It looks like next year’s presidential election will be a beauty contest.
Voters aren’t likely to get a Lincoln-Douglas debate. They reasonably might have hoped for something approaching that, given the financial crisis, young Americans fighting in three wars overseas and a host of other difficult domestic and foreign crises, all coming in the midst of a general conflict over traditional ethical values.
But by launching his campaign with outrageous demagoguery, President Obama has “made it clear” that he will avoid fundamental issues. He relies on emotional appeals to self-interest — private and corporate welfare recipients, the vulnerable aging and all other interests vying for favor at the public trough. Mr. Obama obviously counts on adulation rather than cognition — from naive youths addicted to “change/whatever”; the gold-laden Hollywood glitterati; guilt-ridden intellectuals obsessed with race; Washington’s enormous public and private lobbies; and minority voters blindly following media-created leadership.
That adulation, in turn, will make it difficult for his opponents to respond with a candidate and a campaign focused on the issues.
Mr. Obama’s speech last week, supposedly presenting a new economic program, was the tip-off. Cliche-ridden, it was a rhetorical U-turn from his own free-spending budget proposals announced just weeks earlier. Without so much as an apology, he “welcomed” the trimmed-back 2011 budget — without mentioning that his fellow Democrats had opposed every cut only days before.
The verbal turnabout allowed Mr. Obama to jump aboard what his counselors obviously see as the Republican Party/tea party/conservatives’ bandwagon with its appeal for renewed fiscal discipline. As an old friend often warned me, never underestimate the role of fads in American life: “Deficit reduction” is now “in,” whether understood or not by its recently acquired advocates.
Mr. Obama’s teleprompter readings were as golden as ever — a “gift” he once said — even if one tires of a speechwriter obsessed with the phrase “let me make clear …” — always the prelude to another muddled concept. But the president offered no specific proposals for reining in government spending. In fact, expanding the liberals’ hallowed welfare state would solve the nation’s debt and unemployment problems, he reassured us, not the surgical, systemic reform his own bipartisan budget panel had suggested.
But the administration’s plan to spend our way back to prosperity has crashed, even if Mr. Obama and his advisers were slow to acknowledge the messages sent by voters in the 2010 midterm elections and more recent poll numbers. Scarce jobs and rising food and fuel prices are the reality masked by his cooked statistics.
As always, it is likely to be unanticipated events and the unintended consequences (partially resulting from his own habitual indecision) of Mr. Obama’s policies that will dictate the November 2012 outcome.
But some critical facts on the ground are going to be all too obvious.
Mr. Obama’s intent to give the Libyan situation a hit and a miss, and then to bow out to our allies, is doomed, as any military observer worth his salt could have predicted. His stand-in, NATO, relies overwhelmingly on U.S. initiative, as well as American hardware and cannot dislodge or even modify Col. Gadhafi’s regime alone. Despite Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ repeated pronouncements, American fighter planes — the only ones capable of doing the job — continue to provide close air-combat support for Libya’s incompetent and suspect rebels. And the rebels eventually will need ground assistance if Mr. Obama’s announced aim of ridding the world of Col. Gadhafi is to be achieved.
As Mr. Obama uses presidential fiat to cancel another pipeline from Canada, the energy fiasco escalates — though, in all fairness, this is only partly because of his misbegotten policies. But if gas is at $5 a gallon or more on Labor Day 2012, as seems likely, voters will look to their credit cards again before entering the polling booth.
There is no dearth of Republican candidates. But with the emphasis on bling-bling rather than legislative and executive experience, the spotlight is all too likely to fall on those matching the incumbent’s “glamour.” That apparently explains the boomlet for Donald Trump, surely the unlikeliest candidate for the presidency in decades.
That’s a sad thought as we enter the electoral season. One can only hope that the good sense of the American people, which has held us in good stead for so long, will reassert itself and demand more substance and less glitz.
• Sol Sanders, veteran correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.