This was a good cop / bad cop pairing, if ever there was one: he, the dreamer, the spinner of words and the perfect front man; she, the partisan bully and de facto shaper of policy. The co-presidency of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi is one of the stranger outcomes of the last election.
Imagine if it had been her name instead of his at the top of Democrat ticket last November. That is a race that even old, tired and badly confused John McCain could have won by the widest of margins.
The American people elected Barack Obama, but what they have gotten — in domestic policy matters — is a snootful of Nancy Pelosi. To quote long-time Democratic Party activist Ted Van Dyk, what they have gotten is “an expensive mess” — a series of hastily conceived bills “loaded with costly provisions designed to gain support from congressional leaders and special-interest constituencies.”
While the president has been running around the world giving speeches, Pelosi has taken charge of domestic policy. It was she who cobbled together the stimulus package and she who has taken the lead in setting energy and healthcare policies.
Mr. Van Dyk, who was active in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, hoots at the idea — floated by White House staffers — that the Obama’s strategy in pushing health-care and energy initiatives brooks comparison with the way Johnson pushed his Great Society legislation. In an article in the Wall Street Journal he wrote:
Johnson’s initiatives were framed in the White House by his administration…. Your (Obama) strategy, by contrast, has been to advocate forcefully for health-care and energy reform but to leave the details to Democratic congressional committee chairs. You did the same thing with your initial $787 billion stimulus package. Now, you’re stuck with a plan that provides little stimulus until 2010. A president should never cede control of his main agenda to others.
But it is questionable how much the president knows or cares about domestic policy issues, beyond wanting to present himself — first, last and always — as the champion of urgently needed change.
In his book Dreams from My Father, he tells how he came to give his first speech as a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “As something of a lark,” he says, he became involved in a campaign calling for disinvestment in South Africa. Obama says he approached the microphone “in a trancelike state” and began:
“There’s a struggle going on,” I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up and I waited for the crowd to quiet.
“I say, there’s a struggle going on!”
The Frisbee players stopped.
“It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No — it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and justice. A choice between right and wrong …
Whatever those words were supposed to mean, they had an electric effect upon the audience. This, then, was vintage Obama — at the tender age of 20 — speaking in a way that seems to transcend both race and class. But listen to his response a couple pages later when a co-worker compliments him on his speech:
“It was short, anyway.”
Regina ignored my sarcasm. “That’s what made it so effective,” she said. “You spoke from the heart, Barack. It made people want to hear more…”
“Listen, Regina,” I said, cutting her off, “you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But that is the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me…”
“And why is that?”
I sipped on my beer, my eyes wandering over the dancers in front of us. “Because I’ve got nothing to say, Regina. I don’t believe that we made any difference by what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise. Because it makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill. That’s all.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“That’s what I believe.”
Now perhaps those are the thoughts an immature and angry young man — who has yet to discover his calling in life. However, on almost every page of the book we find a man who loves to give speeches and pass out free and unsolicited advice. At all times, he seems acutely conscious of his effect upon an audience, yet strangely indifferent to the substance or content behind his words.
There is, for instance, the revealing story of how he quelled an incipient revolt by five volunteers who were working for him when he had a $10,000 a year job as a “community organizer” in Chicago. They are all on the verge of quitting. “It has nothing to do with you,” one tells him. “The truth is, we’re just tired. We’ve all been at this for two years, and we’ve got nothing to show for it” — nothing, that is, in the way of tangible results, though there have been endless meetings and rallies.
The young Obama’s response is to — launch into a speech. Happening to spot some boys who are vandalizing a vacant apartment, he points out the window and demands to know, “What do you suppose is going to happen to those boys out there?… Who’s going to make sure they get a fair shot? The alderman? The social workers? The gangs?… You know, I didn’t come here ’cause I needed a job. I came here ’cause Marty said there were some people who were serious about doing something to change their neighborhood.”
While the purported purpose of his community organizing job was to rally support for a plan to save manufacturing jobs in metropolitan Chicago, there is no evidence that he and co-workers saved a single job. Indeed, he himself says, “The big manufacturers had opted for well-scrubbed suburban corridors, and not even Gandhi could have gotten them to relocate near Altgeld (a big public housing project) anytime soon.” So if everything was destined to fail, what was the point in doing it in the first place?
That is also a question that should be asked of the stimulus plan, which doesn’t seem to be stimulating much of anything; the cap- and trade bill, which will raise taxes without, seemingly, doing anything to limit carbon emissions; and the health care plan, which carries the scarcely believable promise of greatly expanded care at greatly reduced cost through the mechanism of greater government control in the decision-making process. All this adds up to the sacking of America’s resources for the salving of the liberal conscience.
Obama is fast coming to a point where he must choose sides. To paraphrase the words of his first speech, this is not a choice between black and white, or between rich and poor. Nor is it a choice between dignity and servitude, or between fairness and justice. It is none of those things.
Leaving rhetoric aside, it is a simple and less-than-heroic choice between playing to a small audience and playing to a much larger audience. The small audience consists of power-hungry politicians and their friends in Hollywood, academia and the media, who want to ratchet up taxes and launch a raft of expensive social programs, of little or no practical value, in the midst of the worst recession in 60 years. The larger audience consists of the people who elected him in 2008, and who may very well turn against his party in the 2010 Congressional elections.
Surely, he will choose to play to the larger audience. If so, Nancy Pelosi may remain the Speaker of the House but she will deposed from her unofficial position as co-President of the United States. No doubt the Republic will survive this loss.
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