Obama and the ungovernable: the real story behind the president’s second term
Less than one year into Barack Obama’s second term, the emerging story of the Obama presidency isn’t the racial barriers crossed and the would-be liberal renaissance. It hasn’t been defined by the old conservative versus liberal paradigm. The real story of Obama’s presidency has been that of a moderate administration, attempting to govern in an increasingly radical country. From health care to war, from the budget and taxes, to treaties and terrorism, President Obama has encountered an emerging extremism the likes of which few presidents before him have seen.
Each of the president’s policies and every major national event seem to breed absurd stories, silly positions and conspiracy theories. The age of extremism Obama faces is also his own creation. Any self-made man with little national political background, who comes to power in a time of economic turmoil, is going to be suspect to a segment of the population. Even more so if that man is a minority with an exotic name and background, who just so happens to be the greatest orator in a generation. Struggle defines presidencies. It defined George W. Bush with the war on terror, Bill Clinton with the impeachment and Ronald Reagan with the fall of the Soviet Union. These struggles defined not the men but their presidencies. Obama’s greatest struggle is with Irrationality Itself.
While there has always been skepticism about Obama’s health care reform bill, Americans have consistently favored the individual proposals of the legislation, until the moment it was identified as Obama’s. In the end, what passed was essentially a large health care regulation bill virtually identical to Romneycare in Massachusetts. This greatest half-measure ever taken in reforming the nation’s health care is still viewed by 40% of the public to have required “death panels.”
On gun control with 57% of the public supportive of an assault weapons ban and 92% behind universal background checks, in the end it wasn’t Republican obstruction or Democratic cowardice that sunk gun control legislation. It was the irrational and destructive gun lobby and a small but enthusiastic segment of the American people. Again, the most common sense solution was rejected due to the make-believe fear that the government is coming to disarm its own citizens.
Congress is as much a perpetrator as it is a victim of this Great Unraveling. With the exodus of moderates and the redistricting that causes candidates and members to continually pander to the flanks, the feeling that the sides are closing in has enveloped Congress. Moderates are a near extinct species. This splintering of the party flanks has created a seething animosity that has twice bubbled over in Obama’s first term with two different radical movements rising to influence two consecutive elections. One was a billionaire sponsored support group for town hall screamers and the other was a lazy expression of dissatisfaction with corporate rule combined with anarchy and urban camping. Both of which espoused their own lame policy prescriptions and brand of conspiracy theories. Both sides tore themselves apart and sank back into the multitudes while Obama remained the still center of the national freak-out. While the Tea Party dominated the 2010 midterms and Occupy Wall Street changed the national conversation to income inequality, before 2012 Obama rode both currents as best he could and made what deals were available.
Since the beginning of Obama’s national prominence, following his lofty 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, every statement and activity, even more so than other presidents, seemed geared toward the rose-colored lens of history. With every calculated and measured comment he has successfully replicated the Reagan and FDR charm and optimism that has come to define their presidencies. While “Change” was his 2008 slogan and “Forward” defined 2012, the overriding theme that keeps popping up in his policies and rhetoric is Fairness. His emphasis has never been equality, be it racial, gender or economic.
Fairness has always been his guiding tenet in the policies he pursues. In this, Obama has revealed himself not as the fire-breathing radical, but as an old school, New Deal Democrat whose beliefs find their roots in Corinthians 12:26, that if “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” It’s that basic and quite normal concept of national community that some interpret as radical communism, when in fact it’s the New Testament. It’s been said that in his quest to please everyone, the president ends ups pleasing no one and is all the weaker for it. But, while his search for the mythical Grand Bargain with what he calls the “Common Sense Caucus” has remained allusive, it has not been without some victories.
Throughout Obama has stayed a kind of Don Draper of American Politics: an undefined, formless ghost in the national wind; a man of modest beginning who has reinvented himself largely according to what is expected of him, not who he actually is; a man whose passions may run hot but whose demeanor and practice are ice cold. Perhaps it was during his pot-smoking days with the Choom Gang that a young pothead Obama may have learned his Vulcan-eqsue Zen and famously detached cool; adhering to the old Jefferson maxim, “Nothing gives one so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstance.” Through his dealings with Congress Obama has remained the radical moderate fighting an undying army of partisans, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always unruffled.
Still, as he tries to reflect, those around him he increasingly seems to be the polar opposite of the extreme population he represents. During his first term Obama released his birth certificate to quell (but not quiet) the rantings of a reality TV host and had his Secretary of Defense personally ask Terry Jones’s fundamentalist Christian group to refrain from burning a Koran in the hopes of heading off an international incident. This is not Obama’s America. Not yet. It is the old, frantic Extreme America that Obama has hoped to reign in and normalize. Something is very wrong when 30% of a country’s citizens question their own president’s citizenship.
All of this vicious discourse surrounding the president and his politics has allowed a snake to slither into the garden, and it has done far more damage than ever before. The country lurches back and forth between dueling yet coexisting conspiracy theories leading to nationally fractured and broken charade. From the Donald Trump Birther freakshow of spring 2011, to the Jack Welsh jobs conspiracy of fall 2012, these prominent cultural figures and some elected officials have empowered fantasies that have no constructive purpose if public discussion.
In the waning days of the 2012 presidential election when polls indicated an inevitable Obama win, a vast polling conspiracy sprang up in some circles suggesting that the polls were skewed as a means to depress the Romney vote. Even in the Romney campaign the refusal to believe the polls held the candidate himself in their sway, denying the electoral reality simply because he didn’t agree with it. It was only after losing Ohio and Iowa that the reality of their own defeat began to dawn on the Romney camp. Even after November, 19% of the public believed that Obama had stolen the election through some sort of voter fraud. Just as 23% thought Bush stole the 2004 election, 13% still think that Obama is the Antichrist.
Nancy Lanza, slain mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, was a believer in the nascent “prepper” movement, a deranged school of thought akin to the militia movement that believes that government and society are on the verge of collapse; that preparation comes in the form of stockpiling weapons and food is required for survival. This movement has contributed to the inflated gold price boom of the last half decade. 22% of Americans believe the world will end within their lifetime. This preparation led Nancy Lanza to purchase a series of firearms and train her disturbed son in the use of assault rifles. Guns he later selected for his deadly rampage.
Following Newtown, while the gun control debate raged, peaked and ended in Washington, Alex Jones and his online network of 9/11 Truthers were pedaling the lie that the Sandy Hook massacre had been staged to allow the government to go for its final epic gun grab. This is, of course, as impractical politically as is it would be in actual practice. But Alex Jones is not alone in his insanity. 36% of people believe that the government knew about the September 11th attacks in advance, and 25% think it’s “probably” true. 29% now believe that “armed revolution” may be necessary to protect the country from its government.
Four months later, after the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, Alex Jones again cried “false flag terrorism,” calling the bombings a hoax. His acolytes crashed official FBI and police news conferences, gaining national exposure. A week after the attacks it was revealed that both Tsarnaev brothers were believers in 9/11 conspiracy theories and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a fan of Alex Jones’s Internet radio show.
Like a snake eating its tail, Jones’ conspiracy had finally come full circle when self-styled terrorists, who agreed with his views, launched their own attack that he himself, disregarding a sea of evidence, didn’t believe they perpetrated. But what happens to conspiracy theories after their subject leaves office and the final destruction never comes? There were no FEMA concentration camps, no domestic drone strikes, no mass indoctrination, no black helicopters except over Watertown. No death panels, Sharia Law or socialist dictatorship. Like the rumors of FDR somehow allowing his Pacific fleet to be ravaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor, they fade but still persist; they seep into a segment of the national consciousness that never lets them go. When conspiracy and suspicion replaces consensus, a culture of post-truth fantasy reigns. Obama’s greatest challenge has been to wrest the public back toward consensus.
As long as he avoids some epic scandal that dwarfs the micro-scandals of the moment, Obama will go down in history as the greatest Democratic president since FDR, a center-left Reagan and African-American royalty on par with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Future generations of multiethnic children will enter politics because of his accomplishments, and the effects will change the presidency and the country forever. And, like FDR, Obama has inspired a generation of conservatives sworn to stand against him. American politics swings back and forth over the decades between hots and colds, peaks and valleys, blues and reds, failures and successes. There would be no Barry Goldwater without the New Deal. No Reagan revolution without Jimmy Carter. No Obama without Bush. Politics moves in cycles. This is how it works, and it would work a lot better if, rather than falling to pieces over fractious policies or imagined threats, the country could embrace the Hawaiian mindset Obama perfected in the Choom Gang and has since brought to the White House: Cool Head, Main Thing.