Amid all the charges and countercharges in Washington over the government shutdown, there is at least one common theme: Barack Obama’s various charges always lead to a dead end. They are chaos, and chaos is hard to understand, much less refute.
By that I mean when the president takes up a line of argument against his opponents, it cannot really be taken seriously — not just because it is usually not factual, but also because it always contradicts positions that Obama himself has taken earlier or things he has previously asserted. Whom to believe — Obama 1.0, Obama 2.0, or Obama 3.0?
When the president derides the idea of shutting down the government over the debt ceiling, we almost automatically assume that he himself tried to do just that when as a senator he voted against the Bush administration request in 2006, when the debt was about $6 trillion less than it is now.
When the president blasts the Republicans for trying to subvert the “settled law” of Obamacare, we trust that Obama himself had earlier done precisely that when he unilaterally subverted his own legislation — by quite illegally discarding the employer mandate provision of Obamacare. At least the Republicans tried to revise elements of Obamacare through existing legislative protocols; the president preferred executive fiat to nullify a settled law.
When the president deplores the lack of bipartisanship and the lockstep Republican effort to defund Obamacare, we remember that the president steamrolled the legislation through the Congress without a single Republican vote.
When the president laments the loss of civility and reminds the public that he uses “calm” rhetoric during the impasse, we know he has accused his opponents of being on an “ideological crusade” and of being hostage takers and blackmailers who have “a gun held to the head of the American people,” while his top media adviser Dan Pfeiffer has said that they had “a bomb strapped to their chest.”
When the president insists that the Republican effort to hold up the budget is unprecedented, we automatically deduce that, in fact, the action has many precedents, and on frequent prior occasions was a favored ploy of Democrats to gain leverage over Republican administrations.
In short, whenever the president prefaces a sweeping statement with one of his many emphatics — “make no mistake about it,” “I’m not making this up,” “in point of fact,” “let me be perfectly clear” — we know that the reverse is always true. For Obama, how something is said matters far more than what is said. If he stumbles, as is his wont, through an un-teleprompted remark that on rare occasions can be mostly accurate, that is a serious lapse; if, more frequently, he mellifluously asserts a teleprompted falsehood, there is little worry. The result is not so much untruth, lies, or distortions, as virtual chaos. Is what he says untrue, contradictory of what he said or did earlier, or just nonsensical?
These strange flights of fantasy are not new. When Barack Obama boasts that “American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years,” we know that is despite, not because of, his efforts, remembering that oil and gas leases have markedly decreased during the Obama administration, as they have soared on private and state lands. Again, how do you refute fantasy?
When he brags of the present chaos in the Middle East by saying that “a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa” during his administration, we translate that into 100,000 are dead in Syria and U.S. credibility about red lines is shredded; the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt followed by a coup and rule by a junta; “leading from behind” in Libya resulting in a virtual Somalia well before the Benghazi disaster; abdication in Iraq, which is now less stable than it was in 2009; and Vietnam circa 1975 looming in Afghanistan.
When the president boasts that the deficit is actually shrinking under his leadership, we assume he is referring to the forced budget cuts brought about by sequestration that he not only opposed, but also warned would be disastrous.
These paradoxes could be interpreted in various ways. True, Obama is a politician who takes up and discards arguments as he finds them useful, always branding those currently in use as somehow morally superior to the alternative. Obama is also a zealot and a community organizer who is not content with opposing the positions of his opponents, but always must impugn their motives as well.
But a third explanation is more likely. Obama simply couldn’t care less about what he says at any given moment, whether it is weighing in on the football name “Redskins” or the Travyon Martin trial. He is detached and unconcerned about the history of an issue, about which he is usually poorly informed. Raising the debt ceiling is an abstraction; all that matters is that when he is president it is a good thing and when he is opposing a president it is a bad one. Let aides sort out the chaos. Obamacare will lower premiums, not affect existing medical plans, and not require increased taxes; that all of the above are untrue matters nothing. Who could sort out the chaos?
When other presidents act unilaterally, Obama cites his constitutional experience in demagoguing them, as he did against Bush during the crafting of the war on terror legislation. When he wishes either to violate the law or to adopt a prior Bush protocol, then he simply does so, and lets others sort out the inconsistency. Sometimes the result is so chaotic that Obama ends up bragging that he wants to shut down Guantanamo Bay, which he has kept open for five years, as if it was long ago virtually shut down. When we go into Libya, we do so instead of going into Syria because Libya is said to be a war and the violence in Syria a mere police action; when Libya turns out to be a disaster, then we will go into Syria.
During the present crisis, Obama simply asks his aides what are the arguments of the day to be made. When he is instructed that Republicans are doing something bad, something unprecedented, and something anarchic, then like his often referenced hero LeBron James, Obama wants the rhetoric ball to complete the demagogic play, which results in the usual chaotic invective. That the Republicans are doing something that is not unprecedented or anarchic, but similar to what Obama himself and his party have done in the past, is not even noticed.
In the mind of Obama there are many narratives. If something is a little better in the Middle East, but most things are a lot worse, then the little is his, and the most belongs to others. If somebody did not listen to Obama and decided to produce more gas and oil, then what difference does it make — given that at least they produced more gas and oil at the same time that he was in office?
If smaller deficits are deemed by most to be better than larger ones, then Obama agrees and who cares that he was indifferent whether they became bigger or smaller?
The media, of course, accepts that what Obama says on any given day will contradict what he has said or done earlier, or will be an exaggeration or caricature of his opponents’ position, or simply be detached from reality. But in their daily calculus, that resulting chaos is minor in comparison to the symbolic meaning of Obama. He is, after all, both the nation’s first African-American president and our first left-wing progressive since Franklin Roosevelt.
In comparison with those two facts, no others really matter.