THE SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
Adding straws of scandal – Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the Associated Press monitoring, the IRS fiasco, and the NSA spying – on any presidential back except Barack Obama’s would have broken it long before his serial lying on Obamacare.
Watergate ruined Richard Nixon. Iran-Contra earned a special prosecutor and nearly destroyed the Reagan second term. Katrina’s incompetent local and state reactions, coupled with a tardy federal effort – and the insurgency in postwar Iraq – ended the viability of George W. Bush in his second term.
Further, well apart from scandal, the perception of presidential lying usually ends presidential agendas. Richard Nixon resigned after never telling the truth about the Watergate cover-up. "Read my lips: no new taxes" cost George H.W. Bush his reelection. "I did not have sex with that woman" made Bill Clinton’s impeachment likely.
Yet Barack Obama on more than 20 occasions assured the American people that they could keep their existing health care coverage and their present doctor – and still save $2,500 a year per family. He knew those fables were absolutely untrue when he repeated them serially in the reelection cycle of 2012.
Yet Obama has not faced any of the fallout of the sort that greeted his predecessors, even as the wreckage of the Affordable Care Act will affect the health of Americans in ways that transcend taxes or Oval Office sex.
Instead, the healthcare falsity – in the manner that the NSA disclosures were just more of the same old IRS and AP scandals – joins a litany of other untruths: the constant insistence that the Benghazi deaths were due to a video, dissimulation about ending the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, the closing of Guantanamo, the "summer of recovery" after the stimulus, halving the national debt by the end of the first term, and the promised plunge in unemployment.
Again – so what that the president does not tell the truth?
In addition to his multiple scandals and serial lying, the public is also indifferent to his incompetence. Lying is not just what should sink Obamacare. Instead, its premises – young people will rush to sign up for something at higher costs that they rarely use to subsidize those who pay less and use it a lot, along with more coverage for more people at less cost – are contrary to basic logic.
Obamacare is the domestic bookend to the Syria foreign policy mess, where likewise the president made serial statements about red lines and game changers that were false, and never came clean about his own confusion.
After the invasion of Afghanistan, the growth of communism in Central America, the fall of the shah, the oil embargoes, and the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Jimmy Carter was entirely discredited as a world leader. Yet those fiascos pale in comparison to a failed reset, the Libya debacle, the Egyptian flip-flop, the Syria backdown, the latest Iranian deal, the alienation of Israel and the Gulf states, and rising tensions in the South China Sea.
As far as the law, what law? The president has established that he can nullify it by edict, even his own employer mandate and the statutory timetable of Obamacare. Federal immigration law has become a sort of Defense of Marriage Act non-statute.
In comparison, George Bush’s meek "signing statements" caused a liberal uproar and drew the ire of constitutional law lecturer Barack Obama. Do we remember the liberal outrage back then of a Sen. Dianne Feinstein? (In 2006, the San Francisco Democrat said, "If the president is going to have the power to nullify all or part of a statute, it should only be through veto authority that the president has authorized and can reject – rather than through a unilateral action taken outside the structures of our democracy.")
So why are the Obama polls still at about a 40% approval rating? In a word, President Obama is not to be judged by traditional criteria. At some point as a candidate in 2008 he achieved iconic status, which has made him immune from presidential audit.
As the first non-white president, Obama’s trajectory was not just seen as positive for the United States, but also his potential failure was feared as a collective setback. Obama brilliantly threaded the racial needle, serially reestablishing his fides as a minority candidate by weighing in unnecessarily in the Professor Gates psychodrama and the Trayvon Martin case, while offering soaring boilerplate about a racially blind and united America.
The result was counter-intuitive: blacks, for example, could vote in unprecedented numbers on the basis of shared racial solidarity, while millions of whites who might be skeptical of his preparation, experience, and competence likewise could fixate on race: Obama’s presidency was good for the stability of the country or at least allowed them to feel good about soothing racial tensions while having to change little in their own lives.
Second, Obama changed the criteria of judging the presidency. Now it was not a question of performance but of intent, not of deeds but of words, not of a record but of an agenda. In this regard, Obama sized up the American electorate. He saw it not just as a red/blue or Republican/Democrat divide, but rather as an entire host of mini-antagonisms. An us/them boilerplate could be demagogued onto each of these divides, and thereby achieve a 51% majority consensus.
Gay marriage was not an issue in 2008, at least in the sense that Barack Obama opposed it. By 2012, civil unions and pledges of nondiscrimination were passé. Suddenly whether one supported gays marrying in the exact fashion as heterosexuals made him hip or homophobic.
Solyndra and its epigones were failures. Keystone probably would save fuel and prevent accidents. Greater natural gas production from federal lands would reduce air pollution. Global warming is a legitimate debate, given the lack of planet heating in the last 15 years. No matter: "wind, solar and millions of green jobs" sloganeering made some into Neanderthal polluters while others could become cool greens.
Young people were decimated by the Obama agenda from massive borrowing, static growth, and serial 7%+ unemployment. Again, so what? In this new divide, the properly cool were more likely for abortion on demand and free contraceptives, and were cozy with rappers and hipsters; others were bitter old fogies.
Then there’s the New Racism. In 2008 and 2012 the word "old" flooded the airwaves and the web in association with "white." In this new trumped-up war, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and good whites were opposed to the virtual neo-confederates who clung to the vestiges of unwarranted privilege. Old was supposed to be tantamount to "in the way."
The one percenters were to be cut off from the 99%. It did not matter again that America’s most affluent counties voted typically for blue candidates, or that Obama raised more one-percenter money than any previous candidate.
In this old war between rich and poor, there was also a new Obama wrinkle: the good rich who lived in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, who were generous like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and the old bad rich who trafficked in carbon fuels and ran casinos like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson.
In other words, only with Obama could you be rich and good at the same time, like a grandee of the Middle Ages who might safely maintain his keep and bailey by purchasing his exemptions from the local Church potentate.
Obama captivated the media in a way that trumped even the old JFK/Camelot fixation. Even their present and temporary partial disenchantment will soon pass, given that it arises not from true anger at or a sense of betrayal by Obama, but only from passing embarrassment that it is not wise to continue to act as state megaphones when the president’s approval polls temporarily hover at 40%.
With Obama for the first time since the era of FDR, the liberal media envisioned a presidential candidate who was an ideological warrior and yet at last had a chance to win, due to his youth, charisma, and race. For the media, they saw an opportunity that would not be seen again in their lifetimes.
To pursue Benghazi or the IRS scandal or to investigate the text of Obamacare in 2010 was somehow to set back race relations, the environment, the 99% and all those who had claims against the traditional conservative hierarchy.
Finally, Mitt Romney was naïve but not wrong in invoking the 47% barrier. Republicans keep whining about the unsustainable debt, the out-of-control expansions of food stamps and disability insurance, the need for tax reform, and the disaster of Obamacare.
But disaster for whom?
Do those who pay no federal income tax want the present exemption "reformed"? Does the half on federal support worry about the cost? Will those who receive redistributed health care object?
For the half who are not paying income taxes and are likely to received federal redistribution, "they" – the rich, the polluters, the racists, the homophobes, the sexists, the nativists, the old guys – will have to worry about paying the debt.
Obama is a sort of payback for our sins. And if the only way to force the privileged to pony up what they owe is to borrow huge sums of money, then so be it and let those who deserve to pay it back one day pay it back.
In short, judging Obama on what he achieves is about as helpful as evaluating Miley Cyrus on her dancing ability, or Kanye West on his poetic talent, or Kim Kardashian on her acting prowess. A totem need not be real. It only requires a "suspension of disbelief."
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest of many books is The Savior Generals.