Three Predictions for Obama's America

Will the next president be a game-changer or agent of the awful status quo?


Arguably the most nauseating development during Election 2008 (which, thankfully and so unlike Election 2000, actually ended when it was supposed to, on Election Day) was the rise to ubiquity of the term game-changer, a phrase that, as far as I can tell (and I admittedly haven't really called my secret contacts at the Oxford English Dictionary on this one), hit the big time only when applied to the creation of even more types of toothpaste coming out of consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble.

Was Sarah Palin a game-changer (yes, definitely, maybe even a double game-changer, first by putting McCain back in the race and then by dragging him down like a sorefooted sled dog in a Jack London short story turned real-life tragedy)? Was the final presidential debate a game-changer (no, though nobody can remember a damn thing about it)? Was something CNN yapped about at some point or another a game-changer (no)? Was the economic crisis a game-changer? The bailout package? The initial failure to pass the bailout? The unanticipated but thoroughly convincing equation of John McCain with the Penquin from the old Batman TV show? Game-changer, game-changer, game-changer, not a game-changer (but should have been one). At times, it seemed as if Election 2008 was, I don't know, nothing less than a perfect storm of game-changers. Or not.

But now that's all over with and we must ask the question: Will President Obama be a, coff-coff, game-changer?

His fans certainly believe so, attributing to the junior senator from the Land of Lincoln all manner of supernatural powers. He will, we can rest assured, singlehandedly make Iran, whose president literally exhausted himself hating on the Great Satan, and every other country in the world, bless these United States once again. He will raise average wages, either through passing pro-union legislation such as "Card Check" or through sheer force of personality. He'll make a beer that really does taste great and is less filling. He'll resolve that great epistemological conundrum that haunted Dr. Johnson and Bishop Berkeley's correspondence: Is Razzles a gum or a candy?

Barack Obama's foes—excuse me, Barack Hussein Obama's foes—ascribe to him the same Superduperman-like abilities but worry that the guy will be kryptonite to the American nation, the American Dream, the American economy, and more. In Obama's America, they fret, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright will be the official chaplain of the United States and married gay men will be aborting late-term fetuses with the same abandon they once displayed in the bath houses of pre-AIDS San Francisco. The banks will be even more nationalized and we'll stop nation-building in oil-rich parts of the ancient world and instead send our boys to keep the peace in Darfur and the Congo.

So what's it gonna be? We'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, here are three predictions for life in Obama's America:

1. America's political and pundit class will go through a clinical bout of ideological amnesia that will be dizzying and appalling for those of us with memories of life before January 2009.

This happens virtually every time a new president, and certainly a new party, takes unified control of the government. On a host of issues—including government spending, regulation, and especially foreign policy—you can expect to see Republican officeholders and their champions in the press rediscover their inner-small-government souls and rail about how Obama and the Democrats are budget-busting socialists desperate to start what vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole once declaimed as "Democrat wars."

On the flip side, expect Democrats to start rattling sabers like the did under the Mad-Bomber-in-Chief Bill Clinton, who was quite happy to dispatch planes and bombs wherever and whenever he felt necessary or threatened by a domestic situation. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the template here of what reason's Matt Welch identified as "temporary doves," that is, folks whose taste for war is highly dependent on party affiliation.

Obama, who is certainly something of a "stealth candidate" (to use an election-night phrase from Fox News' and NPR's Juan Williams), has never been shy about asserting his bellicosity. He's against "stupid" wars, don't you know, which gives him plenty of latitude to prosecute what he considers smart ones (and conflicts necessary to prove that he's no George McGovern). And here's a Canadian dollar that says that Obama's withdrawal plan from Iraq is precisely the one recommended by Gen. Petraeus.

Similarly, he will almost certainly follow the domestic policy trajectory of one George W. Bush by increasing spending (he's already promised that today we spend, tomorrow we scrimp), increasing regulation, and increasing interventions large and small into the economy. The main difference will be that all this new stuff comes at the end of the Bush bender. And that Obama and his defenders will swear that they are radically changing course from the past eight years when in fact they will continue in the same grim direction, full speed ahead, Mr. Emanuel.

Obama's conservative and Republican Party detractors will animate the corpse of Ronald Reagan and weep many crocodile tears about the end of the free enterprise system that they somehow missed out on during the GOP turn at the helm. Bailouts that were "reluctantly and sadly" necessary under Bush, to use Newt Gingrich's phrase (hilariously uttered mere hours before the House GOP scuttled the plan), will be unendurable socialist slights under Obama. At least the second half of that statement will be true.

Oh, and all that liberal fretting over the singular abuse of executive power, domestic surveillance, and the like, under Bush-Cheney? That's going to disappear faster than the Lackawanna Six, regardless of what Obama does (and don't expect him to renounce any of Bush's power grabs once he's sworn into office). If the topic resurfaces (and it will), look for conservatives to have their knickers in a twist this time around.

2. The Culture Wars will be reignited and, as always, the main casualties will be children, the truth, gays, and that evilest excresence of capitalism since novels, nickelodeons, and comic books: video games. And Obama, like Bill Clinton, will be far more conservative on this sort of thing than anybody on either side wants to admit.

I'd say Sarah Palin's smartest public moment came during the vice-presidential debate when she and Joe Biden wrassled over gay marriage. Biden ducked and weaved and talked a long-winded game about equality and fairness and all that sort of crap—and then he had to admit that he doesn't support allowing gays and lesbians to get married like the rest of us:

Biden: I'm being as straight up with Americans as I can in my non-support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage.

Ifill: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

Biden: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it….

Palin: My answer is the same as his and it is that I do not.

Social conservatives, who still retain at least a half-nelson hold on the GOP despite their manifest inability to stand athwart history yelling stop, have been energized by the defeat at the polls of gay marriage in Florida, Arizona, and California. They will not let this issue go and an Obama administration will somehow seemed miffed by attacks on gay marriage yet do nothing about ending marital discrimination against same-sex couples.

And the folks at places such as the Parents Television Council will continue thundering on about indecency on the public airwaves (and why the Federal Communications Commission ought to be regulating content on satellite and cable too). In this sort of jeremiad, they will find an ally in Obama and his puritanical friends on the left, who similarly like to run down market-based culture, especially video games. "Turn off the television," Obama is fond of saying, "turn off the video games." Like Bill Clinton, who along with First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted a seemingly endless series of White House events decrying vulgar culture, Obama hasn't been shy about pulling a Janet Reno when it comes to threatening industry to undertake "self-regulation": "Broadcasters and video game producers should take it upon themselves to improve this [rating] system to include easier to find and easier to understand descriptions of exactly what kind of content is included," Obama said in 2007. "But if the industry fails to act, then my administration would."

And on issues that intersect with culture war issues—such as drug policy and anti-crime initiatives—don't expect Obama to do the right thing. Or to get credit from conservatives for agreeing with them while doing the wrong thing.

3. Liberals and conservatives will continue to try and define everything in terms of right and left when the proper lens, now more than ever, is choice versus control.

When it came to scorching the concept of "the ownership society," George W. Bush was like Lt. William Calley armed with a thousand Zippo lighters. Not a hut or a tree or a popsicle stand was left standing. Bush never came close to delivering on what was going to be the large theme of his presidency: The notion that when people owned themselves, their retirements, their education, their you-name-it, we all benefited because we were all more invested in everything around us. Conservatives were never fully comfortable with this sort of thing for some of the reasons hinted above—if your life is your own, then you've got every right to do whatever you want with it as long as you're not infringing on other people's equal rights to do the same. Liberals have never been comfortable with it either. They're scared of all those bitter, gun-clinging religious freaks and whatever the hell they're doing out there in the middle of the country. Like conservatives, they prize conformity and hierarchy over a more-anarchic and leveled society.

In the end, of course, Bush turned out to be the worst sort of foxhole capitalist. "I'm a strong believer in free enterprise," he told a national audience. "So my natural instinct is to oppose government intervention. I believe companies that make bad decisions should be allowed to go out of business. Under normal circumstances, I would have followed this course. But these are not normal circumstances. The market is not functioning properly." And so came the bailout, the final death blow not just to the idea of the ownership society but to the idea that the GOP actually believed that markets are functioning properly even when the people they like lose money. The attacks on markets, on capitalism, on creative destruction, as too risky and unpredictable, will only intensify in Obama's America.

Indeed, in Obama's America, look for a renewed and intensified nostalgia for simpler, starker choices, whether it's in retirement plans, health-care options, trade possibilities, you name it. The financial "crisis" and the ensuing bailout that no one fully seems to understand (least of all the people who conceived and enacted it) sets the table for a long series of chin-pulling national conversations about how complex everything has gotten and how we need to simplify, simplify, simplify.

China is not only selling us goods that put Americans out of jobs (not true, but never mind), they're buying up all of country. Having to navigate a health-care market is too perplexing, so can we simplify the choices available? Same for education, especially at the K-12 level, which has already been federalized to an unprecedented degree under George W. Bush. And retirement accounts too. It strikes me as unlikely that Obama and the Democrats would seriously try to kill 401(k)s, but look for them to make all sorts of gestures toward simplifying everyday life.

In that third, non-game-changing presidential debate, Obama put on his best Jimmy Carter and decried you, me, and everyone else for our "profligate" ways. Seriously. And when we're done getting through the current crisis via massive deficit spending, he promised, "We're going to have to embrace a culture and an ethic of responsibility, all of us, corporations, the federal government, and individuals out there who may be living beyond their means." Which is a way of telling you that you'll have fewer choices if he has his way. Because it will be his way or the highway.

Though you might get to do universal service.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of reason online and reason.tv.