Pete Souza / White House
My rival in this race,” President Obama announced early in 2007, “is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.”
It’s now clear that what he meant by this was other people’s cynicism — not his own.
As you may recall, Obama came into office a very inexperienced politician, spouting a lot of hopeful and idealistic rhetoric. He had made a name for himself by refusing to demonize conservatives and Republicans.
For instance, during a Nevada Democratic debate, then-senator Obama told the late Tim Russert that, “My greatest strength, I think, is the ability to bring people together from different perspectives to get them to recognize what they have in common and to move people in a different direction.”
"Instead of fulfilling his promise to deliver a “new kind of politics” and a new era of idealism, he’s made politics more cynical than ever."
Whether that was a lie at the time or simply unwarranted self-confidence is unknowable. What is plainly knowable is that it was untrue.
Among modern presidents going back to Eisenhower, Obama has proven uniquely incapable of working with his political opponents. Even Jimmy Carter got his signature airline-deregulation bill passed with whopping bipartisan majorities. Bill Clinton got NAFTA, welfare reform, and some balanced budgets with Republican help. George W. Bush got Democrats on board for No Child Left Behind and the Iraq War. (Obama’s vice president and his secretary of state both voted for it as senators.)
There have been some bipartisan victories on Obama’s watch, but he’s often been the partisan loser in such fights. For instance, Congress extended the Bush-era tax cuts, much to Obama’s dismay. And even on more clear-cut bipartisan victories — say, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or the trade deals Obama delayed unnecessarily — there’s little evidence that Obama brought any opponents around to his position. The man just isn’t very persuasive.
Now Obama’s defenders, starting with the man himself, insist this isn’t his fault. He’s actually super persuasive and bipartisan, he just suffers from the fact that the Republicans are the most unreasonable politicians ever, so he can’t be blamed for utterly failing to work with them. It’s like the guy who insists that he’s a real ladies’ man but can’t get a phone number because all of the hot women in the bar just happen to be gay.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Everywhere the president goes, he explains that he’s failed to get anything done either because the system is broken or because his opponents lack the honor and decency to work with him. Such arguments define cynicism.
But for Obama, cynicism is a vice for other people.
For instance, just this month, after five Democratic senators and several members of his own inner circle (including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and former chief of staff William Daley), not to mention the unified leadership of the Catholic Church, expressed profound dismay over Obama’s decision to force religious institutions to pay for contraceptive and “preventative” services in violation of their faith, Obama insisted that opponents of the move were “cynical.”
Also this month, the president proposed a budget that assumes everyone in this country is too stupid to understand what he’s up to. It simply pretends there’s no debt or deficit problem. It assumes that entitlement spending is nothing to worry about. It “saves” money by cutting spending no one ever planned to spend. And it proposes huge tax hikes nobody believes that even Obama wants.
Why? Because Obama expects Republicans to vote against the budget — as any responsible legislator of either party would — so he can then further demonize the “do-nothing Congress” while pretending to be serious about fixing our problems.
By the way, the only part of Congress worthy of that sobriquet is the Democrat-controlled Senate, which hasn’t proposed a budget in over 1,000 days (longer than the entire run of the Kennedy administration). Why hasn’t it? To make it easier for the Democratic president to demonize his opponents.
Instead of fulfilling his promise to deliver a “new kind of politics” and a new era of idealism, he’s made politics more cynical than ever. The case for Obama has become the case against everyone and everything inconvenient to his success. Don’t agree with Obama’s policies? Well, you can’t possibly have a good reason to do that. So you must be racist, greedy, dumb, or corrupt.
Meanwhile, Obama casts himself as the humble servant of the 99 percent, even as he forklifts cash from Wall Street into his campaign coffers and exploits the very sort of super PACs he not long ago claimed were a “threat to democracy.”
But to point that out is just cynicism.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at AEI.