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It Was A Very Bad Year

A look back at the bummer that was 2013.

By From the December 2013 issue

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The 2013 agenda set out for the nation by our political and cultural commissars in the wake of the last presidential election could hardly have been more straightforward: They would bask in the glow of the (for real this time) End of History—We are all Morning Joe panelists now!—while humbled, hobbled dissidents, fevers broken, spent the year acclimating to permanent marginalization and fashioning tin idols to lay at the White House gates in celebration of the fast-approaching decennial anniversary of Barack Obama’s prophetic 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention—you know, the one where an obscure Illinois Senate candidate destined to be king broke open the rhetorical seals, thereby unleashing the Four Horsemen of the Hopeocalypse upon those who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” 

“We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” Obama famously bellowed at these business-as-usual pundits and prevaricators, “and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

Might it have been nice if we had some forewarning that this awesome blue-state deity would assume the form of former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius? (An absolute natural at delivering unquestionable diktats from on high, to be sure, though extraordinarily unprepared for the Intelligent Design part of the gig.) Or that Obama’s beef with assigning federal agents to library duty apparently stemmed from his desire to free up the resources necessary to cyberstalk every living American citizen? Or that at least one national attribute Obama chose to celebrate that night (“We can participate in the political process without fear of retribution…”) carried a significant unspoken addendum (“…so long as it doesn’t tingle the sensitive antennae of Lois Lerner”)?

Well, yes, a peek into such a crystal ball would certainly have been edifying, if ultimately fruitless. After all, as Obama noted in his January 2009 Lecture to Critics—occasionally referred to as the “First Inaugural”—cynics “fail to understand…the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

Convenient the buzzer just happened to ring at the precise moment of his swearing in, no? 

In the president’s defense, he never made any explicit promises along the lines of, say, “If you like your political convictions, you can keep your political convictions.” Then again, neither did he reveal that the practical application of the campaign slogan “Change We Can Believe In” would consist of instantly adjudicating in his favor whatever political disagreements he deigned to consider “fresh” and dismissing the rest out of hand. 

Nice work if you can get it. Still, if the Ghost of Elections Past zapped us back to November 1984, would we find young Barack Obama hectoring his friends about shifting ground and their collective passé left-wing principles in light of Ronald Reagan’s 49-state landslide? Would we hear him wax philosophic over the need to come together as one nation and unite to do the bidding of the Gipper? Would he be as fond of the phrase “country before party” then as he is now?

Unlikely.

Such hypocrisy did not carry much allure for Fourth Estate denizens only too eager to pivot away from suddenly “stale” inquiries into limits on executive authority or on the unelected bureaucrats who ruthlessly enforce its dictates. And why not? Here was a new lease on a professional life filled with cotton candy feature stories on the antics of young sexy speechwriters, Republican obstructionism, pick-up basketball games, Republican obstructionism, the amazing willpower it required not to bum cigarettes outside the situation room, Republican obstructionism, gardening for FLOTUS-toned arms, Republican obstructionism, details of how Reggie Love decides which songs to put on the iPresident’s iPod, and…Well, did we mention the mendacious, opportunistic, very likely racially motivated, Confederacy-aping Republican obstructionism?

Thus we got years of straight-faced, credulous recitations of plainly ridiculous “saved or created” job numbers, but no one could be bothered to follow up with Joe Biden as to why his April 2010 prediction that “some time in the next couple of months, we’re going to be creating between 250,000 jobs a month and 500,000 jobs a month” proved (literally!) so off-base. Every favorable Obamacare talking point was treated as revealed wisdom while every warning or argument against carried the manifest taint of partisan obfuscation. Dodd-Frank earned much watch-us-neuter-these-fat-cats! fanfare upon passage in 2010. Less ink has been spilled delving into why three years later 60 percent of the rulemaking requirement deadlines have been blown, or into the very real danger that the out-of-control delegation process it represents—i.e., letting bureaucrats make up the law up as they go along for years on end within vague, porous boundaries set by Congress—poses to representative democracy. This fervor for removing accountability and restraint from governance does not bode well for the future.

Alas the not-so-intrepid reporting could not save the Democrats from a historic midterm drubbing in 2010—as Obama himself said, “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected”—but the players all managed to get their groove back during the embarrassing, absurdist spectacle of the Republican primary season. At its end a “prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House” confided to Politico, “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,” and, indeed, throughout the summer of 2012, Team Obama dropped a cool billion dollars on Mitt Romney’s head to ensure the average voter couldn’t pick him out of a police line-up of life-sized pewter Rich Uncle Pennybags figurines. On November 6, the one-time Massachusetts governor found himself exiled back to Park Place, perhaps wondering why the 47 percenters down on Mediterranean and Baltic Avenue didn’t appreciate the nuances of the Bain Capital turnaround machine. 

The rest of us? We got a ticket to a four-year-long psychodrama about how a megalomaniac with a penchant for executive orders and what could be charitably termed a blasé attitude toward separation of powers behaves when he is permanently done answering to voters. (Suffice it to say Obama did not much resemble a “constitutional law professor” standing beneath that “We Can’t Wait” banner declaring, “I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer” while announcing a not-really-recess recess appointment end run around Congress.)

In the aftermath of Obama’s victory—slightly narrower than in 2008 both as a share of the electorate (51.1 percent vs. 52.9 percent) and gross vote totals (65,915,796 vs. 69,498,516)—the calls for Congress to start behaving less like a duly elected co-equal branch of the government and more like a Politburo reached cacophonous levels, though not quite loud enough to drown out the repeated Second Inaugural invocations of the royal “we,” featuring the re-elected president, as Reason’s Nick Gillespie noted, “talking about all the new things that were going to involve us all, whether we want to pitch in or not.” 

As late as October the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg lost himself in an elaborate fantasy world wherein a 14th Amendment-wielding Obama would vanquish the debt ceiling debate only to become locked in a desperate struggle to “head off a post-Bloombergian boomlet to somehow get around another amendment, the Twenty-second, and usher him to a third term.” Hell, during her January 60 Minutes State Department exit interview alongside Obama, it appeared as if even Hillary Clinton had finally heard the strains of that celestial choir she so famously pooh-poohed in 2008, back when she was a bloodthirsty warmonger with a hillbilly racist for a husband and not the heir apparent who had concocted such an impressively clever Twitter bio. (“Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD...”) If that’s what Hillary can do with 140 characters, imagine what she could do with the country!

So why has 2013 turned out to be such an inexorable slog? Part of it is the natural compound interest that accrues throughout, and eventually weighs down, a presidency. Gene Healy unpacked this phenomenon well in his essential 2008 book, The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power:

The office as we know it is largely the creature of public demands. And like the transformed presidential role it reflects, the exultant rhetoric of the modern presidency is as much curse as blessing. It raises the expectations for the office—expectations that were extraordinarily high to begin with. A man who trumpets his ability to protect Americans from economic dislocation, to shield them from physical harm and moral decay, and to lead them to national glory—such a man is bound to disappoint. Yet, having promised much, he’ll seek the power to deliver on his promises.

And as Healy wrote in his excellent 2012 follow-up, False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency, on the campaign trail, candidate Obama 

had pledged, among other things, to provide “a cure for cancer in our time,” to “slow the oceans’ rise,” to deliver “a complete transformation of the economy,” to “end the age of oil,” and, perhaps most quixotically, to “fundamentally change the way Washington works.”

Problem was, Team Obama hawked the dream a little too well. They’re a bunch of semi-erudite-though-not-quite-as-clever-as-they-believe-they-are frat boys who bought their own locker room hype and convinced themselves that—to mix metaphors—the strawman hand-puppets they’d spent four years arguing against in-house actually represented the strongest possible refutation of their ideas and plans out in the real world, rather than a deliberately obtuse, dim-witted ventriloquist dummy that encouraged a lack of humility and (yes) intellectual curiosity. This did the administration no favors. 

During the frantic, uncertain early days of 2009 the incoming Obamians could have worked on gaining trust through smaller, more broadly popular initiatives in order to demonstrate competence and validate their overarching vision, then dared Republicans to oppose building on success. Instead, from the jump, every action had to be of world-historical consequence, every “optic” Hubble Telescope-scale. 

In the abstract, extensive economic/cultural interventionism and technocratic fantasies can be prettified, dressed up, carefully staged—shoehorned into a bill, it might even pass Congress! Coercion is always a footnote—Pay no attention to the bureaucrat behind the curtain!—the public a buyer on a used car lot to be bamboozled and hustled along as quickly as possible. Actual policy, however, cannot remain an abstraction forever.

Therein lies the rub.

Which is to say, Obama may believe, as he told Rolling Stone in 2012, that Ayn Rand peddled a “pretty narrow vision” best suited for teenagers in the throes of “feeling misunderstood,” but president and nation alike would no doubt be considerably better off if he more seriously pondered one of her most famous warnings: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

In 2013 the hull of the ship of state hit a reality iceberg and began taking on water, fast. 

The Obamacare debacle(™) and the NSA spying scandal will serve as watershed moments because A) the universal nature of both largely precludes the sort of factionalism the Obama administration typically employs to deflect blame and B) they offer people who are not fanatical partisans a chance to observe the brazen dissembling, institutional dishonesty, conniving partisanship, and shameless buck-passing up close and in stark relief—which inevitably will lead to a reevaluation of past controversies and promises, not to mention more than a mustard seed of doubt concerning future assurances. They had years and billions of dollars to get this right, and when the whole system crashes the best the Vice President of the United States can come up with is “Neither [Obama or] I are technology geeks, and we assumed that it was up and ready to run”—at the very same moment, no less, that thousands of programmers are being employed by the government to render the Bill of Rights conditional at best, meaningless at worst? 

It boggles the mind.

For five years Obama scoffed at opponents’ arguments without ever actually having to come up with any better answer than a smirk and some variation of “I won.” Now the Second Inaugural line wherein Obama intoned, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate” is transforming into a public argument with himself.

This is not the kind of behavior that instills confidence. It is The Ant and the Grasshopper writ large—only here there’s an individual mandate in place to force the ants to serve the grasshopper’s whims. We’re all in for some rough times. Obama will soon learn what it’s like to poll in the low thirties, while the rest of the nation is shown the unfortunate veracity of Albert Jay Nock’s maxim: “Whatever power you give the State to do things for you carries with it the equivalent power to do things to you.”

Much havoc has been wreaked, but many of the president’s victories this year will prove ephemeral. The debt ceiling, drones, health care, fiscal regulation, tax policy, environmental fanaticism, IRS bullying, executive privilege and power—all of this will to some degree be re-litigated in a new context. The opposition—though attacked by the establishment, statist interests of both parties—will have a stronger hand. It remains to be seen what tendrils of liberty can be salvaged at this point, but know this: The pendulum will swing. 

Four years ago Obama could thumb his nose at those with the temerity to “question the scale of our ambitions.” He could boldly sniff, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” without worrying about taking responsibility for an answer.

Times have changed. The rhetoric has not, and cannot—for the truth is a crack in the façade that would never be repaired. And this year of reckoning is likely only the first of many stretching well beyond Obama’s presidency: Those who cannot acknowledge the damage are ill-suited to repair it.

“A crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism,” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg aptly averred in a 2011 New York Times op-ed.

Yeah, from his mouth to Yahweh’s ear. 

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