The Obama Watch

Romancing the Stone

Obama's outreach to independent voters who hate big government but like the idea of a black president.

By 5.27.11

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Oh, for the good old days -- when Barack Obama was forced to defend his policies; when he couldn't stop himself from lashing out at his political opponents. Today he is happy to float above the fray -- ignoring any and all criticism and, indeed, openly borrowing from the vocabulary of his critics as he espouses a new-found love of liberty, free enterprise, and Western civilization.

If there is one thing our president cannot abide, it is being lectured to by someone else. What sweet release, then, to jet over to Europe, escaping the need for being on the receiving end of a second lecture from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the U.S. Congress on Tuesday. Just a few days before that, Netanyahu had publicly taken Obama to task in the Oval Office, telling the president that his plan for a return to Israel's 1967 borders was a "non-starter." This was said with his eyes fixed on the president and the cameras rolling.

Netanyahu's address to the joint session of Congress was a rousing success -- with no fewer than 56 standing ovations. By contrast, Obama's address to the British Houses of Parliament a day later was a pallid affair, with only a smattering of polite applause for what the Telegraph described as "a series of orotund banalities."

But no matter from the president's perspective. His important task now is to try to persuade a majority of the independent voters in the U.S. who supported him in 2008 that he is, after all, the "post-partisan politician" that he promised to be when he was running in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton.

That is something, apparently, that many Americans still want to believe.

Shelby Steele made several telling observations along this line in an op-ed ("Obama's Unspoken Re-Election Edge") in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. He wrote:

There have really always been two Barack Obamas: the mortal man and the cultural icon. If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth…

What gives Mr. Obama a cultural charisma that most Republicans cannot have? First, he represents a truly inspiring American exceptionalism: He is the first black in the entire history of Western civilization to lead a Western nation -- and the most powerful nation in the world at that…

He literally validates the American democratic experience, if not the broader Enlightenment that gave birth to it. 

To put all that in a cruder way, Steele's observations recall George W. Bush's line about the "soft bigotry of low expectations." If Steele is right, many voters -- along with most of Obama's Republican political rivals for the presidency -- are restrained by political correctness from harsher and more telling criticism of his mediocre or worse track record as a president.

Certainly, in the 18 months remaining before the next general election, it will not be hard for Obama to project a far better image to independent voters than he did in the first two years of his presidency, when he committed himself to an epic and disastrous increase in federal spending and U.S. indebtedness. He is therefore to blame for the weakest recovery from any recession since the end of World War II. To add insult to injury, he ineptly embarked upon an "apology" tour of foreign nations that seemed to be squarely aimed at doing everything possible to placate, or appease, long-standing U.S. enemies, while offending many of our staunchest allies -- beginning with Britain and Israel.

Barack Obama no longer has to run against George W. Bush to pick up some or all brownie points that he lost with independent voters during his first two years in office. All he has to do is to run against the Barack Obama of 2009/2010 -- sounding, by contrast, a bit more like George W., or even Ronald Reagan.

Obama's recent address at Westminster was filled with commonplace utterances that were only remarkable because he said them -- no doubt partly with the intent of providing some comfort food to independent voters back in the U.S. The speech included the following elements:

• Endless repetition of importance of the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain -- which seemed to count for nothing back in the midst of the BP oil spill, less than 12 months ago.

• Repeated references to the notion that the "longing for human liberty is universal" -- which Obama and others on the left scoffed at during his two years in office… describing it as another one of George W.'s deluded ideas which failed to take account of the diversity of human cultures.

• An encomium to the idea that Western civilization had produced the ideas that are now allowing other nations including India and China to flourish and raise hundreds of millions of their people out of poverty.

• A rhetorical fealty to liberty and free enterprise as the real drivers of progress and change.

Obama went so far as to praise Adam Smith for the introduction of "market principles" and to cite Britain's Industrial Revolution (think of all of those factories belching CO2 and worst pollutants) as one of the great benchmarks in human progress.

It may seem to some people that the president can afford to speak in this way because of the additional support he has garnered as a result of the killing of Osama bin Laden. An even bigger factor, I believe, has been the sudden liquefaction of the Wicked Witch of the (American) West.

Probably nothing has done more in the way of clearing a path for Obama to reconnect with a goodly portion of independent voters than the demise of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Of course, that came about as a result of the midterm elections last November which gave the Republicans control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Purely as a result of that, the president is no longer joined by leg irons to someone who is almost universally despised outside of the hard or loony left. This truly is an addition by subtraction from his viewpoint.

Of course, Obama is also in the fortunate position of no longer being expected to pass any sort of significant legislation in the remainder of his current term in office. Clearly, he is using that as a further excuse for not having to pay any attention to the pressing issue of bringing government spending back under control or doing anything serious about entitlement reform.

As Shelby Steele suggested, for Republicans to counter Obama's evasiveness and opacity at this point in the electoral cycle they must be willing to put his record under the buzz-saw of real criticism. To quote the final words in Steele's essay:

Lastly, there must be a Republican message of social exceptionalism. America has more social mobility than any heterogeneous society in history. Isn't there a great Republican opportunity to be had in urging minorities to at least move out of their long era of protest -- in which militancy toward the very society they struggled to join was the way ahead: Aren't Republicans uniquely positioned to offer minorities a liberation from both dependency and militancy?

.… The theme: Barack Obama believes in government; we believe in you.

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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.