When historians look back at the presidency of Barack Obama, they will not begin with his campaign announcement in May 2007. They will not start with his election to the Senate in 2004 or with his celebrated speech to the Democratic National Convention that year. Instead, these historians will identify the beginning of the Obama phenomenon in the antiwar speech he delivered in Chicago, on Oct. 2, 2002.
To understand Obama’s political career, these historians will say, you must first understand the visceral opposition of the Democratic base to the decisions made by President George W. Bush. Without Bush, there would have been no Obama. And once Bush had faded from the scene, once he’d been replaced by a group of reform-minded GOP governors and congressmen, and once the Democratic president had to account for the failures of his own term, Obama’s appeal faded, too. He was reduced to his core. He was simply an antiwar academic liberal, similar to the intellectuals who write our newspapers and magazines and produce our news and comedy shows. He was an isolated man of the left.
Bush was the biggest endorphin boost the Democratic Party had received in a long while. The Florida showdown in 2000 polarized the country. The left was incensed when Bush, whom they expected to behave as a caretaker president, governed along the lines he’d laid out during the campaign. His Christian faith and social conservative views repulsed liberals. Above all, his determination that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power galvanized the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party, including a young state senator in Illinois. All of the energy on the Democratic side was coming from the youthful and networked and stridently leftwing grassroots. What unified them was their abhorrence of Bush and of “Bush’s war.” The Iraq war was less than one year old when a senior editor of the New Republic explained, “Why I Hate George W. Bush.”
The first political figure to embody the ascendant Democrats was Howard Dean. The little known governor of Vermont rode his opposition to the Iraq war, and to the Democrats who had voted for it, to prominence in the polls and fundraising in 2003. Dean really had little to offer his supporters besides his angry denunciations of Bush. But that did not seem to matter. The Dean campaign became the locus for young Democrats who felt out of place in the party of Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. It used social media to bring its allies together. These tech-savvy, Millennial-generation voters understood the Dean campaign less as a bid for the White House than as a redemptive social movement. Dean’s rallies assumed the form of tent revivals. The Iraq war had sparked a second children’s crusade.
But Dean blew it. His reaction to his loss in Iowa turned him into a national joke. His campaign collapsed, and his supporters half-heartedly migrated to 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry. Kerry of course lost the election. But, in retrospect, that was not the most important lesson of 2004. The biggest takeaway was the revitalized progressive movement, which conceived of itself as the antithesis of the conservative movement that had dominated American politics since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Obama’s speech to the 2004 DNC was in some sense an announcement that a divided country eventually would be unified around the tenets of progressivism.
The progressives began replicating conservative institutions. For every Heritage Foundation, there would be a Center for American Progress. For every Fox News Channel, there would be an MSNBC. For every group of wealthy Republican donors, there would be a secretive, leftwing Democracy Alliance. For every Federalist Society bringing together conservative lawyers, there would be an American Constitution Society of liberal ones. The primary mission of all the money flowing through this network of activists, intellectuals, and publicists was to sponsor attacks on Bush, his administration, and his tax, social, judicial, and foreign policies. Half of Washington was organized around the principle of opposing one man. Bush was that despised by the left.
Anti-Bush animus was the salient characteristic of the liberal bloggers who began to call themselves the Netroots. These keyboard warriors represented the peacenik attitudes of the Democratic base. They led the charge to install Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. They launched a series of campaigns against incumbent Democrats who had voted with Bush to authorize the war in Iraq. And they had the momentum. When the Netroots gathered in Las Vegas in 2006, it seemed like every political writer in the country covered the event. The liberal bloggers were ecstatic a few weeks later when Lieberman lost his primary to liberal multimillionaire Ned Lamont. Like the conservative followers of Barry Goldwater and the liberal followers of George McGovern, the antiwar, anti-Bush Democrats were forcing their party to move in their direction. They set in motion a chain of events that would result in the closing of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in 2011.
The criticism of Bush, of Bush Republicans, and of the war took on a specific character. The spokesmen of movement progressivism—Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert—spoke in tones of irony, sarcasm, knowing disbelief, glibness, and snark. Liberal bloggers and op-ed writers used the same voice. A television clip of a conservative would be played, a quotation cited, and the liberal would mug for his audience, whether on screen or on the page. Their basic attitude was: Can you believe this? These people don’t even believe in science! The fools! Derisive and smug laughter would ensue. The war was not going well, America seemed in decline, and it was obvious to liberals that conservatives and Republicans were to blame. The punch lines were a signal. If you laughed, you differentiated yourself from the fundamentalist prigs running the country. You established your superiority.
The movement progressives were right to feel empowered. America truly was in trouble. The inability to locate stockpiles of WMD in Iraq would have harmed any administration’s credibility. We were losing the war in Iraq until December 2006 when Bush ordered the surge, but the gains made by the surge forces were bought at a high cost in lives and wounded. The signature Bush counterterrorism policies of detention, interrogation, and surveillance were under assault as intelligence operatives leaked information selectively to an adversarial media. The cosmopolitan, under-30-years-old Americans at the vanguard of the new progressivism saw themselves as citizens of a networked global civilization, and were ashamed that much of the world considered America a pariah nation. The deflation of the housing market, the recession, and the financial crisis brought misery to millions.
Obama, whom National Journal ranked the most liberal senator in 2007, exemplified movement progressivism. But he also had a talent for conveying liberal ideas in an inoffensive, positive way. Though he came from the university culture, where Colbert was required viewing, Rachel Maddow was “smart,” and the writings of Fareed Zakaria were gospel, Obama took pains to avoid ideological conflict. He was about hope and change, not insult and blame. He was going to be bipartisan, even post-partisan, and would govern in a manner that appealed to every American. He opposed a health care mandate. He emphasized his plans to cut middle class taxes and reduce government spending. Above all, Obama was not going to be Bush, whose approval ratings tanked as first Democrats, then independents, and finally Republicans abandoned him.
It’s been said that Americans correct for the failings of past presidents. Obama’s fluency and sharpness and cool were seen as antidotes to Bush’s inarticulateness and gut decision-making. Obama’s campaign started off with the liberal, antiwar core of the Democratic Party, the coeds and recent college graduates who had supported Howard Dean, campaigned against Lieberman, watched Hardball, and wrote screeds on their Movable Type-powered websites.
But Obama’s talents and David Axelrod’s strategy allowed the campaign to expand beyond the anti-Bush base and also take in independents and white voters. Obama won independents by 8 points. He cut McCain’s margin among white voters to 12 points (Bush had won whites in 2004 by 17 points). His hopeful and approachable demeanor, his nice family, his promise of comity and improvement—all these compensated for any doubts voters may have had about Obama’s inexperience. His first Gallup approval rating as president was 68 percent.
The untold story of the last four years is President Obama’s squandering of that good will. There’s no need to go into every detail here. Part of it was the spending. Part of it was not abandoning his unpopular health care law after Scott Brown’s shock election to the Senate in January 2010. Part of it was the failure of his economic policies to produce a durable recovery in line with historical norms. But the most important part of the story is the gradual unmasking of Obama—not as a Kenyan Marxist, but as a thoroughly typical liberal Democrat who believes there is no trouble in the world not created by George W. Bush.
Read The Obamians by James Mann and you discover that the Obama team came in thinking United States foreign policy could be fixed simply by doing the opposite of whatever Bush had done. What they found instead is that Bush’s policies are difficult to overturn because they are not as unreasonable or as superfluous as his opponents had thought. There is a resurgent global jihadist movement bent on killing Americans. Russia is belligerent not because Bush was rude but because Putin’s interests are not our own. The rise of China requires international balancing regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. American soldiers have left Iraq, but that does not mean Iraq or the world is safer. Iran is on track to obtain a nuclear weapon. Opening space between the U.S. and Israel did nothing to advance the cause of Middle East peace.
It turns out the people who supposedly knew better did not, actually, know better. Obama has been president almost for four years. Unemployment is higher than on the day he was inaugurated, economic growth is paltry, and incomes are stagnant. The cost of food and fuel and health insurance continues to rise. The deficit is double what it was in 2008 and if Obama is reelected it is not going to fall any time soon. Americans continue to tell pollsters that they see the country moving in the wrong direction.
The Obama coalition, piece by piece, has been disassembled. All that remains is the antiwar, anti-Republican core of the Democratic Party. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans, so Obama could still squeak out a second term. But he has forsaken independents and whites, the groups that swung to him definitively and significantly in 2008. He is losing independents, in some polls by double-digits. His opponent Mitt Romney is “winning the white vote by more than any GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan,” according to the Washington Post. If the 2012 electorate resembles the 2008 one, it is possible for Obama to win reelection. But if the electorate turns out to be more like the electorate in 2004 or, God help him, like in 2010, Obama will lose.
Even a narrow win for Obama, though, would not reestablish anything like the mandate and amity the president enjoyed on his Inauguration Day. The reason is that, as the Obama coalition diminished, Obama no longer disguised the prejudices, inflections, outlook, and approach of the progressive movement. A confessed reader of Andrew Sullivan’s hysterical web site, the president has taken on the maximalist characteristics of the liberal blogosphere. He is scornful and contemptuous of Romney, as could be seen in his patronizing lecture on aircraft carriers and submarines during the third debate. His campaign seizes on the most trivial comments—“I like Big Bird”; “Binders full of women”—to engage in juvenile jibes that would not make the first cut at the Late Show writers’ meeting. His rallies have become self-congratulatory comedy hours in which the assembled Democrats laugh heartily at the insults and zingers the president throws Romney’s way. Obama has been on a seemingly nonstop tour of television shows hosted by late-night comics. His new attack line that the Republican nominee has “Romnesia” was, as the vice president might say, literally taken from liberal blogs. The vice president even asked his audience at a recent rally whether it had watched The Daily Show the night before. The men who hold the highest offices in the most powerful country in the history of the world have been debased to the point where they look like fill-in guests on Up with Chris Hayes.
The Democrats allowed the progressive movement’s hatred of Bush to take over their old and storied political party. That party and movement found a champion and a path to power in Obama, but the electoral forces on which his power relied were unstable. In 2008, he satisfied the left and won the middle. Once in power, though, he kept the left satisfied and lost the middle and right.
In 2012, there is just the left. The Democrats are back where they started eight years ago. And this time, Barack Obama cannot save them.