For a brief moment last week, The Scrapbook felt a twinge of compassion for President Obama. The setting was Berlin. Readers will remember the extraordinary (and extraordinarily peculiar) sight in 2008 of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking to a throng of 200,000 worshipful Berliners in the Tiergarten. No American candidate had ever before campaigned in a foreign country—especially one where spectacles of mass enthusiasm revive instructive memories. But Barack Obama was declared historic even before he had gained his party’s nomination, and that huge rally at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column was just more proof.
What a difference a half-decade makes! Escaping from a G-8 summit in Northern Ireland largely memorable for the images of Obama and Vladimir Putin scowling at one another, the president sought to salvage his journey with a triumphant return to Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” address. But, alas! Berlin seemed to greet its adoptive son with the same enthusiasm as Putin: The crowd that listened to Obama preach about intolerance, global warming, and nuclear weapons amounted to a listless 4,500, by invitation only. Even his faithful acolyte Chris Matthews complained on MSNBC that Obama’s limp performance was caused by glare from the sun.
In fact, of course, President Obama was the victim of a common misstep in political theater: trying to re-create something unique. When Kennedy spoke in Berlin in 1963 the Wall was less than two years old, and there was lingering uncertainty about his administration’s commitment to West Germany. When Ronald Reagan spoke at the same site a quarter-century later, his defiant words (“tear down this wall!”) were hurled at a barrier, and a Soviet empire, still very much in evidence. By the time Bill Clinton made the trek in 1994, however, the Soviet Union was history, Germany was unified, and you had to go to a museum to see fragments of the Berlin Wall.
Which is why The Scrapbook felt some fleeting pity for Obama last week: There he was, orating and perspiring in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate—and no magic in evidence. It reminded us of poor Jimmy Carter’s televised “fireside chat” about energy in 1977. Carter knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats had been immensely popular on radio, and so he dressed himself in an energy-efficient cardigan sweater while the camera pulled back, as he spoke, to depict a White House fireplace. Of course, FDR’s “fireside chats” referred to his audience, the people listening to their president beside the fireplace in their parlors, not the White House chimney.
Jimmy Carter couldn’t impersonate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Barack Obama, to coin a phrase, is no Jack Kennedy.
Mention Ronald Reagan to an avowed environmentalist, and you’ll generally elicit a groan. In the conventional telling, the Gipper appointed right-wing extremists to key environmental positions and proceeded to give timber companies and energy interests a free hand to despoil nature. Had Congress not stopped him, the tale goes, all of the environmental progress of the 1970s would have been swept away in the 1980s.
No whining. No nagging. No teeth-gnashing. These are our springtime resolutions here at The Weekly Standard, at the beginning of the six-month general election campaign to select the next president of the United States.
I’m not the first president to call for this idea that everybody has got to do their fair share. Some years ago, one of my predecessors traveled across the country pushing for the same concept. He gave a speech where he talked about a letter he had received from a wealthy executive who paid lower tax rates than his secretary, and wanted to come to Washington and tell Congress why that was wrong.
Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman from Buffalo, met with Ronald Reagan at the Airport Marriott in Los Angeles in early January 1980. Kemp, an enthusiastic supporter of supply-side economics, had authored the Kemp-Roth tax cut to reduce income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He was eager to persuade Reagan, who had expressed sympathy for the tax proposal in radio broadcasts.
My Reaganite heart leapt and skipped when I read this article, “Obama authorizes secret support for Libya rebels,” wherein we learn that “President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi...Obama signed the order, known as a presidential 'finding'....”
Covert ops! Presidential findings! What’s next? Ollie North reporting for duty?
There’s a phrase that never crosses President Obama’s lips, even as he prepares to propose new tax cuts for small business. The phrase: permanent, across-the-board cuts in marginal tax rates for the wealthy.
The atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff. It’s true that several top administration officials did not want to attempt comprehensive health care reform this year. But they are not opening recrimination campaigns. It’s no secret that many think the president needs to be more assertive with Congress, yet administration officials still talk about Obama in awestruck tones, even in private.
Some would say the administration is underreacting to the incredible shift in the public mood. Some would say they need more voices from the great unwashed. But no one could accuse them of panicking, or of scrambling about incoherently. In their first winter of discontent, they are offering continuity and comity. Whatever their relations with the country might be, inside they seem unruffled. The bonds of association, from the top down, seem healthy — especially for a bunch of Democrats.