Barack Obama lately has been accusing presumptive rival Mitt Romney of not waging his campaign in the nice (but losing) manner of John McCain in 2008. But a more marked difference can be seen in President Obama himself, whose style and record bear no resemblance to his glory days of four years ago.
Recently, the president purportedly has been reassuring Democratic donors that his signature achievement, Obamacare, could be readjusted in the second term - something Republicans have promised to do for the past three years. What an evolution: We have gone from being told we would love Obamacare, to granting exemptions from it to favored companies, to private assurances it will be modified after re-election - all before it even has been fully enacted.
Mr. Obama’s calls for a new civility four years ago apparently are inoperative. The vow to “punish our enemies” and the intimidation of Romney campaign donors are a long way from the soaring speech at Berlin’s Victory Column and “Yes, we can.” Mr. Obama once called for a focus on issues rather than personal invective. But now we mysteriously hear again of Mr. Romney’s dog, his great-great-grandfather’s wives, and a roughhousing incident some 50 years ago in prep school.
The “hope and change” slogan for a new unity gave way to a new “us versus them” divide. “Us” now means all sorts of targeted appeals to identity groups such as African-Americans for Obama, Latinos for Obama, homosexuals for Obama, greens for Obama or students for Obama. “Them,” in contrast, means almost everyone else who cannot claim hyphenation or be counted on as a single-cause constituency. In 2008, the Obama strategy supposedly was to unite disparate groups with a common vision; in 2012, it is to rally special interests through common enemies.
Remember the Barack Obama who promised an end to the revolving door of lobbyists and special-interest money? Then came the likes of Peter Orszag, who went from overseeing the Obama budget to being a Citigroup grandee, and financial pirate Jon Corzine, who cannot account for more than $1.5 billion of investors’ money but can bundle cash for Mr. Obama’s re-election. If you told fervent supporters in 2008 that by early 2012 Mr. Obama would set a record for the most meet-and-greet fundraisers in presidential history, they would have thought it blasphemy.
Mr. Obama is said to go over every name on his Predator drone targeted-assassination list - a kill tally that has become seven times larger in less than four years than what George W. Bush piled up in eight. Guantanamo is just as open now as it was in 2008. If Obama supporter and former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh was once accusing President Bush of being “torturer in chief,” he is now an Obama insider arguing that bombing Libya is not really war and that taking out an American citizen and terrorist suspect in Yemen is perfectly legal. Previously bad renditions, preventative detentions and military tribunals are now all good.
Some disgruntled conservatives jumped ship in 2008 for the supposedly tightfisted Mr. Obama when he called for halving the deficit in four years and derided Mr. Bush as “unpatriotic” for adding $4 trillion to the national debt. Yet Mr. Obama already has exceeded all the Bush borrowing in less than four years.
What accounts for the radical change in mood from four years ago?
The blue-state model of large government, increased entitlements and high taxes may be good rhetoric, but it is unsound reality. Redistribution does not serve static, aging populations in a competitive global world - as we are seeing from California to Southern Europe. “Hope and change” was a slogan in 2008; it has been supplanted by the reality of 40 straight months of 8-percent-plus unemployment and record deficits - despite $5 trillion in borrowed priming, near-zero interest rates and vast increases in entitlement spending.
Mr. Obama’s bragging of drilling more oil despite, rather than because of, his efforts is supposed to be a clever appeal to both greens and businesses. Private-equity firms are good for campaign donations but bad when a Republican rival runs them. “Romney would do worse,” rather than “I did well,” is the implicit Obama campaign theme of 2012.
To be re-elected, a now-polarizing Mr. Obama thinks he must stoke the fears of some of us rather than appeal to all of our hopes by defending a successful record, while smearing with the old politics rather than inspiring with the new. That cynical calculation and constant hedging and flip-flopping may be normal for politicians, but eventually they prove disastrous for the ones who posed as messianic prophets.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.