Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
They Said It:
Writing about the onset of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that the end had come but was not yet in sight. The past was crumbling under their feet, but people could not imagine how the future would play out. Their social imagination had hit a wall.
The same thing is happening today: The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.
Walter Russell Mead, “The Once and Future Liberalism,” The American Interest, January 24, 2012.
THE BULL-GOOSE LOONY.
Regular readers undoubtedly know that we have spent countless hours and spilt endless digital ink over the past six years trying to figure out who Barack Obama is and what he wants. We’re not the only ones, of course. He remains, even now, halfway through his second term, something of an unknown entity to almost everyone. No one knows for certain what he wants, what motivates him, or even, for that matter, why he wanted to be the most powerful man in the world in the first place. He is, to paraphrase Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside a guy trying too hard to look cool. Or as we put it two-and-a-half years ago, in a pierce titled “The Most Powerful Weirdo in the World”:
Obama, by contrast, seems much more creepily faked. He has thoroughly adopted the academic-Leftist worldview (as we’ve argued here more times than we can remember), but he has also carefully cultivated a public persona that balances that worldview with what he and his advisors appear to believe is “average American.” What you’re left with then, is a weird, unsettling sort of amalgam: not quite Leftist intellectual but not quite average Joe either. You get, for example, a guy who supports gay marriage, but can’t just say it. He has to “evolve” to the position. You get a guy who likes sports, but not the way most guys like sports and only certain sports and only in a way that you don’t get dirty or bruised or too testosterone-y. You get a guy who himself claims to be “exotic” when he wants a job or wants to sell some books, but will have his surrogates make sure the whole world knows that you are a racist if you dare even to think that he’s exotic when he’s running for election (or re-election) to the most powerful office in the world.
You get, in short, a really strange guy.
The problem with this analysis – if that’s what you want to call it – has always been on the “impact” side of the discussion. Yes, Barack Obama is a weird, weird, guy, probably the weirdest guy who has ever served as President of the United States. But so what? What harm can his weirdness do? And more the point, what does it say about the state of the American political system that this weirdo is its leader?
The good news is that we are starting to learn the answers to these questions, which is to say that we’re starting to figure out the types of things that our strange president can and will do, which no other president before him would ever even have considered. The bad news is that the answers to these questions are unsettling.
Over the last couple of weeks, Barack Obama – the most powerful weirdo in the world – has actually been flaunting his weirdness, almost as if he is daring the rest of the world to call him on it, or at least to recognize it. To date, no one – or at least no one important – has said mentioned it except in passing. But we suspect that many have noticed it and are undoubtedly making domestic and geopolitical calculations accordingly.
It all started, we suppose, about three weeks ago, when Obama gave his post-election press conference and confessed to hearing voices. Most observers witnessed the election results and understood that they served as evidence that the country is unhappy with Obama’s leadership and is thusly desperate for a new direction in both politics and policy. Obama, by contrast, took the midterm results not as a rebuke to him, but as a rebuke to . . . well . . . anyone but him. Rather than say that he heard the voters loud and clear, our oddball chief executive claimed that he heard the non-voters loud and clear and understood what they wanted him to do with the remaining quarter of his presidency. And what they want, apparently, is the same thing he wants, and anyone who suggests that the actual, concrete election results might suggest otherwise can buzz off. The guy knows what he heard. And if you didn’t hear it, that’s your problem, not his.
Now, Obama’s few remaining friends and supporters argue that this was mere politics as usual and not particularly weird at all. It was only natural in these circumstances, they say, for the defeated Democrat to put on a brave face and push back against the newly emboldened Republicans. Well, maybe. But one would have a hard time finding a precedent for this reaction. George W. Bush, for example, conceded that he and the GOP took a “thumpin’” in 2006. Bush, of course, then proceeded to fire/accept the resignation of his most controversial cabinet member, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, the man whom much of the country held responsible for the sorry state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan. He proceeded as well to work with the newly elected Democratic majority to provide early stimulus in preparation for and an enormous bailout in response to the Great Recession. Neither he nor they did so effectively, as it turned out, but they worked together to pursue a common policy.
Prior to Bush, Bill Clinton’s big losses came in his first term, when he was still fighting for his political life. And he responded to those losses by moving hard to the right. It was in the wake of the defeat, recall, that Clinton’s “Third Way” was born and Dick Morris’s “triangulation” strategy was employed.
Nixon, for all his other his other clear deficiencies, at least had the sense to get out of town once he realized that the country had turned against him. Indeed, he left before 1974’s Democratic wave swept the so-called “Watergate Babies” into power.
All of which is to say that one my argue that Obama’s reaction to the election was perfectly normal, but one would have to do so without benefit of precedent or, for that matter, evidence.
In any case, after giving his weirdly defiant press conference, Barack Obama headed off to Asia and Australia for some hobbing with the usual global nobs. While there, he performed the usual rituals, did the usual dances, and left the confrontation of the world’s bad actors to the real leaders of the Anglosphere – i.e. Stephen Harper of Canada. When the summit was over, however, things got a little strange. The rest of the world’s big shots – Britain’s David Cameron, China’s Xi Jinping, and India’s Narendra Modi – all made formal state visits to the Australian government or addressed the Australian parliament. As for Obama, he had more important things to do, like undermine his hosts and talk about the weather. Last week, in an op-ed to Wall Street Journal, Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, reported the following:
Mr. Obama made a speech to an Australian version of his political core audience back home — undergraduates at a metropolitan university. Much of the speech at the University of Queensland in Brisbane was boilerplate. It lacked a plot but hit a few reliable notes, such as the U.S. commitment to Asia, defense of gay rights and the like.
But the longest passage was an extraordinary riff on climate change that contained astonishing criticism — implied, but unmistakable — of the government led by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Mr. Obama lavished himself with praise for signing, a few days earlier, a climate-change agreement with China that imposes no obligations on Beijing until 2030, when the Chinese will notionally reach a peak in their carbon emissions. The U.S., on the other hand, under this deal will greatly reduce its emissions by 2025, though Mr. Obama won’t be in office then and Congress may be inclined not to authorize such cuts.
Mr. Abbott is a sensible conservative, along the lines of Canada’s Stephen Harper . He accepts that climate change is a problem and that greenhouse-gas emissions should be reduced. He is skeptical of climate alarmism and does not believe that the solution lies in onerous carbon taxes or trading schemes in carbon permits, which are notoriously open to corruption and inherently ineffective.
The prime minister won a big mandate in last year’s parliamentary elections to repeal the former Labor government’s carbon tax, which he did. . . .
That’s . . . uhh . . . weird. But maybe it wasn’t entirely unjustified. Maybe Obama had other reasons to attack an ally? Maybe Abbott deserved a good dressing down by the senior partner in the relationship? Maybe Abbott threw the first stone and Obama was merely firing back? Or maybe not. Sheridan continued:
In June, when Mr. Abbott first visited Washington as prime minister, he offered Washington tangible support in the Middle East — special forces, advanced fighter jets and much else — even before the president had decided to take action against the Islamic State terrorist group. Mr. Abbott did this not because he was charmed by Mr. Obama but because he believes that the world benefits from U.S. leadership. He wanted the U.S. to know that in difficult places it doesn’t walk alone.
Mr. Abbott has also done more than any regional leader to support the U.S. in Asia, and to support key U.S. strategic goals. He hosts U.S. troops and joint facilities. He publicly backs Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution to allow it to participate in collective security and a properly mutual alliance with the U.S. Mr. Abbott’s government sternly criticized Beijing for declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands in the East China Sea. This is not without risk for Mr. Abbott. China is by far Australia’s biggest trading partner.
In short there is no more reliable U.S. ally than Mr. Abbott.
Oh well. No big deal. Australia may well be this country’s most important and most steadfast ally in the Pacific. But what’s that when measured against the risk of global warming?
Unfortunately for Obama, when he returned home there were other more pressing matters with which to deal, and his job as savior of the planet had to be put on hold, at least temporarily. In Syria, for example, the Islamic State – ISIS, ISIL, or whatever – were busy filming themselves beheading yet another American, this one a former Army Ranger who went back to the Middle East to try to bring humanitarian aid to some of the millions of refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war and its countless offshoots. As with the previous beheadings of Americans, President Obama condemned the murder of Peter Kassig in no uncertain terms. He condemned the terrorists who committed this act of unspeakable “evil.” And he insisted that the global community would not stand for such barbarity. And then, when he finished venting, he did something different than he’d done before, something interesting, something weird.
If you Google “Barack Obama, statement, beheading,” you will get back all sorts of headlines like the following from the New York Times: “Obama Calls Islamic State’s Killing of Peter Kassig ‘Pure Evil.’” But that’s not what Obama did. Rather, he called the Islamic State’s killing of Abdul-Rahman Kassig “pure evil.”
You see, according to reports, Peter Kassig, an erstwhile Methodist converted to Islam while in captivity. His parents referred to him as Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig while working to gain his freedom. As for President Obama, he dropped the “Peter” business altogether and simply called him Abdul-Rahman – which is weird.
You see, it doesn’t really matter what Kassig’s parents called him. And it doesn’t matter that he purportedly converted – at gunpoint (or sword-tip, as the case may be). No country anywhere, least of all the country he served so bravely, recognized anyone named Abdul-Rahman Kassig. And Obama’s attempt to play dutiful multicultural bridge-builder was embarrassingly suck-up-ish. The inimitable Mark Steyn commented as follows:
At the Rose Garden ceremony for Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, the President decided to pass off a deserter as an American hero. In his response to the beheading of Peter Kassig, Obama chose to turn a man who may have died heroically into just another Muslim victim:
Abdul-Rahman was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity. . . ISIL’s actions represent no faith, least of all the Muslim faith which Abdul-Rahman adopted as his own.
“Abdul-Rahman”? Why, yes. Mr Kassig supposedly converted to Islam while imprisoned by the Islamic State. That’s to say, his submission to Islam was at the point of a sword. In America, at home, at liberty, he was not a Muslim. He was a Muslim only in captivity.
And to be pedantic about it, Peter Kassig was not, in law, Abdul-Rahman Kassig. He would not have been recognized by any government agency anywhere in the Republic of Paperwork under that name – not by the DMV, not by the Social Security Administration, not by the TSA, not by the Obamacare website. So why is the head of the US government recognizing Mr Kassig by a name none of his minions would? Obama’s court eunuchs at The New York Times explained it this way:
The president used the Muslim name that Mr. Kassig adopted after his capture, making the point that the Islamic State had killed a fellow Muslim.
The weirdest part of the whole thing, of course, is that last bit. Obama felt he had to make it clear to the Islamic State that they killed a fellow Muslim? Really? Does he not know who folks in the Islamic State are? Does he not know what they do? Does he not know what they’ve been doing all day, every day for the last year-plus? Again, really? Or as Steyn continued:
In the same video in which “Jihadi John” appears with Mr Kassig’s head, the Islamic State are seen decapitating 13 fellow Muslims from the Syrian army. If you’re a Muslim, you get the group beheading with the crowd-scene extras. If you’re an American or Briton, you get the star role, the solo act. The Islamic State knew which group Peter Kassig belonged to even if the President didn’t.
Meanwhile, back on the domestic front, the folks in the Obama administration were trying their very best to pretend that Jonathan Gruber was just some guy who ran a few models for them but who had nothing to do with anything. He was flat wrong, they insisted. No one ever manipulated anyone or hid anything or tried to be anything less than perfectly open and transparent about the whole health care reform process. Indeed, contrary to Gruber’s comments, the process was among the “most transparent” policy reform efforts ever. No one was deceived. Everything was kosher. And, moreover, the whole thing was smashing success, with more people signing up for plans than even the administration had hoped. The goal, after all, was 7 million enrollees in the first open-enrollment period. And 7.3 million signed up. Therefore, everything was, is, and ever shall be awesome.
Late last week, Alex Wayne, a reporter for Bloomberg News, reported that the big number, 7.3 million enrollees, was somewhat less impressive than one might, at first blush, suspect. The enrollment figures were, as it turns out, rather disingenuously compiled. To wit:
The Obama administration said it erroneously calculated the number of people with health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, incorrectly adding 380,000 dental subscribers to raise the total above 7 million.
The accurate number with full health-care plans is 6.7 million as of Oct. 15, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed today, saying the U.S. won’t include dental plans in future reports. . . .
The error was brought to light by Republican investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, using data they obtained from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. . . .
The new count puts enrollment short of a 2013 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, adopted last year as a goal by the Obama administration, that 7 million people would be enrolled this year. Federal officials said in September they had 7.3 million people enrolled in coverage through new government-run insurance exchanges. They didn’t distinguish between medical and dental plans, breaking from previous practice without notice. [emphasis added] . . .
The 7 million threshold appears to be important for the administration, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a Washington advocacy group aligned with Republicans that has opposed the health law.
“It’s a little weird,” Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO director, said. “Usually, the goal is for the forecast to hit the reality, but here the reality is being massaged to hit the forecast.”
A little weird, you say? This administration? This president? Nah. Couldn’t be.
Megan McArdle, Wayne’s colleague at Bloomberg, wasn’t quite as nice as was Douglas Holtz-Eakin – nor quite as nice as we are, apparently. She argued that the whole business was beyond weird, was, in fact, pretty nauseating. She put it this way:
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell seems to be saying that this was some sort of mistake. And it’s possible that this is all it is. But I would be more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt if the administration hadn’t otherwise been managing enrollment data so aggressively, releasing good figures as soon as it had them but sitting on bad data as long as possible, and ceasing to issue regular reports as soon as open enrollment stopped and the numbers began to decline rather than rise.
If it was deliberate, this is not your standard political puffery. It’s pathological, like your college roommate who doesn’t just inflate her number of boyfriends or exaggerate some details for the sake of a funnier story, but also insists that she is in the CIA. The numbers would have been rounded up to 7 million anyway, because they missed by something like 3,000 people. Adding in a bunch of unrelated plans, with all the attendant risk of being exposed and embarrassed, seems flatly insane. In fact, this is the most compelling reason to believe that it was a mistake.
If it was a mistake, however, I’m not sure how much better that is supposed to make us feel. For the administration to have this poor a handle on its own data while attempting to make over almost one-fifth of the U.S. economy is a lot more frightening than some rather pedestrian lies.
“Pathological.” That fits too, we suppose.
As we noted up top, whenever we have written about Barack Obama’s weirdness in the past, we’ve had to stretch a bit to explain why it matters, why anyone should care about it. With the current spate of bizarre and intensely Obama-esque behavior, that’s not really the case. In each of the three examples cited above – and others, we’re afraid – the effects of Obama’s weirdness are pretty clear. Indeed, they are damning and largely undeniable as well.
In the case of his swipe at the Australians for having the gall to run their country as they see fit, Obama continues to redefine the notion of “smart diplomacy” that he promised when he was first elected back in 2008. We have heard for years now that the administration wants desperately to “pivot to Asia,” and to engage American allies and strategic rivals in the region in order to ensure a future characterized by peaceable coexistence and productive competition rather than hostility and antagonism. And so, in the interests of promoting both American strategic goals and the broader cause of Asian concord, Obama decided to take a gratuitous and purely personal swipe at this country’s most important ally in the region and one of the Anglosphere’s critical standard-bearers.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been such a big deal, if Obama didn’t already have a reputation for punishing his country’s allies and rewarding its enemies. But he does, which is to say that this is a big deal. As the Australians assess their own strategic interests going forward, they will have to consider what it means to be a second-tier power in a part of the world soon-to-be completely dominated by the regional hegemon. That calculation produces one answer if the second-tier status is backed up aggressively and fervently by the GLOBAL hegemon, the world’s lone hyper-power. It produces a different answer, however, if the support of said hyper-power is questionable, if the Australians have to worry whether the leader of the hyper-power might be prone to flights of fancy and the occasional bout of missionary zeal.
In short, then, Obama’s weirdness with respect to global warming and the Australian experience has introduced a great deal of uncertainty into the American-Australian relationship at a point in time in which stability and clarity are at a premium. The Australians – like nearly everyone else in the world – are learning this month what it means to try to plan for the future in the Obama Era. It’s not easy. And nor is it particularly comforting. It’s grim, in fact, and more than a little bizarre.
As for Obama’s insistence on using Peter Kassig’s Islamic name, there can be little doubt that this simply reinforces for the world’s Islamic terrorists (and terrorists states) that they are dealing with a man who will bend over backward to avoid having to confront Islam and to admit to confronting Islam. In his statement on Kassig’s death, Obama once again reiterated his weird belief that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, despite it being right there in the name of the organization. And while he sees this as being generously tolerant, the Islamists see it as weakness – bin Laden’s old Strong Horse-Weak Horse business. At the risk of simplifying all of this, Obama’s weirdness about Islam and deference to it emboldens the enemy – yet again.
Finally, there is the question of the Affordable Care Act and its legitimacy. It is important to remember, we think, that the overwhelming majority of the people in this country hate the ACA. Fudging the numbers – whether wittingly or unwittingly – is not going to aid the reformers’ cause. Indeed, it is likely to have precisely the opposite effect, causing further erosion in the American people’s trust in government.
One might assume that we, as small-government conservatives, would welcome the public’s distrust in government. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
Given the tasks that the government must perform, it is essential that the people trust and respect it. Indeed, that is precisely WHY we’re small-government types. Anything beyond the absolute essentials, government tends to do rather poorly. And the more government tries to do, the less well it tends to do it. All the while, of course, the government’s failure to keep the promises it makes calls into question its ultimate legitimacy, which, in turn, calls into question its ability to the things that are necessary, namely to live up to its end of the social contract and to ensure each person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obama’s weirdness with respect to health care reform has been a disaster for the government of the United States, which means that it has been a disaster for anyone and everyone who values the essential rights guaranteed by that government. The weirder the guy gets, the less people trust him, the less they trust the government he purportedly heads, and the less they believe the government is capable of ensuring the rights of all people.
The question with which we are left, given all of the confusion, damage, and hazard sown by Obama’s weirdness, is how did this happen? What is there about our political system that made it possible for this bizarre man to become president? More to the point, what about that system makes it possible for him to continue to govern with any authority, much less the full support of nearly half of the country and its entire ruling elite? Are they just as weird as he is?
You see, all three examples of Obama’s weirdness cited above – in addition to his passivity with respect to defending the nation’s interests and his massive immigration power-grab –were rendered in defense of liberal pieties, in defense of tenets of the liberal faith. The problem is that no defense can justify them. No matter how much he tries, reality wins. Every time.
Consider, for example, the fact that Obama’s State Department still considers climate change to be the country’s most significant strategic risk. Most of the rest of the world – from Germany to Spain, from Australia to Japan – has moved on from the fixation of warm-mongering to focus on real, tangible, and changeable global issues. The Obama administration, however, clings to climate change, treating it as a solemn, almost religious mission. Worry not about China or nuclear Iran or even the ongoing tensions in the South Pacific. His big concern is warming, which may or may not be as bad as it is put up to be, which may or may not have the deleterious effects it is said to have, and which is certainly not going to be resolved by driving hybrid cars and putting up windmills.
The same basic premise holds true for the rest of the weirdness as well. Obama’s strange deference to Islam is part and parcel of his embrace of liberalism’s chief values, multiculturalism and non-judgementalism. Likewise, his weird willingness to falsify and mishandle everything that touches his health care plan is related to his unshakable belief that government – and only government – can deliver the goods that ensure well-being among the people of the world. He knows government is the solution to the world’s problems, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let a little thing like reality get in the way of him ensuring that it will be so.
The fact of the matter is that Western liberalism – that which Walter Russell Mead has dubbed “the blue model” – is in serious and irreparable trouble. The social and demographic realities in the contemporary West are far different from the social and demographic conditions necessary to maintain the post-War welfare-state. The Blue Model – whatever one thought of its effectiveness, usefulness, or propensity to encourage moral hazard – is simply unsustainable. Even the most ardent supporters of the model should, when confronted with reality, have to acknowledge this.
But they don’t know how to acknowledge much less deal with the unsustainability of their worldview and its clear incompatibility with reality. And so they don’t. In this sense, then, Barack Obama’s weirdness is not just a quirk. It is, rather, a symptom of a wide-spread pathology among the ruling class. He is merely the poster boy for the entire asylum; the bull-goose loony, to borrow a phrase from Ken Kesey’s great allegorical novel One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In this sense, then, Barack Obama’s weirdness is not just a quirk. It is, rather, a symptom of a wide-spread pathology among the ruling class. The members of the ruling class – both liberal and conservative – are having a difficult time dealing with the collapse of the post-War paradigm and the emergence of a new one. They are struggling, therefore, to sound sane, much less thoughtful, in a world that has shifted under their feet.
Not surprisingly, a great many Americans are well aware of these problems and of their politicians’ incapacity for dealing with them. For the most part, these are the folks who are paying the bill for the ruling class madness by going to work every day and following the rules. In a very real sense, their fate is the fate of the nation. And they are not doing well, despite nominal economic growth, as the big shots in Washington continue to embrace their own weirdness and to embrace the policies of the past.
A clash between these two camps is coming. Indeed, this clash between the people who deal with reality every day and those who deny the very same reality actually began over five years ago, with the emergence of the Tea Party and its libertarian populism. Just a few weeks ago, of course, on election day, another battle in this long war was fought. We’d like to believe that every battle will be as bloodless as was this last one. But we have our doubts.
Who will ultimately win this war? Reality will. Of course.