Obama’s Con-Job ‘Conservatism’

Some “conservatives” never learn and continue to live under mental delusions. Barack Obama has commanded their souls and continues to do so today.

His public return to politics, first with his South Africa speech and last week with his campaign speech disguised as an award acceptance speech in Illinois, repeat the centrist show that has allowed him approval or only perfunctory opposition from the right and the center.

This shuck and jive routine worked notably at Harvard Law School, when he won conservative student votes for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review. He revived his scheme during the 2008 election, garnering praise from the Weekly Standard for his Dreams From My Father autobiography, and defense of his patriotism from his then-opponent, Senator John McCain. Any of these moments could have produced a questioning of his character (e.g., the selfishness of his postmodernist autobiography).

My explanation for why Obama’s personal approval rating remained relatively high, against the disapproval of his policies, is his liberal use of patriotic rhetoric. This is a trope one finds throughout his presidency, most acutely in his second inaugural, which expounded on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. That founding document, with its call for equality, culminates by his lights and naturally in his election and approval of his progressive policies.

Since the play worked so well from 2008-2016, he’s running it again in 2018. The speeches are far less polished, but there is the old device of the cool, reasonable Obama placing himself against the raving extremes. So South African blacks need to reflect on the injustice they suffered: he quotes Nelson Mandela, “I detest racialism … whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

Obama told University of Illinois students that Democrats need to recall that “Neither party has been exclusively responsible for us going backwards instead of forwards.” Then comes the grating Obama qualification, revealing his previous duplicity about being even-handed: “But over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican party.” For incisive criticism of the speech see the analyses of Julie Kelly on American Greatness. Or note what Victor Davis Hanson observed, “Fresh from trashing his successor in a funeral speech, the ever audacious Obama called for more decorum.”

In fact, Obama dismissed dissent from his reading of the Declaration: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

But Obama no longer stars; he is the sixth man or a blocking back. Now his duplicitous moderation covers for the radicalism of the Democratic candidates. His patriotic rhetoric (talk of sacrifice in battle, references to the Founders) lends the respectability of tradition to the new radicals. Unlike Colin Kaepernick he would never take a knee during the National Anthem, but by defending his right to do so he happily legitimates the protesters’ disrespect.

Thus Obama 2.0 does not advocate Obamacare but something he didn’t support when he had a chance to. In his speech to students (his favorite audience, knowing how foolish they are), he lays it on: “Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, they’re running on good new ideas like Medicare for all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt-free….” Of course President Obama knew such nutty ideas would never pass Congress, just as he knew that passing Obamacare would terminate many of the political careers of those who voted for it. Moreover, congressional aspirants stand to have their irrationality exposed, provided they have competent opponents.

But as with Obamacare, his purposes are political. Thirty-one years ago Republicans scoffed at Senator Ted Kennedy’s smearing of Judge Robert Bork, but the leftist rhetoric had its desired effect. Obama’s rhetoric may have that same effect on the party of Trump, who, while possessed of abundant political virtues, suffers some of the same political deficiencies as the Judge.

Yet given open advocacy of socialism and imprecations that “America has never been great” the choices for 2018 are clear, however much Obama tries to muddle them. “A buffoon could have kept the recovery going,” sneered Jen Psaki, Obama’s White House communications director, “and in fact one has so far.” In truth, a relatively free market creates recovery, and politics can further stifle or enhance business and worker confidence, regulations, taxation such as Obamacare, and other elements of prosperity.

As we remember 9/11 (and do not forget the crisis of 2008), should not we also admire the Bush Administration’s economic recovery from the violence that threatened to upend worldwide confidence in investing in America? How would Obama address recent university graduates who face a lifetime of lowered wages and hindered or even thwarted careers due to the low growth rates of the Obama recovery? Moreover, Obama wanted to take credit for withdrawing U.S. forces abroad yet maintain a globalist foreign policy.

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment, takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. They appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar?

Obama reverts to the old, winning Democratic playbook from FDR and Harry Truman on: Implying Republicans resemble the Nazis and fascists. Note FDR in his 1944 State of the Union or Harry Truman arguing that Republicans front for fascists, as he threatened to draft strikers and actually seized steel mills. “[I]f the antidemocratic forces in this country continue to work unchecked, this Nation could awaken a few years from now to find that the Bill of Rights had become a scrap of paper.” Sound familiar?

In the same spirit, Professor Obama contrasts Lincoln and Trump: “None of this is conservative. I don’t mean to pretend I’m channeling Abraham Lincoln now, but that’s not what he had in mind, I think, when he helped form the Republican party. It’s not conservative. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters even when it hurts the country. It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-price lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda, and over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion.”

In fact, Trump’s vision is not only conservative, it’s also the consensus view for a working-class Republican Party—tariffs, borders, a realist, America-First foreign policy—patriotic, prosperous, and peaceful, where citizenship and faith are honored. It’s not a party for Republican oligarchs or Democratic elites.

Contrast this vision with Obama’s: “With each new law that helps a kid read or helps a homeless family find shelter or helps a veteran get the support he or she has earned, each time that happens hope happens.” Obama starts with hope and ends with hopelessness—If he thinks that literacy is a product of law—Lincoln would laugh—he is as clueless, banal, and boring as Trump declared.

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Photo Credit: Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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