The philosopher George Santayana famously quipped, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, President Obama seems determined to go against Santayana’s eternal apothem.
This week’s report that unemployment is at its highest in 26 years, last week’s Olympic failure and the continuing health care morass demonstrate that he has fallen into the same trap encountered by Bush during 2005 and 2006: political hubris. Obama believed he entered office with a mandate to fundamentally change the policies of the United States; when he faced criticism, he exulted, “I won.”
Obama certainly won the election, but an election is not a mandate to abandon precedent; rather, it is a national statement of preference between two individuals whose personalities affect the poll as much as, if not more than, the policies backed by those individuals. Obama was more personally appealing than McCain, but that doesn’t mean the American people have given him their approval to initiate some mythic “change we can believe in.”
Obama is hardly alone in beginning his term with wild promises of major policy shifts. Bush expressed similar presumption after a resounding victory in the 2004 election, boasting “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Bush certainly spent the capital by the end of 2005, trying and failing to reform Social Security with private investment accounts, attempting to win in Iraq without sufficient manpower and creating an enormous Medicare prescription drug benefit for the elderly and disabled without securing any funding. Bush began his second term with incredible goals and was forced to alter them drastically when reality hit him in the face: Americans had not given him a mandate to continue failing policies like his trademark “don’t tax but spend, spend, spend” and his effort to increase the size of government operations massively but outsource them all to favored private contractors.
Americans voted to express distaste for Bush’s egotistical and plutocratic opponent rather than affinity for his unwise governing habits and by late 2006 both houses of Congress were in Democratic hands. He fully realized his errors, and made serious efforts to correct the errors born out of his hubris. His poll numbers remained low for the remainder of his administration, but even committed opponents at The New York Times admitted that Bush improved once he settled on realistic goals: after he realized his errors, he turned his administration into “The Self-Correcting Presidency.”
Obama has hit his decision point. After promising comprehensive healthcare reform, an end to the War in Iraq, the Chicago Olympics in 2016, an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict and a better relationship with the international community, Obama has been met with a daunting challenge: reality.
Obama lacks the ability to end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, since Hamas terrorists control half of Palestine. Obama cannot withdraw rapidly from Iraq without undoing the undoubted good of the Surge. Obama could not deliver Chicago the Olympics because Brazil had offered tangible rewards to its friends, while Obama relied merely on his eloquence. Obama’s humility before the international community has earned him polite praise from intellectuals and diplomats, but it has secured him no concrete diplomatic victories.
Obama is also faced with a harsh political reality at home: his victory in the 2008 election was not a mandate for increased socialism in the United States; rather, it was a rejection of untrustworthy Republicans who had long promised fiscal responsibility and pragmatism in foreign affairs but had instead spent and borrowed trillions while miring the nation in multiple lengthy wars.
Due to the challenges of the past three months, it is undoubtedly evident to Obama that his personal appeal does not translate directly into political approval. Once that uncomfortable realization sets in, Obama will realize that he has only two choices: he can either continue on his original course, attempting to remake the United States according to his personal ideology, or he can imitate Bill Clinton and lead as a moderate focused on pragmatic reform. If he chooses the latter course and attempts to serve the wishes of the American people rather than force unwanted “change” upon them, he will undoubtedly find an eager audience for moderate, bipartisan reforms like those of the Clinton era.
Hopefully for both the nation and Obama’s prospects in 2010 and 2012, he will learn the lessons of history and moderate his positions drastically. He might be too late to save congressional Democrats in 2010, but he can win a second term by imitating the Comeback Kid.
Trevor Wagener is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .