President Barack Obama is more exasperated than ever as polls dip, critics multiply, and none of his massive borrowing seems to jump start a stalled economy. He seems bewildered that House Republicans did not immediately agree to his tax increases proposals, and confused over why his serial calls for civility are noted—but quickly forgotten. Obama is also perplexed that businesses—in theory flush with cash after massive layoffs and budget trimming—do not listen when he presses them to start hiring. He cannot quite fathom why his conservative critics do not fully appreciate his achievement of eliminating Osama bin Laden. And the more he now talks about illegal immigration, the wackier fly his metaphors and the edgier the slurs. What happened to the legendary Obama, the "god" whom Newsweek deified in 2008, and who was declared the "smartest" president ever by historian Michael Beschloss?
In a word, the president is discovering that Barack Obama is now at war with Barack Obama. It is not just that the public has fathomed that what Obama says one day will change the next. It is more troublesome than that: Americans are catching on that what Obama now insists is true usually proves at odds with what Obama once asserted. So the nation is insidiously tuning him out—a novel and annoying experience for the president, who heretofore had received little criticism over his habitual inconsistencies and had assumed his formidable powers of rhetoric and his own landmark heritage would trump any scrutiny from nit-picky critics.
In the recent debt discussions, Obama insisted on "balance": he was to play the role of the great compromiser in the middle who would choose the sober and judicious course between unreasonable Tea Party ideologues and fossilized Pelosi liberals. But how can he sound credible about the recklessness of not authorizing a higher debt ceiling when he himself voted not to raise it in 2006—when the aggregate debt was roughly half of what it is now? In 2007 and 2008, Obama did not even show up to the votes for authorizing a higher ceiling.
But more importantly still, Obama has proposed three budgets that ran up nearly $5 trillion in new debt. He submitted a record deficit budget for 2012 that no one in the Senate—Democrats included—could go on the record voting for. His critics assert, as even his supporters wince, that the biggest deficit spender in the history of presidential administration can hardly talk credibly now about the need for higher revenue and taxes to pay for his own profligacy. It is almost as if Obama 3.0 is saying, "Please, by no means act as President Obama 2.0 did between 2009-2011, or as Senator Obama 1.0 did from 2006-2008."
What happened to the legendary Obama, the "god" whom Newsweek deified in 2008?
On a regular basis, the president gives a well-meaning sermon on civility and the need to curb harsh rhetoric in promoting bipartisanship. But here too he is increasingly tuned out. After all, senator, candidate, and President Obama compiled the most partisan voting record in the U.S. Senate in 2007—to the left of self-described socialist Bernie Sanders and more consistently partisan than arch-conservative Jim DeMint. President Obama now deplores filibusters; Senator Obama filibustered an up or down vote on nominees like Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and John Bolton to a U.S. ambassadorship.
Obama brought a Chicago-style, hard edge to presidential rhetoric. He accused budget opponents of abandoning children suffering from autism and Down's syndrome. Adversaries on taxes and the debt were no less than "hostage takers," who engaged in "hand to hand combat." Obama even suggested of AIG executives that they were veritable terrorists: "They’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger." The "terrorist" smear was recently picked up House Democrats and even Vice President Biden during the debt ceiling negotiations.
Once upon a time, Obama urged his supporters that they not act calmly, but that they, in fact, get angry: "I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry!" To Republicans, he boasted that they could come along for the ride, but would have to sit in the proverbial back seat. All of his them vs. us polarizing talk was the natural extension of his 2008 campaign invectives—such as when he ridiculed the "clingers" of Pennsylvania, called on his supporters to confront his opponents and "get in their faces," and, at one point, even boasted, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun." This is not to mention his cast-off jokes about Nancy Reagan and the Special Olympics, which were tacky and crass. So listening now to President Obama on bipartisan civility evokes a natural response, "But why then were you the senate’s most partisan member, and why all the violent metaphors of guns, knives, bombs, and so forth?"
Presidents can get away with opportunistic revision on one or maybe two key topics, but not on nearly all of them.
President Obama is so angered that the private sector is not hiring that he dispatched his in-house CEO Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric to jawbone corporate heads to go out create new jobs. But why should they? Obama reversed the order of the Chrysler creditors when the government took over the company. His own National Labor Relations Board is currently trying to shut down a nearly complete Boeing aircraft plant. And "kick ass" was the sort of language he used in reference to British Petroleum after the gulf oil spill.
At various times, Obama has philosophized about spreading the wealth and redistributive change. He recently mused that he was confused why he should not pay higher taxes on income that he did not need, and why some of the more clueless American taxpayers did not know that at some point they had made enough money. A year into his presidency, he reintroduced the depression-era slur "fat cat" bankers, and during the 2008 campaign, he advocated for higher capital gains taxes, even if the result would be reduced aggregate federal revenue. "Fairness," he said, not government income, was the issue.
For nearly three years, Obama’s speeches on fiscal policy emphasized the new divide between the empathetic middle classes who make less than $200,000 per year and those who selfishly seek more—and thus are somehow morally suspect and should alone pay higher taxes on their unneeded income. "Corporate jets" and "millionaires and billionaires" are promiscuously lumped in with those earning above $200,000 in annual income, as if the two groups were synonymous and equally duty bound to pay higher taxes. So how can Obama reduce the unemployment rate to below 9.2 percent, given his past deprecations of business and the job-hiring affluent, coupled with his record of new regulations and rules that favor unions and shut down businesses? At this late stage it proves difficult for Obama to coax those whom he once so gratuitously offended and went after.
Obama has lost the debate over illegal immigration.
The president’s undeniable achievement in killing Osama bin Laden resulted only in a temporary bounce in popularity that has now completely dissipated. Why? Many reasons perhaps, but surely a contributing factor was once again the confusion over his prior harsh rhetoric blasting the so-called war on terror. At one time or another, senator and then presidential candidate Barack Obama damned as ineffective or unconstitutional the Bush-era Guantanamo Bay detention facility, renditions, tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, predator drone targeted assassinations, preventative detention, and the war in Iraq. But as president, he has embraced or expanded all of these policies. That begs the question: are these protocols important in ridding the world of the likes of bin Laden, or are they, as Obama once argued, of little use and of questionable legality? In the case of bin Laden, did we wage a new politically correct "overseas contingency operation" against a perpetrator of "man-caused disasters," or did we simply employ time-proven protocols from a once derided administration? Would Senator Obama have damned President Obama’s war on terror protocols?
Finally, Obama has lost the debate over illegal immigration--his calls for bipartisan efforts to craft a "comprehensive" reform package have gone nowhere. It is easy once more to see why. Opponents of open borders were derided as those who would arrest parents and children on their way to the ice cream shop, and who would enlist alligators and moats to fortify the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, the president erroneously claimed that the one-third completed border fence was "basically completed." Most notoriously, Latinos were asked by the president to vote in bloc with him in order to "punish our enemies" at the polls.
But most inexplicably of all, a newly elected Barack Obama once enjoyed a supermajority in the Senate and a large majority in the House—enough to ram down any immigration bill he so wished in the fashion that he passed his health care bill. Yet from 2009 to 2010 Obama did nothing at all on this front when he had the power to act. Later, when he lost his majority in the House, he blamed his opponents for obstructing him. The result is that to pass any future immigration bill, Obama will now have to reach out across the aisle to those he smeared, while explaining to his own base that he is now right to seek bipartisan compromise, but was wrong in the past when he could have passed his bill on a simple up or down vote.
In short, Barack Obama has lost credibility because on any given issue, his most recent declaration—delivered with the now familiar emphatic qualifiers, "let’s be honest," "make no mistake about it," "let me be perfectly clear"—will be seen as contrary to what senator, candidate, or president Obama had earlier asserted. Presidents can get away with such opportunistic revision on one or maybe two key topics, but not on nearly all of them. The reason Obama is slipping in the polls is not due to the Tea Party, the Republicans in the House, House Speaker John Boehner, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—but because of his own doppelganger, who at various times is the greatest critic of none other than the latest incarnation of Barack Obama.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-one books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book, The Savior Generals, will appear in 2013. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.