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Obama on Autopilot: The President Can’t Stop Campaigning

Yesterday, Abe wrote that “Barack Obama ushered in America’s first large-scale experiment in personality-cult politics. The experiment continues apace.” The experiment really has two parts to it, and only one of them continues. Electorally speaking, it was a success–Obama was elected and then reelected with a majority of the popular vote both times. But the other side of the experiment is how a personality-driven campaign incentivizes governing. Because President Obama ran on personality more than policy, the latter has been shaped throughout his presidency with the former in mind, producing not so much a governing philosophy as a slogan factory.

One of the more interesting aspects of the president’s health care reform legislation is how many liberals hate it. Conservatives don’t like it on constitutional grounds and on policy grounds. But liberals I meet often tell me how much they hate the bill on ideological grounds, because it took an idea that sprang forth from the perceived failure and greed of the insurance companies and then forced everyone in the country to buy their product. The left wanted universal health coverage; they got a bill that encourages the young and healthy, who currently often don’t buy health insurance, to continue not buying health insurance. But the left misunderstands Obama’s intent: he is not a detail man, nor a policy wonk. He is a man in constant search of a slogan, and saying he reformed health care was all he wanted out of the bill, even if the end result was a logical and regulatory nightmare. And health care is far from the only such issue.

The president initiated the Russian “reset” to accomplish a fairly superficial goal: as long as the president and his administration were nice to Vladimir Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, when Medvedev was pretending to be in charge) no matter what, the reset would be considered a success. The reset was never about a more productive U.S.-Russian relationship; it was about a change in our tone. Russia’s tone only changed for the worse, but we took the abuse silently, and so the personality-cult president is much better personally liked by Putin than his mean cowboy predecessor, who had no such need to be flattered.

What would the personality-cult president’s military policy look like? It would be “leading from behind,” never mind that the phrase just means “following.” It’s catchy, it sounds thoughtful. “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” makes a great bumper sticker. But try to expand that into a full-fledged governing philosophy and you get a dedication to corporate bailouts and the pretension that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been nearly defeated–two very disastrous ways of looking at things.

And so the New York Times reports today that with the “fiscal cliff” looming and the need for negotiations with Republicans, Obama is… hitting the campaign trail:

As he prepares to meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, aides say, Mr. Obama will not simply hunker down there for weeks of closed-door negotiations as he did in mid-2011, when partisan brinkmanship over raising the nation’s debt limit damaged the economy and his political standing. He will travel beyond the Beltway at times to rally public support for a deficit-cutting accord that mixes tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts.

The president knows one thing: campaigning, and so that’s what he does even when he’s got no more elections to win. No doubt he’ll have his slogans at the ready, as he leaves Congress to figure all this fiscal stuff out while he basks in the glow of a shallow adoration. Can the personality-cult president govern? Who knows? But he sure can campaign.


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