The New York Times, in a story on Team Obama gearing up for the 2012 election, reports that the theme of “hopeful, transcendent politics” has been jettisoned in favor of a combination of excuses and attacks. “If 2008 was about lifting Mr. Obama up,” the story reports, “2012 will have at least some strong element of dragging down his Republican opponent (who the campaign believes will most likely be Mitt Romney). If 2008 was about ‘Yes We Can’ and limitless possibility, 2012 will be to some degree about why we couldn’t (‘Republican intransigence’), and why we shouldn’t, at least when it comes to anything the Republican nominee proposes (‘His party got us here in the first place’). As Mr. Obama recently told a group of supporters in the deflated liberal bastion of San Francisco, ‘The Hope poster is kind of faded and a little dog-eared.’”
It turns out the president has a gift for understatement.
The “Hope poster” has been exposed, in fact, as a counterfeit. Some people still wonder who the real Obama is: the uplifting, consensus-oriented, post-partisan, non-ideological fellow who took center stage in 2008; or the partisan, divisive, obsessively misleading, scorched-earth president who routinely charges Republicans with putting the interests of their party ahead of the interest of their country, who once referred to Republicans (but never the Iranian regime) as the “enemy,” and who helpfully informed Americans that Republicans want the elderly, autistic and Down syndrome children to fend for themselves and have a plan the president describes this way: “Let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, [and] less people with health insurance.”
My reluctant answer (reluctant because I was once open to believing in the better Obama) is that the president is a man of unusually cold-blooded insincerity. To be clear: Obama is not habitually dishonest and divisive. It is not as if he can’t control his poisonous rhetoric. He simply uses those things when they’re useful to him. In that sense, Obama is not sociopathic; he’s merely ruthlessly unprincipled. Or to put it another way, he’s thoroughly post-modern, willing to construct his own truth and his own reality in the quest for power. If Obama thinks being conciliatory and civil are the roads to victory, he’ll be conciliatory and civil. If he believes incendiary rhetoric and ludicrous stereotypes are the pathway to success, he’s just as happy to employ them. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Whatever works. One way to express this is with references to faded, dog-eared “Hope posters.” Another, less delicate but perhaps more accurate way to express the Obama approach to politics is deeply cynical.
Call it the Chicago Way.