For the past five years or so I’ve been musing on Obama as man, as politician, as president. But now I want to look again and say a few words about Obama as precedent.
Like everyone, Obama is a unique individual, and it stands to reason that his particular combination of traits and abilities will not come again in exactly the same package. Whether or not his work will live on depends on how the American people react and whom they elect next time and for the foreseeable future, and that of course includes any changes in the makeup of the voting public that might be voted into place by this Congress (i.e. immigration “reform”).
But it strikes me that one of Obama’s most pernicious influences—and there are so many to choose from—has been that he has let future politicians know what is possible in America. And, unlike his supporters, I don’t mean that in a good way.
There used to be certain assumptions on the part of politicians who would be president. As president, you needed to keep a lofty tone and leave the more vicious and divisive attacks to your Vice President; it wouldn’t be “presidential” otherwise. You had to make sure you tended to a faltering economy or you’d be blamed. You had to support our allies and be tough with those countries who were working against us. You had to propose legislation on issues the American people cared about and supported, not just your pet projects, and that had some bipartisan support, especially if the changes were sweeping. You had to answer to the press or they would turn on you. And you had to respect Congress and the Constitution enough to go through Congress in order to do what you thought should be done if it was a power Congress usually had, not go around it through executive order
Some of this could be violated, of course, and has been, particularly the last one, because power is one of the things for which presidents strive. But if you went against too many of these rules the American people (and perhaps Congress, perhaps even your own party in some cases) was very likely to turn against you and not re-elect you. Or if it were a second term you’d lose your “mandate” and political capital and become a lame duck immediately. At least, that was the fear. So the idea that there would be consequences for such things helped hold previous presidents in check to a large extent, although of course there were some who violated this tenet or that and survived.
But generally there was a certain respect for the unwritten law of natural consequences: the belief was that the American people had its limits. You could con all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, and all that. But enough of the people would be onto your game to stop you.
Obama has proven all of that is bunk for the right person at the right time. What’s more, his entire career has proven that he is that person. He has managed somehow to be one of the trickiest and dirtiest of politicians (from the start of his rise in local Chicago politics, as I’ve described many times before), one of the most double-crossing and double-dealing and just plain doubling, presenting himself as one thing and acting like another while simultaneously presenting one of the smoothest and most above-it-all facades ever exhibited by a politician. He has talked his way out of every jam, or stonewalled his way out, with nearly complete impunity and lack of consequences. He had accomplished very little in his path leading to the presidency—except, of course, having won election to his previous positions—and still had no trouble convincing people he should receive the highest office in the land at a fairly young age. And most importantly, in his first term he egregiously violated every one of the rules I listed above and was re-elected. His popularity had fallen but not enough to matter in any way in terms of consequences.
How he has managed to accomplish this is something I (and many many others) have described in literally hundreds of post. So that’s not the point of this one. The point of this one is to say that he has shown future presidents that these previous assumptions are false, and that the rules that held presidents in check can be violated with impunity if you know what you’re doing and do it with enough audacity.
If that stands, it may be one of his worst legacies: the knowledge that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time and get away with it.