a majority of Americans now agree with me and would choose Romney if given a second chance. (How prophetic, incidentally, was Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” routine?)
Okay, you might be thinking. Lots of people predicted Obama would fail to live up to the messianic expectations of 2008, but what about 2012? Many thought Obama might be liberated by having won his last election. He could focus on his legacy, which might involve more outreach to Republicans and serious progress on policy issues like immigration.
The most telling predictor of Obama’s second term malaise was the fact that he failed to offer anything remotely resembling a second term agenda. He couldn’t campaign on “Hope and Change 2” or the even more hilarious “Yes We Can, But–.” “You Didn’t Build That” had a nice ring and revealed his true disdain for private sector job creators (I mean, greedy capitalists), but it was never going to carry him across the finish line.
So Obama campaigned on Mitt Romney being a mean, nasty rich guy who doesn’t care about you or your family, his heroic take-down of Osama Bin Laden, and the excuse that any lingering economic problems were Bush’s fault. These might have made for effective political strategies, but they have proven difficult to translate into actual policies.
Now here we are in 2014, with two and a half years left of Obama’s presidency. He claims he didn’t know about the IRS scandal, the VA scandal, the Benghazi scandal, or the fact that there were serious issues with the implementation of his healthcare law. He doesn’t have time to go to the border. He’s too busy to stand up to Vladimir Putin (to whom he promised “more flexibility”) or to defend the thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims facing persecution as Iraq and Syria collapse. He has failed to capitalize on the one thing that would almost certainly revive a still-dismal economy – America’ great energy wealth – and has put off a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for five years now. Voting “present,” perhaps?
It looks like Obama is preparing to ride out his second term, just like he rode out his first term as president, his four year stint in the U.S. Senate (two of which he spent campaigning for president), his unremarkable time in the Illinois State Senate, and most of his academic career.
Yep, we should have seen this coming.
It is too late to hope for Obama to become the unifying leader so many hoped he would be. He is simply not that guy. But in many ways the events of the next two and half years remain unpredictable. The big unknowns are the 2014 elections, the high probability of more global catastrophes, and how Obama responds to new criticism from the Left. My gut says that with Obamacare’s future in doubt, he will look to the one area where he can change public policy through executive action – immigration reform. He could decide to grant a presidential pardon to all 15 million or so illegal immigrants currently residing here. This might be unpopular with the American people, but Obama is no longer trying to impress us. He has surrounded himself with sycophants eager to preserve his narcissistic view of the world, and he is certain that history will judge him kindly.
The problem is the rest of us don’t have time to wait for the history books; we must live our lives in the present. America does not have another two and a half years to waste.