The mass media have been filled with news of the pending policies and appointments of President-elect Barack Obama, particularly the signs that his administration will be more ‘moderate’ than many on both the left and the right expected. The leftists are restraining their rage and the conservatives are breathing a sigh of relief. Don’t believe it. While it is true that the responsibilities of governing can be sobering for even the most ideological of presidents, they can be overcome in time. And while it is also true that “personnel is policy” to a considerable degree, even the old Clinton stalwarts that Obama has selected for the cabinet-level positions serve only at the president’s pleasure.
“Rule will show a man,” the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote 2300 years ago, and it always does. Obama’s strength has always been rhetoric, and his two-year quest for the presidency revealed that he is not too shabby at campaign management and organization. But making life and death decisions for the sake of the American polity is a whole different matter.
Those of us who recall the presidencies of the two previous Democrats find more similarities than differences. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won over the national media to their cause, taking office on a wave of enthusiasm. They, too, had the advantage of their fellow Democrats controlling Congress. And they also made impressive cabinet-level appointments.
But both Carter and Clinton had failed administrations. I don’t mean failure in the narrow sense of failing to achieve their goals, which in fact they did in some cases. I mean in the more profound sense that their ideas for improving the country were demonstrably mistaken.
Carter was elected in 1976 on a vague promise of restoring the trust of the American people after the defeat in Vietnam and the trauma of the Watergate scandal. That got him into the Oval Office but didn’t restrain him from bestowing unconditional amnesty on Vietnam-era draft dodgers (like Bill Clinton), calling for austerity rather than production to deal with the 1970s energy crisis, failing to restrain spending and raising the payroll tax on social security, cutting the defense budget, abandoning America’s allies in Central America and the Middle East, and failing to rescue 58 Americans held hostage by Iran.
As for Clinton, he didn’t merely admit, like Carter had, that he had lusted for other women but actually had affairs with several women while “stand by your man” Hillary vouched for him before the adoring cameras of CBS. The most notable slogan of his 1992 campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid,” as if the challenges facing our nation abroad could be wished away after Ronald Reagan had won the Cold War.
Clinton had higher priorities, like lifting the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, abandoning his promise of a middle-class tax cut (this will soon be repeated), nationalizing health care and, of course, cutting the defense budget.
Congress, after members were given a videotape of gay pride parades, defaulted to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but continued with a policy of unrestrained domestic spending. Not surprisingly, Clinton asked for an income tax rate increase, which passed Congress by a narrow margin. Then there was the “Hillary care” takeover of the health sector that went down in flames even without a vote. Islamist terrorism was merely a legal question.
Obama has proposed new federal spending of nearly one trillion dollars, huge cuts (again) in the defense budget and abandoning our allies in Central America and the Middle East (again), while signaling a desire to “transform” this country into a kind of model project of “progressive” reform. However he couches his proposals in reassuring terms such as “stimulating the economy” or “restoring America’s prestige abroad,” you can be sure that taxes will go up and America’s defenses will go down.
Obama’s studied pose as a moderate actually is the personification of the academic habits he acquired in elite colleges and universities where professors typically affect a detached approach which only obscures a radical impatience with the supposed inequities of flawed human institutions.
The professorial class sees America as a racist, imperialist, oligarchic, sexist and homophobic regime that is indifferent, if not hostile, to the needs of other nations and peoples and needs the stern corrective of impoverishment and impotence. The Constitution places obstacles like separation of powers, bicameralism, judicial independence, freedom of speech and press, and private ownership in the way of progressive enthusiasms. Sooner or later, however, Obama’s contempt for the Constitution will become clear.
ABOUT THE WRITER Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause” (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.