The Obama Watch

What Obama Fails to Understand

Americans had to mutiny to save the ship of state.

By 11.18.10

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Not two weeks after American voters handed historic victories in Congress and state capitals to Republicans who pledged to the last man to block the Obama agenda, President Obama said this of the newly empowered opposition party: "They are flush with victory after a campaign of just saying 'No.' But I'm sure the American people did not vote for more gridlock."

Alas, Things of Which Obama Is Sure and Things That Are True seldom overlap. If the American people's collective hopes on November 2 could be distilled into a single word, it would be "gridlock."

A CNN/Opinion Research poll the week after the election asked, "Do you think the Republican victories in the House races are more of a mandate for Republican policies or more a rejection of Democratic policies?" Seventy percent picked "rejection of Democratic policies." Exit polling showed that 60 percent of voters said the country was going in the wrong direction and almost three quarters disapproved of the job Congress was doing.

Regarding politicians, when one loses between two-thirds and three-fourths of the country, one tends to cling to one's empty rhetorical platitudes to explain one's frustrations. And so the president who spent months before the election oversaturating the nation's airports and airwaves to sell his agenda said he intends to start "getting outside Washington and shaping public opinion."

The president also went out of his way to scold (because that's what he does) the flush-with-victory Republicans by telling them, "campaigning is different than governing." When it came to his own administration, however, Obama thought he could overcome that axiom with speeches. He is as English historian Thomas Macaulay said of the Constitution -- "all sail and no anchor." He governs with wind, most of it blowing from his own lungs, all of it created to push the country rapidly away from its moorings. By contrast, the American people prefer a less jarring voyage. Obama's failure to understand this continues to lead him into dangerous waters.

Two years ago, the people craved change. But they didn't want to change their country; they wanted to change their government. They demanded a government that was open, honest, accountable and trustworthy, and which would actually fix broken things and leave everything else alone. Obama seemed to offer all of that. Now, after two years under his governance, America knows better.

This November's elections were not merely an expression of frustration with the pace of recovery, as the president claims and apparently believes. They were a rebuttal to Obama's argument that every facet of American life requires "comprehensive reform."

Obama fails to understand this because he fails to understand his own country. Nothing better illustrates this failure than his predicting (of presidential psychoanalysis to come) "bitter clingers" quote from 2008:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Since he spoke those words to a room full of San Francisco liberals two years ago, what in Obama's attitude is different? Nothing of significance, save the possibility that he has become even more detached and disdainful since his elevation to the presidency. Obama's analysis of the American people is unchanged: Collectively ignorant, their political actions are dictated by irrational fear born of economic hardship.

Obama views American reluctance to stray from tradition, sacrifice individual liberty, and undermine institutional stability as nothing more than mindless superstition to be overcome by superior reason and logic. Therefore, the country is to be educated out of its prejudices by the enlightened (him). In fact, he sees Americans as so fundamentally ignorant about even their own behavior that he can -- and must -- explain to them that by removing Nancy Pelosi from her speakership, they were really expressing their desire that the House cooperate with him.

The public has no idea what a service it's done by electing Republicans to thwart this president. Protest as we might, he would never have slowed the cruise toward his Euro-Utopian fantasyland. Our only hope was to mutiny and drop anchor. We have done that, for now, provided the GOP doesn't falter.    

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His Twitter ID is Drewhampshire.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.