Obama’s Pity Party

Column: The president lives increasingly in the past

June 15, 2012

I can’t be the only person in America who, at about minute 35 in President Obama’s almost hour-long "framing" speech in Cleveland Thursday, wanted to tell the president, as the Dude famously screams at Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, "You’re living in the past!"

Obama’s overly long, repetitive, and by turns self-pitying and self-congratulatory address was so soaked through with nostalgia that MSNBC should have broadcast it in sepia tones. The speech—which even the liberal Obama biographer Jonathan Alter called one of the president’s "least successful" political communications—revealed an incumbent desperately trying to replay the 2008 election. But no oratory will make up for a flawed record and a vague, fissiparous, and unappealing agenda.

The president himself forced this abrupt re-launch of his reelection campaign. After a bad week that began with terrible job numbers, proceeded to Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall, and culminated in awful fundraising news, Obama tried to recover last Friday by addressing the press on the state of the economy. Except things went horribly wrong. The president uttered six words—"the private sector is doing fine"—that not only will plague him for the rest of the campaign, but also perfectly captured his complacent attitude toward all things outside the realm of government.

The moment prompted a burst of panic throughout the Democratic hive mind, with media types clucking their tongues at the president’s campaign and party strategists questioning the salience of his message. Yesterday’s event in Ohio was thus intended to serve as a sort of domestic analogue to President Obama’s "reset" with Russia. By the looks of things, it will prove to be just as unsuccessful.

The very idea that Obama has the ability to shape his political fortunes through rhetoric is a backwards-looking myth. It is part of the pop narrative of Obama’s 2008 candidacy, in which the young freshman senator was able to rescue his moribund campaign from the evil Clinton machine by giving a single speech at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007. More likely it was Obama’s antiwar stance in an antiwar party that gave him the edge in the Iowa caucuses the following January, but that has not stopped the president or his supporters from having an almost theological attachment to his oratorical prowess.

The evidence in this case, however, is decidedly on the side of the nonbelievers. The Washington Post counts over 500 speeches or appearances where the president has mentioned health care, but his overhaul remains remarkably unpopular. The president’s campaign appearances on behalf of Creigh Deeds in Virginia, Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey, Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, and Rep. Tom Perriello in Virginia were unsuccessful, which may have been why he didn’t even bother to campaign in Wisconsin for Tom Barrett (who lost anyway). A televised address last July did not win Obama his lusted-after tax increase on the rich, nor did remarks to a joint session of Congress win passage of his American Jobs Act.  Eleven "major" speeches on the economy have not generated a full recovery or prevented economic indicators from backsliding. Indeed, one of President Obama’s few accomplishments has been to prove, definitively, the worthlessness of the bully pulpit.

Obama puts his verbal talents to use by fashioning straw men who flatter his ideological prejudices. There are, for example, only two types of Republicans in the president’s speeches: dead or defeated ones who happened to be reasonable people who acted in good faith, and living and successful ones who "believe that if you simply take away regulations and cut taxes by trillions of dollars, the market will solve all of our problems on its own," and who want to end "the guarantee of basic security we’ve always provided the elderly, and the sick, and those who are actively looking for work."

Surrounded by this army of hay, Obama and his staff have discovered a strange and newfound respect for Senator McCain, whom they defeated by seven points three and a half years ago, and who regularly denounced his own supporters when he disagreed with them. "I had some strong disagreements with John McCain," the president recalled wistfully at a Philadelphia fundraiser Tuesday, "but there were certain baselines that we both agreed on," such as immigration amnesty, global warming, and the regulation of political speech. And so McCain has become, in Obama’s imagination, the perfect Republican: honorable, moderate, and unsuccessful.

This is part of the president’s attempt to turn 2012 into a replay of 2008. In Obama’s absurd telling, every Republican president prior to George W. Bush would have been comfortable with the economic agenda of the contemporary Democratic Party. Lincoln backed the transcontinental railroad, so obviously he would have supported a $4 trillion government, most of which is spent on checks for old people. Eisenhower proposed the Interstate Highway System to maneuver troops, civilians, and missiles in case World War III broke out, which naturally suggests he would have supported stimulus bills that pay off public sector and construction unions and finance alternative energy moguls who donate to Democratic campaigns.

In his Cleveland speech, Obama preposterously invoked the memory of Nixon—Richard Nixon—because the second-most reviled Republican in modern memory "created the Environmental Protection Agency." Ronald Reagan? Forget supply-side economics and the Strategic Defense Initiative and the 1986 tax reform and Iran-contra. "He worked with Democrats to save Social Security," and "raised taxes to help pay down an exploding deficit." All is forgiven.

Obama writes these fictional historical portraits not to pay tribute to his antecedents, but to explain, in a self-serving way, his lack of executive achievements. The economy is suffering and the deficit is hemorrhaging, he suggests, only because today’s GOP is so radical and unreasonable. (This is the same party, incidentally, that won 51 percent of the national House vote in the most recent election.)

The country’s troubles, we are told, were caused by Obama’s direct predecessor, whose decapitated head recently made a cameo appearance on HBO. "It’s like somebody goes to a restaurant, orders a big steak dinner, martini and all that stuff, and then just as you’re sitting down, they leave and accuse you of running up the tab," Obama told Baltimore donors during one of the six fundraisers he held Tuesday. Of course, not 24 hours later, he stiffed the BBQ restaurant where he had held a Father’s Day lunch with two servicemen and two barbers.

"The problems we’re facing right now have been more than a decade in the making," he told his audience in Cleveland. He mentioned our "decade" of problems eight times, subtly excusing his inability to improve the domestic situation by diminishing any role he may have had in creating or prolonging it.

The president’s grossest use of nostalgia, however, has to be in his appeals to the aftermath of the Second World War, when "there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own; that we needed certain investments to give hardworking Americans skills they needed to get a good job, and entrepreneurs the platforms they needed to create good jobs; that we needed consumer protections that made American products safe and American markets sound."

Here Obama conjures up a progressive Eden, when Democrats and liberal Republicans shared the presidency, and Democrats ruled Congress practically without interruption. He holds this rather peculiar and problematic historical situation as a scenario that might be replicated. It can’t. It shouldn’t. One of the reasons America was doing well economically at that time was that much of the rest of the world was a rubble-strewn junkyard. Nor did women or African Americans or gay people exactly participate in this time of "shared prosperity." Oddly for someone with intellectual pretensions, Obama never asks why the politics of the New Frontier and Great Society came to a fairly disastrous end. He wouldn’t like the answer.

We are left with the paradox of a backward-looking progressive calling on the American people to march forward. No wonder the public is anxious, and worried about the future. Our incumbent president is holding a giant pity party, while failing to address the nation’s challenges in a responsible manner. Like Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, Barack Obama is a man living in the past. And there is no Dude or Donny to save him.