As they prepare to make a serious case for his replacement in 2012, Barack Obama’s conservative critics need to decide: is the president radical – or more of the same?
At the moment, prominent commentators on the right offer two largely contradictory lines of attack. On the one hand, they suggest that Mr. Obama is an extremist ideologue, far outside the political mainstream, diabolically determined to impose an alien agenda on an unwilling populace. On the other, they describe him as a standard issue tax-and-spend liberal, pandering to the traditional Democratic interest groups with big-government initiatives that have failed the Republic time and again.
Of course, it’s possible to identify elements in the president’s political personality to support both characterizations. But whatever the dual, divided nature of Obama’s carefully crafted public image, it’s crucial for two reasons that conservatives emphasize the conventional, tired aspect of his approach rather than stressing those elements that make him an exceptional and distinctly dangerous revolutionary. First, the former characterization is more accurate and applicable than the latter and, second, it’s far more likely to resonate with voters.
Those who insist that Barack Obama represents a decisive break with Democratic orthodoxy should confront an important challenge: try to name any significant decision by this president that would have been impossible for Hillary Clinton?
Sure, Obamacare counts as an ill-conceived disaster but the failed Hillarycare proposals of 1993 involved more sweeping changes in the national economy – as did proposed “National Health Care” schemes promoted by every major Democrat since Harry Truman. In foreign policy, he’s followed a patient, orderly transition in Iraq (as recommended by Hillary Clinton and, yes, George W. Bush), sent more than 30,000 re-enforcements (and General Petraeus) to Afghanistan, and even kept Guantanamo open (despite his campaign promises).
Despite the endlessly repeated charge that “he’s filled the government with Marxists,” the president’s cabinet and White House inner circle feature Wall Street insiders and veteran Democratic hacks, not activist rabble-rousers from the leftist fringe. These various advisors and department heads hardly amount to a dazzling constellation of executive genius, but it’s far more appropriate to identify them as stuffy establishmentarians, not bold revolutionaries.
And what of the notorious Van Jones, the one-time White House aide exposed by Glenn Beck as a true radical with a stormy Stalinist past? Actually, Mr. Jones’ laughably amorphous job (“Special Advisor for Green Jobs”) hardly amounted to a decisive position in government, and he held that exalted post for less than six months before being forced to resign. Meanwhile, the president has also broken decisively with dubious and fanatical former pals from Chicago days (including, most notably Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright), who haven’t been welcomed to the White House and have spoken out harshly against Obama.
Following the administration’s extension of Bush tax cuts, efforts to rebuild relations with the business community, the veto of a key anti-Israel resolution at the UN, and hints of compromise with Republican efforts to slash spending, portraying Obama as a wild-eyed, rage-filled America-hating radical not only seems implausible but strategically ill-advised—inadvertently helping the Democrats defend themselves from their greatest vulnerability in 2012.
Other than the sour state of the economy, the most conspicuous failure of the Obama team involves its abject failure to deliver hope-and-change—to usher in the promised fresh tone and new politics in Washington. Examination of the actual record proves that the administration practices business as usual, with all its corruption and horribly wasteful spending, not systemic transformation of any kind. In order to defeat the president in his drive for re-election, Republicans need not convince the public that he’s driven the country toward Soviet-style tyranny (or in any other novel direction); it’s enough for conservatives to show that he’s recycled the stale, dysfunctional approaches of Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and the free-spending, irresponsible Democratic governors who recently led a dozen states to the edge of bankruptcy.
Over the last two years, conservative anger at perceived arrogance and incompetence by this administration has produced a “kitchen sink” approach to White House criticism, with opponents simultaneously blasting the president as exceptional in his radicalism, and conventional and predictable in his attachment to liberal nostrums of the past. It makes little sense to try to have it both ways, when it’s both easier and more accurate to aim at the administration’s indisputably disappointing performance in delivering “change you can believe in,” and its reflexive recycling of familiar, fatuous big government agendas that deserve the same decisive rejection they received in 1980, ’84, ‘94 –and 2010.