Charles Murray wonders what the Obama Administration thinks it’s doing.
The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously said after Nixonâ€™s landslide reelection, â€œHow can he have won? Nobody I know voted for him.â€ My proposition for today is that the entire White House suffers from the Kael syndrome.
It was the only explanation I could think of as I watched the news last night about the coming prosecution of CIA interrogators. When it comes to political analysis, Iâ€™m no Barone or Bowman or Ornstein, but this is not a really tough call. Attempts to put men on trial who obtained information that most Americans will believe (probably rightly) saved the nation from more terrorist attacks will be a political catastrophe, all the more so because I bet that the defendants will come across as straight-arrow good guys (and probably are), while the prosecutors come across as self-righteous wimps (andâ€¦). How could the White House not have thought this through? …
(E)very white socioeconomic class in America has become more conservative in the last four decades, with the Traditional Middles moving the most decisively rightward. But the Intellectual Uppers have not just moved slightly in the other direction, they have careened in the other direction.
They won the election with a candidate who sounded centrist running against an exceptionally weak Republican opponent. But theyâ€™ve been in the bubble too long. They really think that the rest of America thinks as they do. Nothing but the Pauline Kael syndrome can explain the political idiocy of letting Attorney General Eric Holder go after the interrogators.
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Meanwhile in the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami concludes that Barack Obama’s moment has passed. Health Care Reform finished it. Barack Obama is definitely not Ronald Reagan, and the American people who gambled on his governing as a centrist are gradually coming to recognize his real agenda and are growing increasingly frightened and appalled.
In one of the revealing moments of the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama rightly observed that the Reagan presidency was a transformational presidency in a way Clinton’s wasn’t. And by that Reagan precedent, that Reagan standard, the faults of the Obama presidency are laid bare. Ronald Reagan, it should be recalled, had been swept into office by a wave of dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter and his failures. At the core of the Reagan mission was the recovery of the nation’s esteem and self-regard. Reagan was an optimist. He was Hollywood glamour to be sure, but he was also Peoria, Ill. His faith in the country was boundless, and when he said it was “morning in America” he meant it; he believed in America’s miracle and had seen it in his own life, in his rise from a child of the Depression to the summit of political power.
The failure of the Carter years was, in Reagan’s view, the failure of the man at the helm and the policies he had pursued at home and abroad. At no time had Ronald Reagan believed that the American covenant had failed, that America should apologize for itself in the world beyond its shores. There was no narcissism in Reagan. It was stirring that the man who headed into the sunset of his life would bid his country farewell by reminding it that its best days were yet to come.
In contrast, there is joylessness in Mr. Obama. He is a scold, the “Yes we can!” mantra is shallow, and at any rate, it is about the coming to power of a man, and a political class, invested in its own sense of smarts and wisdom, and its right to alter the social contract of the land. In this view, the country had lost its way and the new leader and the political class arrayed around him will bring it back to the right path.
Thus the moment of crisis would become an opportunity to push through a political economy of redistribution and a foreign policy of American penance. The independent voters were the first to break ranks. They hadn’t underwritten this fundamental change in the American polity when they cast their votes for Mr. Obama.
American democracy has never been democracy by plebiscite, a process by which a leader is anointed, then the populace steps out of the way, and the anointed one puts his political program in place. In the American tradition, the “mandate of heaven” is gained and lost every day and people talk back to their leaders. They are not held in thrall by them. The leaders are not infallible or a breed apart. That way is the Third World way, the way it plays out in Arab and Latin American politics.
Those protesters in those town-hall meetings have served notice that Mr. Obamaâ€™s charismatic moment has passed. Once again, the belief in that American exception that set this nation apart from other lands is re-emerging. Health care is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is an unease with the way the verdict of the 2008 election was read by those who prevailed. It shall be seen whether the man swept into office in the moment of national panic will adjust to the nationâ€™s recovery of its self-confidence.
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Barack Obama’s determination to govern de haute en bas, to impose on the rest of the country the ideological preferences of what Charles Murray calls the “Intellectual Upper,” really the community of fashion, places him in serious conflict with the uncommitted political center which gave him his margin of victory. Rather than giving Obama and the democrat party a mandate for Socialism and a blank check for revenge, the centrists mistakenly accepted Obama’s soft talk and tone of moderation. They voted for a calm and emollient presidency, desiring an end to the ideological furor of George W. Bush’s presidency. Barack Obama is fatally misinterpreting the voters’ message.