Our Shape-Shifting President — April 11, 2011

Say what you want about George W. Bush, but one thing was without doubt – he was (is) loyal to his principles and loyal to his people.  Not so with this President.  As we have seen in the last few months, there is little  over which he will go to the mat.

Oh, we know where his instincts are; we have seen that in the unguarded comments he makes when the teleprompter is off.  Thus we see he is an instinctive redistributionist (as when he told Joe the Plumber it is good to “spread the wealth around”) and an elitist (as in the infamous “clinging to their guns and religion” comment).  But those instincts are expendable when the chips are down.

Some of his critics claim he is an out-and-out socialist at heart who has a grand plan to transform this economy into one where the government controls virtually everything (more, that is, than it already does).  I have my doubts.  I think he is more than anything an Obamaist, doing what it takes to make himself a success, and too bad for those who were counting on him to hold to principle.

This is a guy who will find a way to jump in front of whatever parade is marching.

Witness the way he opposed the extension of the Bush tax cuts last December, before he proclaimed the resulting deal as a triumph of bipartisanship.  Similarly, in the fight to draft a budget for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, the White House’s opening gambit was no spending cuts at all; now that the deal has been struck, administration flacks are proudly pointing out that it features the largest annualized spending cut in history.   (Incidentally, the fact that an annualized cut of about $75 billion ranks as historic tells you a great deal, when you consider that government spending went up by over $500 billion in just the first year of Obama’s presidency.)  Lastly, the President’s State of the Union address and his 2012 budget both coldly ignored the recommendations of his own Deficit Reduction Commission; yet, once the Republicans produced the bold, purposeful Ryan budget, the President lets it be known that he’s a deficit hawk, too, and will produce a new and improved (forget what he said earlier…) budget that will address many of the same issues.

It’s like the reverse of Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, “there’s no limit to what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  With Obama, it’s “there’s no limit to what you can claim credit for if you don’t care what’s accomplished.”

I remember thinking that Candidate Obama seemed so appealing to so many people precisely because his resume was so slight that they could in the blanks with their own longing.  He was a blank slate, unencumbered by actual accomplishments or committed policy.  After all, his Illinois Senate career was noteworthy for its plethora of “present” votes.  His US Senate career was occupied mostly by running for President.  Going deeper, published evidence of his academic career was scarce – no Columbia thesis, scant authorship as head of the Harvard Law Review.  He was a cipher.

One might even suggest that his first term achievements were of the same stripe, different only in that the huge “stimulus” program and Obamacare were more in keeping with his instinctive preferences.  But even here, he did preciously little actual leading in the policy process – he left the job of drafting the massive new entitlement, transforming 16% of the US economy, to the Democratic Congressional leadership.

He’s like a quarterback who lets the other ten players call the plays.

There’s a certain cynical cunning in this.  If the resulting policy is successful and meets with general approbation, he can don the laurel wreath.  If it is a wreck, he has the means to distance himself from it, since it wasn’t his policy to begin with.  This is harder to do with the “stimulus” and Obamacare, since both were clearly in sync with Obama’s instinctive preferences.  But now that controlling runaway spending is clearly the flavor of the moment, Obama – however belatedly and half-heartedly – will adopt that, too, as his administration’s raison d’etre.

This doesn’t sit well with those committed liberals who expected Obama to be their Galahad, riding forth into battle against the Republican barbarians.  Paul Krugman, for example, is furious.  And given that spending restraint is where the battle is likely to be fought for the next two years, progressives are not likely to find a great deal of comfort in what their leader does.  Add it to all the other disappointments, like no public option, the continuation of the Bush anti-terror methods – Guantanamo, renditions, military commissions, etc – the addition of a third Mideast war to the two ongoing ones, and all the rest, it would not be surprising to see a serious primary challenge rise from the left.

Republicans should be wary.  Obama is more interested in Obama’s success than in virtually anything else, and he is ruthless about throwing people (Reverend Wright, his grandmother) or ideas (the public option, federal trials for terrorists, stimulus spending) under the bus if they get in the way.  He can’t really jump in front of their parade, but he can suck a lot of energy from it by making it seem like his own.

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