Portrait of A President as a Small Man
by Billy McMorris
Obama stared into the abyss of social media and the abyss stared back.
I’m a political reporter, which means I’m far more excited for Wednesday than any Ohio resident who has been bombarded with several hundred million dollars of negative ads over the past six months. Making predictions is a fool’s game, a reason so many in my profession revel in them. I will not pretend that I have some insight that will answer all of your questions about what will happen tomorrow because I haven’t a clue, nor do any of my colleagues. Playing around on a touch screen map requires no real thought; you work backward from 270 and pick at random to produce something soothing and/or alarming to your target audience, a reason many in my profession are destined for Dante’s Malebolge. I prefer post-mortems—they are set in stone, or in this metaphor laid flat on a slab awaiting clear-headed examination. What follows is a pre-post mortem, which on its face seems ironic, though not as contradictory as the voters who complain of negative campaign ads, despite the fact that politicians have market-tested each ad for effectiveness. A pre-post mortem is a bit more reasonable: the questions that need answering are set in stone even before election results are in. And the ones that will nag at me long after Wednesday are simple: why did Barack Obama shrink on the campaign trail and what does it mean for the future of his office?
I am referring to the micro-targeted, small-ball campaign that Obama has waged to capture the various interest groups that make up the Democratic Party coalition, embodied by his campaign website’s dozen plus [Insert Identity Group] for Obama subsections. Instead of a plan forward, a grand-scale outline of his vision—2008 Barak in essence—we have been bombarded with Julia and Binders, GM and Osama. He may fly the quarter-million-dollar an hour Air Force One to a record-number of campaign stops and slap the presidential seal on each podium, but Obama has not campaigned as an incumbent commander in chief. He has been petty, irritated and disdainful on the campaign trail—who wouldn’t be if you were convinced that Mitt Romney killed a woman?
The explanation to this modern phenomenon lies in one of his campaign’s greatest achievement in 2008: the mastery of social media. During that first run we hailed Obama for his ability to connect with voters, especially those of our generation, using social media. But pioneers need to know when to stop and Obama, unsatisfied with discovering California has waded into the Pacific Ocean.
His campaign was the first to exploit Twitter and Facebook as outlets for his message, reaching record numbers of voters. In 2012, the master of technology has become its slave, as Twitter has become an unpaid speechwriter for the campaign. Romnesia was crafted by a random Twerp and the campaign saw fit to use it in speech after speech based solely on the fact that it garnered so many retweets. Andrew Jackson may have depended on the downhome, back-country vote to get into office, but he did not let the rabble make the case for him.
This is not a positive development in our political culture and if it succeeds, political campaigning will devolve into radio call-in shows. It will lead to more masturbatory political discourse that will harden the hearts of all who touch it and make governance impossible. We have seen its effects already in Obama’s approach to negotiations.
During the debt ceiling negotiation, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner agreed to $800 billion in tax increases and it seemed that crisis had been averted. At the last second, Obama attempted to sneak in an additional $400 billion tax increase. When Boehner objected, Obama resorted a passive-aggressive threat, no doubt based on his belief that his huge Facebook and Twitter following translated into political capital.
“John, I’ve got great confidence in my ability to sway the American people,” Obama told Boehner, according to Bob Woodward.
He staged a slew of public addresses in an attempt to undermine Republican’s bargaining power. They failed, the deal crumbled, the negotiations were punted and we will pay dearly for it in 2013.
Twitter swagger betrays the way everyday Americans live their lives. In a Republic we voters farm out our decision-making—we elect leaders to work with and fight against one another on Capitol Hill. We don’t want to hear about it (though if you upset us, we will let you know as we did during the Obamacare debates). Obama approaching the American people with his ideas on a daily basis seemed like he was complaining to HR about a minor workplace issue with his colleagues.
Obama wisely rolled back these appearances when he failed to connect with the American people. He is back in the spotlight thanks to the campaign, but rather than spelling out his vision of America’s future, he is attempting to make Mitt Romney unpalatable. In 2012, he has offered office gossip about his opponent when he was supposed to give us his business plan. Office gossip may be entertaining at the water cooler, but it doesn’t lead to many promotions.
There are a slew of reasons that I will be showing up to a polling place for the first time to cast my ballot—chief among them the fact that I did not vote in any elections when I became a working objective journalist. Obama and I disagree on social issues and religious liberty. This issue will be a test as to whether Americans are political, rather than social creatures: Romney has outsourced his message—forgive the term—to religious institutions like Catholic Church to fire up the pews, while Obama has made it a centerpiece of his ad blitz.
That’s neither here, nor there. This is an economic election. Hereto the advantage goes to Romney. Obama is sitting on a $700 billion economic drag in the fiscal cliff and has made no effort to stop it this year because his approach would guarantee middle class tax increases. Obama has also punted an additional $700 billion in environmental regulations that he set out to complete in 2011 and 2012 to his second term to avoid smashing the economies of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The regulations would shut down the nation’s coal industry, deny federal funding to the 90 percent of local governments who would not be able to comply with their stringent conditions and devastate the economy. Unchained, to borrow a Biden phrase, from future elections, Obama will fulfill the radical environmental agenda to the detriment of all consumers, as well as the lower-middle class workers that are essential to his reelection in the Rust Belt. Romney would stem the tide and focus on the task at hand: getting Americans back to work.
On foreign policy, the candidates are similar, though Romney brings a bit more “attitude” to the table. My dovish friends are all voting Obama for this reason, a source of great confusion for me. Allow me to make a liberal case for why Obama is not who you thought he was. Augustine of Hippo’s Just War doctrine seems an appropriate starting point. It is composed of two parts: jus ad bello, right to [enter] war, and jus in bello, laws of/in war. While you may trust Obama more in the former (though how could you after bombing Libya without regard to the Constitution), the president has completely failed in the latter. Obama is so politically scared of taking prisoners that we kill first, ask questions later. To do otherwise would acknowledge that Gitmo is still open. Obama’s drone strikes have killed an untold number of civilians in a bunch of countries that we are not actually at war with—I say untold because the administration now counts as enemy combatants any young man in the vicinity of a strike without ever following up as to who is an actual terrorist. Keep in mind that these strikes are not in terrorist training camps as they were under Bush; they are in city streets. At least Bush let civilians in harms way know we were coming. The foreign policy moralists trust Obama so much on jus ad bello, that they do not hold him accountable for how the U.S. conducts itself in war. The Bush administration was held to strict accountability about its conduct in war, so much so that more than a few veterans coming back from Iraq/Afghanistan told me that the U.S. was waging the most humane combat operation in the history of man. You can bet Romney would be held to similar standards once the media/skeptical public begin holding the Commander in Chief accountable again.
These are, of course, the short-term implications of the election. I fear Obama’s small-ball, take-no-prisoners approach represents a cultural shift that will not disappear from American politics anytime soon- Especially if it is successful.
Billy McMorris is a political reporter for the Washington Free Beacon