I happened to be meeting with Senator Ted Cruz a few hours after President Obama’s United Nations speech Wednesday. We naturally started by discussing the president’s latest oratorical effort. Cruz’s judgment on the speech as a whole? “Unsurprising, but consistently disappointing.” On Obama on Russia and Ukraine? A nice statement by Obama, but “why isn’t he giving serious military aid to Ukraine, both nonlethal and lethal?” Obama’s paragraph on Iran? “It was so short and vague I almost missed it.” And on looking at it, Cruz said he found “striking” Obama’s refusal to reiterate the pledge that Iran will not be permitted to have nuclear weapons. About Obama’s remarks on the Islamic State, Cruz was somewhat complimentary: Obama spoke with unaccustomed “clarity” on the issue of terrorism, and “I will say his language on ISIS was some of the best he’s had.” What’s more, Cruz noted wryly, “At least he did not invoke Yemen and Somalia as models of success.”
The senator’s commentary on Obama’s speech was sound and intelligent. Cruz would have gone on analyzing it for the rest of our time together if I’d asked him to. But I had the sense that we’d said in a few minutes much of what needed to be said about Obama’s speech, and I had the sense that Cruz felt the same. The conversation would be more interesting if we abandoned Obama as our reference point, I thought, and so we did, spending the rest of the session engaged in a lively discussion of public policy and Republican politics.
One conversation does not a world-historical moment make. But this exchange did suggest to me that we’re moving beyond Obama. Obviously, we can’t ignore him. For the next six weeks Republican candidates will and should yoke their Democratic opponents to him. For the next two years, we’ll have to deal with his policies and proposals and nominations. The fact that we’re bored by him doesn’t mean we can wish him away and simply move on.
But we can begin to move on. Obama’s liberalism is so reactionary, his speeches so tedious, his policies so ineffectual, his worldview so discredited, that he’s not really useful any more even as a force to push against. One doubts conservatives can get much guidance for the future simply from reacting against him. This is hardly an unprecedented situation. Once in office, after all, Lincoln couldn’t take his bearings from just trying to do the opposite of Buchanan, nor could Churchill merely be the opposite of Chamberlain or Reagan the opposite of Carter.
The post-Obama world is new. Decline was a choice, but reversing it will be a different task from preventing it in the first place. Reestablishing American leadership isn’t the same as maintaining it. The rollback of the nanny state will require different strategies from efforts to slow its advances. To paraphrase Tocqueville: New thinking and new policies will be needed for a world altogether new.
Today’s conservative task is daunting. But it’s also exciting. The business founder Peter Thiel asks, when was the last time an American politician really envisioned, in a serious and plausible way, a future qualitatively different from the present or the immediate past? His answer? Ronald Reagan, speaking at the Berlin Wall in June 1987. Reagan envisioned a world without the Soviet Union. And then it came to pass. That was a generation ago. Reagan remains an inspiration and a model for American conservatives. But the times require not Reaganite nostalgia but a neo-Reaganite agenda.
Younger Republican candidates and bolder Republican officeholders sense this. The question of the future of the U.S. role in the U.N. is more interesting than an analysis of Obama’s U.N. speech. The question of how much to increase the defense budget next year is more important than denouncing Obama’s past irresponsible cuts. The question of how to move ahead with a replacement for Obamacare is more stimulating than a discussion of Obamacare’s failures. The challenges of a post-Obama world are more fundamental than the challenges of dealing with Obama and Obamaism. For the task is no longer to contain Obamaism. The task is to transcend Obamaism