As his poll ratings sink, President Obama is ratcheting up his denunciations of cynicism. However, Mr. Obama’s crusade to rid the nation of cynicism is going badly. A presidency built on restoring faith in the political system is instead disillusioning a new generation toward Washington.
At a recent California fundraiser, the president complained that “the fact that since 2007, [Republican senators] have filibustered about 500 pieces of legislation that would help the middle class just gives you a sense of how opposed they are to any progress — has actually led to an increase in cynicism.” This was Mr. Obama at his best — brazenly dissembling while complaining of distrust in politicians.
The Washington Post awarded Mr. Obama “four Pinocchios” because there have been fewer than 140 filibusters since 2007 for any legislation or nominations. The National Journal labeled such assertions as the “stray voltage” tactic, where Mr. Obama intentionally misleads listeners in order to embed ideas that advance his agenda.
Mr. Obama has always milked cynicism like a prize Holstein cow. In 2004, he declared that he was running for the Senate because “we’ve got too much cynicism in this country, and we’re all in this together, and government expresses that.” In 2007, he announced that “my rival in this [presidential] race is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.” At that point, few people recalled that presidential candidate George W. Bush in 1999 had promised Americans “a fresh start after a season of cynicism.”
Nowadays, Mr. Obama increasingly portrays himself as a victim of cynicism. At the Gridiron Club dinner last year, the president bewailed that “maintaining credibility in this cynical atmosphere is harder than ever, incredibly challenging.” Last November, he told attendees at an Organizing for Action dinner that the “filter through which people see and receive information about government … is tilted toward cynicism.”
Mr. Obama is especially mortified that millennials have lost faith in him. In a 2012 college commencement speech themed to his re-election campaign, he told Barnard College graduates that “whenever you feel that creeping cynicism … the trajectory of this country should give you hope.” Last year, he exhorted Ohio State University graduates to beware the “creeping cynicism” and people who “warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” Mr. Obama did not seize that opportunity to explain why being president entitled him to authorize the killing of American citizens based solely on his own decree.
The Obama administration blames everybody except itself for the plummet in trust in government since 2009. White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told a press gaggle on May 10, “I think the thing that breeds a lot of cynicism about the political process are those outside groups that don’t disclose their donors.”
Apparently, the Obama administration’s perennial refusals to disclose how it is using the power it seized is irrelevant. Are Americans cynical because they expected Mr. Obama to honor his promise to be “the most transparent administration in history”? Are they cynical because they thought a former constitutional law professor would not authorize pervasive illegal spying on average citizens? Are they cynical because they thought a president should honor his oath to faithfully execute the laws — instead of issuing endless exemptions to salvage Obamacare?
Nor can Mr. Obama blame citizens’ loss of faith for some of his biggest flops. It wasn’t cynicism that caused the Obamacare health care exchanges to be one of the biggest debacles in Internet history. It wasn’t cynicism that caused the massively subsidized Solyndra solar-panel company to go bankrupt. It wasn’t cynicism that caused the federal debt to soar by $6 trillion since Mr. Obama took office.
While the president still retains some of the “idealist sainthood” the media conferred upon him in 2008, his rhetoric is indistinguishable from preceding grafters. “I reject the cynical view that politics is inevitably, or even usually, a dirty business,” declared President Nixon on April 30, 1973, the day his top White House aides resigned over their role in the Watergate scandal. President Clinton announced in January 1997 that people can “make [America] better if we will suspend our cynicism” about government and politicians. This is the Peter Pan theory of good government: Government would be wonderful if only people believed that it has magical powers.
Politicians hate cynicism the same way that burglars hate Brinks alarm systems. Cynicism about politicians, though, is akin to financial markets for government debts, which routinely mark down bonds to junk status because traders doubt that rulers will pay up. It is unfortunate that there is no way to similarly precisely gauge politicians’ credibility and to mark them down to “junk” after they reneged once too often.
Does Mr. Obama think that Americans who distrust him violate his presidential prerogative? It is not cynical to have more faith in freedom than in subjugation. It is not cynical to have more faith in individuals vested with rights than in bureaucrats armed with penalties. It is not cynical to suspect that governments that have connived so often in the past may not be dealing straight today.
Until we reach the golden age of honest rulers, moderate cynicism can provide a brake on political power grabs. In the meantime, the best hope for the survival of freedom is that Mr. Obama will receive exactly the amount of trust and deference that he deserves.
James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).