(Page 3 of 4)
Obama often gets credit for going out of his way to recognize the concerns and viewpoints of his political opponents. It can seem as if he’s disarming himself. But what he’s actually done is deploy a weaponized rhetorical formula that gives him a tactical advantage. Regardless of the policy up for debate, that formula usually goes something like this: Democrats are partially right and partially wrong, and so, too, are Republicans. What we need to do, then, is come together and accept the solution put forth by Obama and his Democratic colleagues.
Obama had a long-term vision for ending political division in America, for changing the way Washington worked, for putting an end to the cynicism and bitterness of the political process. That vision consisted of electing Barack Obama as president. During the 2008 campaign, his team put forth the requisite number of simplified policy frameworks laying out how he’d address issues such as health care, global warming, and education. But Obama’s grandest promise wasn’t a policy. It was transforming politics into something better, something that people could believe in. As he put it a week before the election, choosing hope and change would restore “what’s been lost these last eight years—our sense of common purpose, of higher purpose.” There was never any detailed plan for how to do that. He didn’t need one. Obama was the plan.
It’s around this time that the bad poetry begins to appear. Instead of narrative specificity and individual lives, he offered cheap political pabulum for the masses. Instead of genuine sentiment he offered generic uplift. Instead of rich and lyrical uneasiness about the world, he offered dull and self-satisfied certainty, and promises that the complexities of life can be made simple.
Gone is any sense of modesty, or limitations. Gone is the literary uncertainty of his best writing. Gone is the sense that other people matter, except as stepping-stones to Obama’s own place in history.
From his first presidential campaign onward, Obama’s speeches are still dotted with empathetic notes, but a striking number of these are now framed in the first person, as examples of what he knows about himself rather than descriptions of what other people are like. “I know something about the heartbreak caused by the health system,” he says in a speech about health policy. “I know that many of you are feeling anxiety right now, about your jobs, about your homes, about your life savings,” he says in a speech about the financial crisis. “I know you’ve had a tough time with for-profit charter schools here in Ohio,” he says in a speech about education policy.
He’s no longer helping readers walk in others’ shoes; he’s helping potential voters walk in his. What were once displays of empathy toward others are now calls for the public to empathize with him. The same youthful self-absorption that saw the stories from Altgeld as part of his own journey toward meaning and personal fulfillment now sees the lives of every American as a path toward the same.
Instead of individual characters, Obama is only concerned with national character. Over and over again, his campaign speeches describe something he sees as wrong with the world and then declare, “That’s not who we are.” But as often as not, Obama seems to be describing his own character: not who we are, but who he is.
As Obama’s political profile exploded, so did his ambitions. He started making promises that politics cannot fulfill. His acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 was dripping with almost laughable hubris. “I am absolutely certain,” he said, “that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.”
It was a long way from fixing toilets in Chicago. Obama wrote an ostentatiously grand narrative for himself, sold it to the voting public, then expected the entire country to help make it happen.
‘Who We Are’
History had another story in mind. Obama took the White House, but he did not unite the country behind a single agenda. Nor did he bring peace to the warring factions in American politics. Instead he pursued the symbolic acts that his grand historic narrative required: an economic stimulus bill of unprecedented size and unhelpful effect, an overhaul of the nation’s financial markets that complicates the system without protecting it, a health policy overhaul that was opposed by every single Republican in Congress and remains stubbornly unpopular with the public.
Obama’s early promises to control the deficit and reduce the national debt have similarly gone unmet. In The Audacity of Hope he described with alarm “the most precarious budget situation that we’ve seen in years,” pointing to an “annual budget deficit of almost $300 billion” and a total government debt that “now stands at $9 trillion—approximately $30,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.” Under Obama’s watch, deficits have soared past $1 trillion every year, and the debt now clocks in at $15 trillion.
The result of Obama’s agenda has not been increased unity but increased division, not increased civic togetherness but a rise in political disaffection. Polls show that partisan intensity has increased amongst those who pick a side in the Team Red/Team Blue squabbles. At the same time, more Americans are refusing to pick sides than at any time in the last 75 years, with 38 percent of adults describing themselves as independents in a June 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center.
Before becoming president, Obama always seemed to understand the small place of politics in ordinary life. In Audacity, he notes that while some voters are conversant in partisan talking points, “most were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics” and wanted only to be able to focus on that which mattered: jobs, families, and the rest of their everyday existence. Politics were a distraction from all that.
In one important way, Obama had Americans pegged. They were tired of politics as usual, tired of the endless cynical squabbling of the two parties. But the president’s solution was the opposite of what they actually wanted: not a single, unified story to replace the two competing narratives, but a flowering of individual narratives—an independence from politics rather than a greater connection with it.