Barack Obama ushered in America’s first large-scale experiment in personality-cult politics. The experiment continues apace. Obama got reelected because he enjoys a degree of personal popularity disconnected from his record. No modern president has ever been returned to office with employment figures and right-track-wrong-track numbers as poor as those Obama has achieved.
Obama couldn’t run on his record, which proved to be no problem—Americans didn’t vote on his record. According to exit polls, 77 percent of voters said the economy is bad and only 25 percent said they’re better off than they were four years ago. But since six in ten voters claimed the economy as their number one issue, it’s clear this election wasn’t about issues at all.
The president’s reelection is not evidence of a new liberal America, but rather of the illogical and confused experience that is infatuation. For multiple reasons, Americans continue to have a crush on Barack Obama even after his universally panned first term. No longer quite head over heels, they’re at the “I know he’s no good for me, but I can change him” phase. Whatever this means, it surely doesn’t suggest conservatives would be wise to move closer to policies that aren’t even popular among Obama supporters.
Why isn’t soul searching underway on the left? When the personality at the center of the cult leaves the stage in four years, Democrats will own his results without the benefit of his appeal. We can’t know quite what a second Obama term will bring, but if his first term is an indication, there’s little reason to expect his party will be crowing. The fiscal cliff is here but a whole landscape of steep drops comes next: the economic cliff (over which lies a possible double-dip recession), the Obamacare cliff (over which lies an unprecedented bureaucratic behemoth), the Iran cliff (over which lies a nuclear bomb), and so on. A precipice in every direction and a president who’s given us no reason to presume he can steer clear. Have Democrats stopped to wonder what initiatives they’ll have to defend when the dust settles in 2016?
Already Obama has signaled he’s continuing policies that don’t meet the moment. There’s the assurance of more taxes, of course. But that’s not all. On Friday, citing ecological concerns, the administration closed off 1.6 million acres of federal land in western states from planned oil shale extraction. An American energy boom lies in wait underground and Obama is determined to keep it there. Abroad, the groundwork is being laid to offer Iran a fanciful “grand bargain” in an effort to halt its work on a nuclear weapon. Think “Russian reset” with fanatical theocrats.
Perhaps Democrats are confident purely because of their stance on social issues. But as a tactical matter (principle and ideology are a different question), it doesn’t make sense for Republicans to fret over the culture and identity wars that have transfixed the left. Gay marriage as a presidential issue is off the table. The November election showed the future of that question lives at the state level, which is both a popular and conservative approach. Obama himself has said he’ll do nothing about it nationally. Multiple polls taken this year show opposition to abortion is at least as high as it’s been in 15 years. By 2016, the new class war will surely have wound down after Americans see that making the “rich pay their fare share” didn’t solve everyone else’s problems and in fact created new ones.
On immigration reform, of course conservatives should act. That was true before Obama’s reelection; it’s now inevitable. In the next four years, serious Republicans will offer policies aiming to give foreign workers a path to citizenship. Leaders like Marco Rubio have already gotten a brilliant head start.
It is in the nature of personality cults to fail at most things beyond generating and disseminating propaganda. This inability is the result of two things. First, the personality’s popularity is not results-driven. Since adoration hasn’t been earned by achievement but by the advent of charisma, why kill yourself trying to get results. Second, few people are willing to candidly critique the personality at the center of the cult, so there is little chance of course correction. None of this bodes well for Barack Obama. And for the country’s sake, let’s hope it’s wrong.
To effect a revolution in American politics, you have to set parameters that successors will be compelled to heed. FDR implemented programs that at least produced identifiable results before revealing their unsustainable flaws. Bill Clinton had no problem declaring the age of big government over because Ronald Reagan had ushered in a prosperous era in which this was so. What part of the Obama agenda will resonate when isolated from the Obama phenomenon? It’s too soon to say, but not too soon wonder.