The magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it.
Not long ago Barack Obama, for those who were spellbound by him, had the stylishness of JFK and the historic mission of FDR riding to the nation’s rescue. Now it is to Lyndon B. Johnson’s unhappy presidency that Democratic strategist Robert Shrum compares the stewardship of Mr. Obama. Johnson, wrote Mr. Shrum in the Week magazine last month, never “sustained an emotional link with the American people” and chose to escalate a war that “forced his abdication as president.”
A broken link with the public, and a war in Afghanistan he neither embraces and sells to his party nor abandons—this is a time of puzzlement for President Obama. His fall from political grace has been as swift as his rise a handful of years ago. He had been hot political property in 2006 and, of course, in 2008. But now he will campaign for his party’s 2010 candidates from afar, holding fund raisers but not hitting the campaign trail in most of the contested races. Those mass rallies of Obama frenzy are surely of the past.
The vaunted Obama economic stimulus, at $862 billion, has failed. The “progressives” want to double down, and were they to have their way, would have pushed for a bigger stimulus still. But the American people are in open rebellion against an economic strategy of public debt, higher taxes and unending deficits. We’re not all Keynesians, it turns out. The panic that propelled Mr. Obama to the presidency has waned. There is deep concern, to be sure. But the Obama strategy has lost the consent of the governed.
Mr. Obama could protest that his swift and sudden fall from grace is no fault of his. He had been a blank slate, and the devotees had projected onto him their hopes and dreams. His victory had not been the triumph of policies he had enunciated in great detail. He had never run anything in his entire life. He had a scant public record, but oddly this worked to his advantage. If he was going to begin the world anew, it was better that he knew little about the machinery of government.
He pronounced on the American condition with stark, unalloyed confidence. He had little if any regard for precedents. He could be forgiven the thought that America’s faith in economic freedom had given way and that he had the popular writ to move the nation toward a super-regulated command economy. An “economic emergency” was upon us, and this would be the New New Deal.
There was no hesitation in the monumental changes Mr. Obama had in mind. The logic was Jacobin, the authority deriving from a perceived mandate to recast time-honored practices. It was veritably rule by emergency decrees. If public opinion displayed no enthusiasm for the overhaul of the nation’s health-care system, the administration would push on. The public would adjust in due time.
The nation may be ill at ease with an immigration reform bill that would provide some 12 million illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship, but the administration would still insist on the primacy of its own judgment. It would take Arizona to court, even though the public let it be known that it understood Arizona’s immigration law as an expression of that state’s frustration with the federal government’s abdication of its responsibility over border security.
It was clear as daylight that there was a built-in contradiction between opening the citizenship rolls to a vast flood of new petitioners and a political economy of redistribution favored by the Obama administration. The choice was stark: You could either “spread the wealth around” or open the gates for legalizing millions of immigrants of lower skills. You could not do both.
It was canonical to this administration and its functionaries that they were handed a broken nation, that it was theirs to repair, that it was theirs to tax and reshape to their preferences. Yet there was, in 1980, after another landmark election, a leader who had stepped forth in a time of “malaise” at home and weakness abroad: Ronald Reagan. His program was different from Mr. Obama’s. His faith in the country was boundless. What he sought was to restore the nation’s faith in itself, in its political and economic vitality.
Big as Reagan’s mandate was, in two elections, the man was never bigger than his county. There was never narcissism or a bloated sense of personal destiny in him. He gloried in the country, and drew sustenance from its heroic deeds and its capacity for recovery. No political class rode with him to power anxious to lay its hands on the nation’s treasure, eager to supplant the forces of the market with its own economic preferences.
To be sure, Reagan faltered midway through his second term—the arms-for-hostages trade, the Iran-Contra affair, nearly wrecked his presidency. But he recovered, the nation rallied around him and carried him across the finish line, his bond with the electorate deep and true. He had two years left of his stewardship, and his political recovery was so miraculous that he, and his first mate, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, would seal the nation’s victory in the Cold War.
There is little evidence that the Obama presidency could yet find new vindication, another lease on life. Mr. Obama will mark time, but henceforth he will not define the national agenda. He will not be the repository of its hopes and sentiments. The ambition that his would be a “transformational” presidency—he rightly described Reagan’s stewardship in these terms—is for naught.
There remains the fact of his biography, a man’s journey. Personality is doubtless an obstacle to his recovery. The detachment of Mr. Obama need not be dwelled upon at great length, so obvious it is now even to the pundits who had a “tingling sensation” when they beheld him during his astonishing run for office. Nor does Mr. Obama have the suppleness of Bill Clinton, who rose out of the debris of his first two years in the presidency, dusted himself off, walked away from his spouse’s radical attempt to remake the country’s health-delivery system, and moved to the political center.
It is in the nature of charisma that it rises out of thin air, out of need and distress, and then dissipates when the magic fails. The country has had its fill with a scapegoating that knows no end from a president who had vowed to break with recriminations and partisanship. The magic of 2008 can’t be recreated, and good riddance to it. Slowly, the nation has recovered its poise. There is a widespread sense of unstated embarrassment that a political majority, if only for a moment, fell for the promise of an untested redeemer—a belief alien to the temperament of this so practical and sober a nation.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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