In his victory speech in 2008 then President Elect Obama said that that night represented the first step in the fundamental transformation of America. To conservative ears this was an odd statement. If one loves something, why is their first instinct to fundamentally transform it? Change is inevitable and sometimes even desirable but transformation?
True to his word the President has worked to transform the country. The number of people on public assistance has shot up during his two terms and stimulus spending saved favored public sector jobs. Mitt Romney’s 2012 comment about 47% of the population receiving some sort of assistance from the government and the reaction to it illustrated the difficulty that politicians will face in the future when they propose cutting social spending programs. A population with a large plurality dependent on social programs will be much more likely to side with the party that maintains or expands benefits.
The rule of law has also been weakened during the past eight years. During the auto bailout secured bond holders for Chrysler and General Motors were supposed to be at the head of the line in the coming bankruptcy process. Instead they lost everything when they were passed over when the administration ‘bailed out‘ the auto makers and gave the unions control of the companies. This affected bond markets where investors would be more reluctant to invest if the government could swoop in and disposes them on a whim.
In response to the surge of Tea Party groups the Internal Revenue Service slowed or denied applications for non-profit status for those groups or asked them intrusive questions about their donors and processes. Even after this was discovered the IRS continues its stalling tactics against conservative groups. Worse still is what rabid Democrats almost pulled off in Wisconsin. A series of ‘John Doe’ investigations were used to target supporters of Republican governor Scott Walker. From National Review:
“For dozens of conservatives, the years since Scott Walker’s first election as governor of Wisconsin transformed the state — known for pro-football championships, good cheese, and a population with a reputation for being unfailingly polite — into a place where conservatives have faced early-morning raids, multi-year secretive criminal investigations, slanderous and selective leaks to sympathetic media, and intrusive electronic snooping.”
The stuff of police states, in one of the most polite states in the union, courtesy of the Democratic party.
With his attempted amnesty, the President has also worked to naturalize new Democrat voters.
But something is wrong with this picture. Is Obama a change agent or, like in so much of his presidency, is he a trailing indicator? Is he ‘leading from behind?’
It was a given that Obama would win in 2008. The relentless drumbeat from the press against President Bush and Republicans during the previous eight years had an effect on voters. Iraq, on its way to being won, was deemed a quagmire by the media. The economy, recovered after the twin shocks of 9/11 and the bust of the tech bubble in 2001, stumbled again during the mortgage crisis. John McCain discovered, but did not learn, that the left loves a maverick Republican. They just don’t love him enough to support him when it counts. As George Will commented before that election, if the Democrats could not win that time, they were finished as a national party.
Obama also had novelty on his side. He was young and the first black candidate for President from a major party. His oratory was meaningless but sounded impressive. Some people were enthralled by the idea of electing a black President. They thought it would show how far the country had come from the discrimination minorities had faced in the past.
Obama entered office with very high approval ratings and good will and proceeded to squander most of it.
He messed around with race. Before he was elected he mocked white people in Pennsylvania as losers who cling to their guns and their Bibles. After he entered office the Cambridge police “acted stupidly,” when they detained one of his friends. Then, if he’d had a son he would have looked like Trayvon [Martin]. In the final weeks of his re-election campaign when Joe Biden told a black audience that Republicans were “going to put y’all back in chains.” Obama did not rebuke his running mate. The state of race relations deteriorated in large part due to the President’s actions.
On the economy the President was similarly lackluster. Deep recessions normally produce steep recoveries. Performance of the economy by the time of the 2012 election was disappointing. Unemployement was down from its earlier peak but that had as much to do with people leaving the workforce as finding work.
Democrats managed to pass the Affordable Care Act through Congress without bipartisan support and with bipartisan opposition.
Bipartisanship was not high on the President’s list of priorities. In early meetings with Republican lawmakers he was dismissive of their complaints. From Politico:
President Obama listened to Republican gripes about his stimulus package during a meeting with congressional leaders Friday morning – but he also left no doubt about who’s in charge of these negotiations. “I won,” Obama noted matter-of-factly, according to sources familiar with the conversation.
In foreign policy the only thing approaching success – on the President’s terms – was the withdrawl from Iraq. He had promised that he would end Bush’s war and he did. We now know that some of the most dire predictions would be proven true but that would not be a factor in 2012. The Arab Spring produced a series of revolutions that toppled friendly and neutral governments and replace them with hostile Islamist ones. Four Americans lost their lives after a Muslim mob sacked a US diplomatic post in Libya on September 11, 2012. A film maker was blamed for inciting the violence and the incident was swept under the rug so as to not be a factor in the election.
By any measure, an economy that is down and sputtering, intrusive and unpopular legislation passed over the objection of the citizens, a lack of civility towards the opposition party, deteriorating race relations, and foreign policy disasters, would have doomed any prior President running for re-election. So how did Obama win a second term by a comfortable margin?
Is it possible that Obama has not so much changed America to make it friendlier for Democrats as America has already drifted in that direction?
Obama may be accelerating the process but he is clearly a beneficiary of changes underway before he entered the Oval Office. He is again leading from behind.