AUGUST 25, 2009
Obama's Summer of Discontent
By FOUAD AJAMI
So we are to have a French health-care system without a French tradition of political protest. It is odd that American liberalism, in a veritable state of insurrection during the Bush presidency, now seeks political quiescence. These "townhallers" who have come forth to challenge ObamaCare have been labeled "evil-mongers" (Harry Reid), "un-American" (Nancy Pelosi), agitators and rowdies and worse.
A political class, and a media elite, that glamorized the protest against the Iraq war, that branded the Bush presidency as a reign of usurpation, now wishes to be done with the tumult of political debate. President Barack Obama himself, the community organizer par excellence, is full of lament that the "loudest voices" are running away with the national debate. Liberalism in righteous opposition, liberalism in power: The rules have changed.
It was true to script, and to necessity, that Mr. Obama would try to push through his sweeping program—the change in the health-care system, a huge budget deficit, the stimulus package, the takeover of the automotive industry—in record time. He and his handlers must have feared that the spell would soon be broken, that the coalition that carried Mr. Obama to power was destined to come apart, that a country anxious and frightened in the fall of 2008 could recover its poise and self-confidence. Historically, this republic, unlike the Old World and the command economies of the Third World, had trusted the society rather than the state. In a perilous moment, that balance had shifted, and Mr. Obama was the beneficiary of that shift.
So our new president wanted a fundamental overhaul of the health-care system—17% of our GDP—without a serious debate, and without "loud voices." It is akin to government by emergency decrees. How dare those townhallers (the voters) heckle Arlen Specter! Americans eager to rein in this runaway populism were now guilty of lèse-majesté by talking back to the political class.
We were led to this summer of discontent by the very nature of the coalition that brought Mr. Obama, and the political class around him, to power, and by the circumstances of his victory. The man was elected amid economic distress. Faith in the country's institutions, perhaps in the free-enterprise system itself, had given way. Mr. Obama had ridden that distress. His politics of charisma was reminiscent of the Third World. A leader steps forth, better yet someone with no discernible trail, someone hard to pin down to a specific political program, and the crowd could read into him what it wished, what it needed.
The leader would be different things to different people. The Obama coalition was the coming together of disparate groups: the white professional liberals seeking absolution for the country in the election of an African-American man, the opponents of the Iraq war who grew more strident as the project in Iraq was taking root, the African-American community that had been invested in the Clintons and then came around out of an understandable pride in one of its own.
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The last segment of the electorate to flock to the Obama banners were the blue-collar workers who delivered him Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. He was not their man. They fully knew that he didn't share their culture. They were, by his portrait, clinging to their guns and religion, but the promise of economic help, and of protectionism, carried the day with them.
The Obama devotees were the victims of their own belief in political magic. The devotees could not make up their minds. In a newly minted U.S. senator from Illinois, they saw the embodiment of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama was tall and thin and from Illinois, and the historic campaign was launched out of Springfield. The oath of office was taken on the Lincoln Bible. Like FDR, he had a huge economic challenge, and he better get it done, repair and streamline the economy in his "first hundred days." Like JFK, he was young and stylish, with a young family.
All this hero-worship before Mr. Obama met his first test of leadership. In reality, he was who he was, a Chicago politician who had done well by his opposition to the Iraq war. He had run a skillful campaign, and had met a Clinton machine that had run out of tricks and a McCain campaign that never understood the nature of the contest of 2008.
He was no FDR, and besides the history of the depression—the real history—bears little resemblance to the received narrative of the nation instantly rescued, in the course of 100 days or 200 days, by an interventionist state. The economic distress had been so deep and relentless that FDR began his second term, in 1937, with the economy still in the grip of recession.
Nor was JFK about style. He had known military service and combat, and familial loss; he had run in 1960 as a hawk committed to the nation's victory in the Cold War. He and his rival, Richard Nixon, shared a fundamental outlook on American power and its burdens.
Now that realism about Mr. Obama has begun to sink in, these iconic figures of history had best be left alone. They can't rescue the Obama presidency. Their magic can't be his. Mr. Obama isn't Lincoln with a BlackBerry. Those great personages are made by history, in the course of history, and not by the spinners or the smitten talking heads.
In one of the revealing moments of the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama rightly observed that the Reagan presidency was a transformational presidency in a way Clinton's wasn't. And by that Reagan precedent, that Reagan standard, the faults of the Obama presidency are laid bare. Ronald Reagan, it should be recalled, had been swept into office by a wave of dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter and his failures. At the core of the Reagan mission was the recovery of the nation's esteem and self-regard. Reagan was an optimist. He was Hollywood glamour to be sure, but he was also Peoria, Ill. His faith in the country was boundless, and when he said it was "morning in America" he meant it; he believed in America's miracle and had seen it in his own life, in his rise from a child of the Depression to the summit of political power.
The failure of the Carter years was, in Reagan's view, the failure of the man at the helm and the policies he had pursued at home and abroad. At no time had Ronald Reagan believed that the American covenant had failed, that America should apologize for itself in the world beyond its shores. There was no narcissism in Reagan. It was stirring that the man who headed into the sunset of his life would bid his country farewell by reminding it that its best days were yet to come.
In contrast, there is joylessness in Mr. Obama. He is a scold, the "Yes we can!" mantra is shallow, and at any rate, it is about the coming to power of a man, and a political class, invested in its own sense of smarts and wisdom, and its right to alter the social contract of the land. In this view, the country had lost its way and the new leader and the political class arrayed around him will bring it back to the right path.
Thus the moment of crisis would become an opportunity to push through a political economy of redistribution and a foreign policy of American penance. The independent voters were the first to break ranks. They hadn't underwritten this fundamental change in the American polity when they cast their votes for Mr. Obama.
American democracy has never been democracy by plebiscite, a process by which a leader is anointed, then the populace steps out of the way, and the anointed one puts his political program in place. In the American tradition, the "mandate of heaven" is gained and lost every day and people talk back to their leaders. They are not held in thrall by them. The leaders are not infallible or a breed apart. That way is the Third World way, the way it plays out in Arab and Latin American politics.
Those protesters in those town-hall meetings have served notice that Mr. Obama's charismatic moment has passed. Once again, the belief in that American exception that set this nation apart from other lands is re-emerging. Health care is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is an unease with the way the verdict of the 2008 election was read by those who prevailed. It shall be seen whether the man swept into office in the moment of national panic will adjust to the nation's recovery of its self-confidence.
Mr. Ajami teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. He is also an adjunct fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.