Because people (even Christians) often have varied opinions and outlooks on political issues, we thought we’d give both Ben Bartlett and Adam Carrington a chance to write a political-year-in-review article for 2009. You may want to read Ben Bartlett’s post, to which much of this post is responding, first.
Ben’s analysis of politics in the past year provides good material from which to respond and to speak about other issues of the 2009 year in politics. Some of it I agreed with, some I did not. I wish, therefore, to take up the discussion of President Obama’s first year and what it might mean going forward. He really forms the fulcrum of political discussion as both President and a person. The Tea Parties, rise of Talk Radio, and the struggles of the Republican Party also formed great points of interest in ’09. Grassroots movements void of direct party control took the lead in opposing Democratic hegemony. Finally, I hope to put my neck on the line with a quick, short set of predictions for the coming year. Things seem much less clear as to power and position than they did a year ago.
President Obama – More a Professor than a Pragmatist
The Obama Administration certainly arrived with the highest of expectations. He was the savior of the economy, American dignity, and all who were left out of the American Dream. Therefore, falling short of expectations was to be expected.
How short should realistic expectations judge him? On the policy front, President Obama has managed to disenchant most of the country, depending on what issue is discussed. Liberals are furious over his escalating the war in Afghanistan and his seemingly slow movement on the issue of gay marriage. Conservatives resent his support for Congress’s health care reform, his increasing of the national debt beyond any President in history, and his cap and trade policy.
None of these should be a surprise. President Obama pledged to do all of these things in some form. Those moderates and independents experiencing buyers’ remorse paid too much attention to his moderate demeanor and not enough to his agenda.
What has proven more surprising has been President Obama’s ability to persuade and lead. This year has shown him to be a mediocre persuader at best. The more he speaks about health care, the lower the poll numbers go against him. Several times this year he has called for national addresses to attempt to quell opposition and regain the upper hand. Such a move would make sense; his rhetorical skills, after all, are his strongest point. Yet one cannot lead merely by rhetoric. President Obama’s overexposure of himself in part led to the precipitous drop in his support both personally and for his policies.
The lack of effective rhetoric does not merely rest in overexposure; President Obama thus far lacks the ability to lead in other intangible ways that do not involve television cameras and a teleprompter. Every major bill he has thus far sent to Congress has quickly gotten out of hand. The stimulus package, supposedly banned from any pork, became a glutton’s dream of special interest handouts targeted toward congressman hungry for electoral security. President Obama did little to address this problem as the bill progressed and signed it despite meaningless comments about its deficiencies. A President normally works as an organizing force for his party in the House and Senate. On this issue, as with health care, the President seems pulled along for the ride.
President Obama’s lack of leadership seems to stem from both a dearth of experience and his personal demeanor. The President had zero executive experience coming into the Oval Office and not much formal political background, either. His demeanor is one more suited to a law professor (which he at one point was) than the executive officer of the world’s most powerful nation.
He also needs to adjust his demeanor if his leadership results are to improve. Attacking opposition as merely stupid or evil will not work. Always blaming problems on previous Administrations or apologizing for America abroad also have been problematic. Nor will petty attacks on Fox News work, something well below Presidential dignity. In short, President Obama has been flat-out petty and not a little self-absorbed. Such ways of acting will not make you an effective leader.
For me, the absence of effective governing was the biggest surprise of the last year. I thought President Obama’s skills would produce much greater success. It could be just beginner’s mistakes but he needs to learn on the job quickly if he plans to keep it in three years.
Therefore, President Obama seems less the pragmatist Ben describes and more confused. I doubt it stems from confusion in his own political thought. Instead, it comes from leading like a professor and not like a President.
Tea Parties and Radio Talk Shows
The growth of the Tea Party movement exposed problems within both major political parties. The Democrats made the classic mistake of misreading their mandate. They believed their electoral victories in 2006 and 2008 revealed an America moving decidedly to the Left. The new Progressive era was upon us and they must willingly obey its call for more expansive government.
The Tea Parties formed part of refuting this analysis. The political middle of America—those who decide elections—did not move to the Left in any fundamental manner. They are not ideologues, hard-core conservatives or liberals. Instead, they are mostly mildly engaged pragmatists. They seek effective leadership and workable answers to their problems. Republicans in the last two election cycles were deemed incompetent, and with good reason. They, therefore, were thrown out and the Democrats given a chance to govern. Yet Democrats inability to see this as the main reason for their election has led them to act in ways that already puts their majorities at risk. Instead of pragmatic moves, they have run with a religious zeal toward huge changes in our economy with mostly condescending disdain for any opposition. Opponents were racists, money-grabbers, evil, stupid, or rednecks—usually anything but principled but different opposition. If they keep it up, they will face huge trouble in 2010.
The Tea Parties and the huge rise of radio talk also exposed weakness within the Republican Party. Republicans, battered in the last two elections, were a party unsure of itself and woefully lacking national leadership or direction. They therefore could not form a coherent political opposition to President Obama. Enter, then, the Tea Party movement, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. These and other movements/personalities like them tapped into a vision different from liberal Democrats by pushing for liberty instead of security and by playing up the populist/elitist divide. The Democrats were painted as the Ivy League elite, disdainful of the people. Beck and Limbaugh tapped into this populist pride with great success, accompanied by the Tea Partiers whose essential argument is opposition to greater government in the name of fiscal responsibility and freedom of choice. They did so with a flair for entertainment, making them huge successes who often fell into the same rhetorical traps as their liberal opposition. Michael Savage and Keith Olbermann were the worst offenders on the Left and Right, and thankfully some semblance of civility remained in less extreme examples.
In contrast to Ben, I don’t see any of these marginalizing themselves. They will become less of the face of conservatism as the Republican Party rebuilds. As that happens, these groups and persons will maintain their ability to organize and motivate the conservative base. However, it will be elected Republicans who form the front and unite conservatives with moderates, as Bob McDonell did so well in Virginia. Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia this November already show a new crop of GOP leaders who are slowly finding how to communicate a conservative message to a new generation. Further, the intellectual wing of conservatism will also look to regroup as it gets over its Ronald Reagan hangover and the loss of founding giants like Bill Buckley.
Democrats suffer severe setbacks in the mid-term elections, though they maintain their majorities in Congress. Republicans win less because of who they are as opposed to who they’re not (much like 2006 in reverse). President Obama will have to wait till 2011 to find a stride, if he ever does. Issues of Health Care, fiscal responsibility, and the economy continue to dominate.