In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama took another stab at summarizing the philosophy of the Republican Party. And this is the best Obama could do: “Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.”
This is a silly and intentionally misleading statement — silly because it’s so transparently false and intentionally misleading because the president surely cannot believe his own rhetoric. The problem for Obama is it’s becoming a pattern. Earlier this year, he charged that Republicans want the elderly, autistic children and children with Down syndrome to “fend for themselves.”
After that, he told us the GOP plan is ”dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance.” Given his rhetorical trajectory, Obama will soon be insisting that Republicans favor reinstituting slavery at home and genocide abroad (or perhaps it’s favoring genocide at home and slavery abroad).
These are the kinds of things a politically desperate and intellectually bankrupt politician says. The president must believe he cannot win a debate on philosophy on the merits, so he instead employs the crudest caricatures he can.
The point is that there seems to be no limit, no check, on what Obama will say in order to demonize his opponents — or, to quote Obama’s own words, his “enemies.”
It is Obama who believes he can play by his own rules. For him, truth is increasingly beside the point. Words are merely tools to be employed in what he believes is a Great Cause. In this instance, the Great Cause happens to be his re-election, despite the fact that Obama and his team are having the darndest time articulating what exactly he would do in a second term beyond “finish the job.” (Apparently his demolition project can’t be completed in one term; it will require two.)
The shame is that there is a genuinely interesting and important debate of ideas to be had over the size, reach, and role of the federal government in our lives. Honorable people have very different views on this matter; some, like Obama, are drawn to a European-like model of social democracy, one that wants to centralize more and more power with the federal government as a means to eliminate income inequality and ensure greater fairness. Others believe the federal government has dramatically exceeded its constitutional authority, that it is leading us down a path to fiscal ruin, and in the process it is undermining civic character.
The great divide between conservatives and liberals today is over equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Those are serious intellectual differences to discuss, but Obama apparently wants no part of it. He would rather turn his opponents into brutish, cartoon characters.
What makes all of this even more farcical is that Obama conceives of himself as a genuine intellectual, the leader of a national seminar. During his run for the presidency, Obama created an image of himself as a man thirsting for an honest, high-minded debate. He promised to “turn the page” on the old brand of politics, promised us “hope and change,” and declared, ”If you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.”
It was Obama who said, ”We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism […] That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ’not this time .’” It was Obama who in an interview declared, ”I want us to rediscover our bonds to each other and to get out of this constant petty bickering thats come to characterize our politics.” And it was Obama who said on the night of his election, on a stage in Grant Park, ”I will listen to you, especially when we disagree […] Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for too long.”
But it turns out this was a mirage. The fact that Obama’s presidency has been a failure and that he is so manifestly inept in his current role has turned him into a fairly unprincipled (and remarkably uncreative) political hack. He has succumbed to his uglier impulses. He wouldn’t be the first president to do so. The same thing happened to Richard Nixon and to Jimmy Carter, who started out as a decent man and ended up as a petty one.
The whole thing is a shame. To watch a presidency fall apart can be a poignant thing; and to watch a president dishonor himself in the process can be a sad one.