Barack Obama is a serious man. Yes, he likes to golf, and yes, he ran a campaign with cutesy Facebook pictures and seemingly inane Flash slideshows like “Life of Julia.” No, he does not seem interested in the mechanics of legislation, nor does he seem adept at negotiation. But the weird condescension his opponents display toward him is ludicrously wrongheaded. They seem eager to believe he is a lightweight, and he is not. Obama is very possibly a world-historical political figure, and until those who oppose him come to grips with this fact, they will get him wrong every time.
The common idea during his first term—peddled by, among others, Mitt Romney as he sought a way to criticize the president that would not offend too many people—that Obama “is a nice guy but in over his head” is entirely backward. Barack Obama almost certainly isn’t a nice guy (even his admiring biographers are consistent in describing his friendlessness and icy hauteur).
And you should only be in over your head so much. After a single statewide election, Obama has now won absolute majorities in two successive national tallies with a combined vote total of 135 million. He has much of the media in his pocket; he has his party in his thrall; he escapes responsibility for failures that would sink other politicians; he muscled the most important piece of legislation in decades into law; and with a 20 percent increase in federal spending levels, he has ended the political age in which a Democrat would say “the era of big government is over” (Bill Clinton, 1996). That isn’t luck. It’s skill. Rare skill. Political genius of a kind.
Meanwhile, that vaunted private-sector genius Mitt Romney proved to be so inept as the chief executive of his own campaign that his polling was based on faulty assumptions that could easily have been corrected, his get-out-the-vote machine failed because it had never been tested, and his Facebook page crashed. (Not to kick a fellow when he’s down, but this would seem to give the lie to the idea, voiced frequently in the wake of his defeat, that Romney would have been a good president because he is so competent a manager.)
To paraphrase Sun Tzu, you need to know your political antagonist if you are to prevail against him—and you need to know yourself. The truth is that Barack Obama and his liberal followers have been doing very serious work over the past four years, and the same cannot be said, alas, of far too many people who oppose them.
It’s not just the comforting delusion that he’s a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion—that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms of the kind of political leader he really is: a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever “more” might mean at any given moment.
The notion that Obama is a dangerous extremist helps him, because it makes him seem reasonable and his critics foolish. It also helps those who peddle it, because it makes them notorious and helps them sell their wares. But it has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment—making the case that Obama’s social-democratic statism is setting the United States on a course for disaster and that his anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos. Those are serious arguments, befitting a serious antagonist. They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true.
Barack Obama is a serious man. The professional and political right needs to be as serious as he is to make sure the Age of Obama ends with him.