During the 2008 campaign, it was clear that Barack Obama would govern as a liberal on several important issues. But it seemed possible that, at least in other areas, he might govern as what he insisted he was: something of a centrist, pragmatic and reasonable, nonideological and relatively bipartisan.
It was not to be. And it turns out that there were several moments in the campaign that revealed what an Obama presidency would be like. They were not the result of grand policy pronouncements or statements made in major speeches. Rather, they were more often than not words spoken off-the-cuff, in a more informal setting, and in several instances they were not meant to be made public. But they were; and they provided an insight into Obama’s core beliefs, a sneak preview of coming attractions.
Here are three such moments.
‘I think when you spread the wealth around it’s good for everybody.’
Obama said those words to Joe Wurzelbacher in an unscripted exchange in Ohio on October 14, 2008. They opened a window into Obama’s view of the role of government and his conception of social justice. He seems to be inclined toward equality of results, not just equality of opportunity—and he sees government as the instrument to bring that about.
Like many modern-day liberals, Obama seems to resent wealthy people—or at least those wealthy people who don’t support him or who earned their wealth through enterprises other than, say, multimillion dollar movie deals. Taxing the well-to-do is not simply an economic policy; Obama views it as a moral good, a social virtue, a noble sacrifice. The role of the state is to reduce inequality even if it comes at the expense of growth and prosperity.
The president and his administration’s unyielding attacks on the “rich,” on CEOs, corporations, and wealth creation, are therefore predictable and inevitable. They are a manifestation of his economic and social views. Although it was late in coming around, the Chamber of Commerce has finally realized that Obama’s policies constitute a “general attack on our free enterprise system.”
‘For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.’
These words were uttered not by Barack Obama but by his wife Michelle in a campaign appearance in Milwaukee on February 18, 2008, in support of her husband’s presidential bid. It’s reasonable to conclude, however, that this statement represented both of their worldviews.
We have seen their attitude toward America play out in different ways, most especially in Obama’s worldwide apology tour, where he criticized America for actions past and present, for reasons real and imagined. He has criticized America on everything from committing “torture” to dragging our feet on global warming, from our selective promotion of democracy to unilateralism, from disrespecting Europe to showing lack of respect to the Muslim world. Even the attacks on September 11, 2001, count against America. According to Obama, they “led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.”
The belief that America is run-of-the-mill is also reflected in Obama’s April 2009 statement in France when he was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” Obama said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That is a skillful politician’s way of saying he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism.
When the Iranian regime was crushing the freedom movement, Obama explained his reluctance to “meddle” in the affairs of Iran because of what America did there more than a half-century ago. And so it is no surprise to find a critical view of America reflected in the words of Obama diplomatic aides such as Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner who, when asked if he brought up the Arizona immigration law in his discussions with the Chinese, said, “We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.”
What’s more, Obama constantly places himself above his country; the text and subtext of his remarks send an unmistakable message: President Obama understands the grievances other nations (including our sworn enemies) have against America, and he’s acting as swiftly as he can to move us from darkness into light. If we “occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals,” Obama has said, “that strengthens our hand.” But the president’s more-than-occasional confessions are why dictators such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez have applauded Obama’s portrayal of America.
‘It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’
Obama made this off-the-record comment about people in small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest to a group of wealthy donors in San Francisco on April 6, 2008. What we learned is that Obama is an elitist. He feels superior to and sorry for the unenlightened masses. And sometimes, when they oppose his policies, he and his top aides get downright nasty.
Consider the White House and Democratic reaction to the town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, when Americans registered their strong opposition to Obamacare. These citizens were described as “angry mobs,” as Nazis and clones of Timothy McVeigh, who employed “un-American” tactics. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said the contrast between Obama—whom Emanuel described as “reasoned, calm, looking like an adult in the room”—and the protesters would work to the administration’s advantage. “I think the public looks at screaming, swastikas, attacks. . . . It’s not a persuasive argument,” Emanuel said. “If anything, it is the opposite.”
Then, in August 2009, a USA Today poll showed that the town hall meeting made Americans more, not less, sympathetic to the protesters’ views—with the margin a staggering 2-to-1 among independents. In response White House adviser David Axelrod questioned the survey’s methodology.
Obama’s comments in San Francisco also revealed a man who views small town Americans as somewhat crude and bigoted, harboring racist sentiments. When things don’t go well for them, they turn on “people who aren’t like them.” Obama’s party has displayed this attitude in responding to the Tea Party movement, which it has repeatedly attempted to link to racism.
The view from Obama and his team seems to be that no rational person could possibly oppose his policies; they are self-evidently and by definition right and wise. And so there must be some other explanation for what is happening—ignorance, foolishness, partisanship, bigotry, or some combination of these. Obama clearly believed it was his job, if he became president, to lead people out of their benighted state to broad, enlightened uplands.
Doubtless many factors have contributed to shaping the Obama outlook. But if there is one thing above any others that explains it, it is that he is a product of the academy—in his case Columbia University, Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago.
It is hardly a secret that the ethos of modern universities is hostile toward America and in favor of redistributing wealth and centralizing power. The academy is inhabited by people of considerable, if insecure, arrogance. They are often closed to alternative points of view. The predominant view among academics is that we should transcend country, nationality, and religion. They tend to be contemptuous of mainstream American values and of the general public.
By academic standards, Barack Obama is mild in his views. He is no Ward Churchill or William Ayers. No successful national politician could be. Still, Obama’s years on elite campuses left a deep imprint on him. They helped shape his attitudes, his mindset, and his presuppositions. And so it is not surprising that Obama is drawn to a negative narrative of America’s history and its role in the world; that he has an instinctive antipathy toward business and the free market; and that he is emotionally distant from, and in his unguarded moments somewhat contemptuous of, small-town Americans—the kind of folk who cling to their guns and their Bibles in times of distress.
The warning signs were all there.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.