Monday, January 19, 2009

The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . . is Obama.

by Fred Barnes
01/26/2009, Volume 014, Issue 18

Barack Obama is the apostle of hope. But he also arouses the flipside of hope--fear. And while the fear he stirs may turn out to be unfounded, it's not irrational. People don't know who Obama really is or where his ideological center of gravity rests, to the extent it rests anywhere. He was a liberal in the Senate and the campaign, a centrist in the transition, and who knows what he'll be as president. He's elusive.

I count four separate fears. Whether he's a crypto-Marxist is not one of them. Neither is the absurd fear that he's secretly a Muslim, even a closet jihadist. Nor is the groundless claim Obama was actually born outside the United States and isn't really an American citizen. Forget all those. They're nonstarters.

He doesn't know what he's talking about. This is a legitimate fear. Obama throws around numbers like confetti. In the campaign, he said he would create 1 million jobs. After the election, he put out a plan he said would produce up to 3 million jobs. Then in a radio address on January 10, he said the number could reach 4.1 million and said 500,000 would be jobs in the alternative energy field, 200,000 in health care. Does he really believe he can achieve this? The fear is that he might.

"Social Security, we can solve," he told the Washington Post last week. Really? President Bush, freshly reelected, promoted Social Security reform in 2005 and got nowhere. Certainly Obama was no help. Obama "said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market," the Post reported. When will this happen? Not next year or next summer but next month when he convenes a "fiscal responsibility summit."

Obama is smart, Ivy League-educated, and able to discuss issues knowledgeably and intelligently. He's put together a strong staff. The same was often said of Bill Clinton. Brains and advanced degrees, though they thrill Washington's journalistic elite, aren't enough. Clinton didn't have a magic wand and neither does Obama. True, reality often creeps in. Obama initially aimed to shut down Guantánamo instantly. Later his aides said it might take a year. Last week, Obama told the Post he'd consider it a failure if the prison hadn't been closed by the end of his first term.

He's a pushover. Who's tougher, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or Obama? The fear is that Reid and Pelosi are. Indeed they act like they are. Reid told ex-senator Joe Biden, Obama's vice president, he's not welcome at meetings of the Senate Democratic caucus. Neither Reid nor Pelosi is cautious about ramming the liberal agenda through Congress. Pelosi wants to raise taxes now, in the teeth of the recession.

As a senator, Obama never bucked his party, its leaders, or a single liberal interest group. In the 2007 debate over immigration reform, Obama voted for every amendment pushed by liberal lobbyists, though if they'd passed, the amendments would have jeopardized the emergence of a bipartisan majority. The legislation died for other reasons.

Obama's allegiance to organized labor has been unflagging. He co-sponsored "card check" legislation allowing labor to set up unions without winning elections by secret ballot. He's still for it, despite its unpopularity and diminished prospects of passage. When he met last week with Mexican president Felipe Calderón, Obama said he wants to "upgrade" the North American Free Trade Agreement. Renegotiating NAFTA is a top priority of labor leaders, but Mexico, Canada, and most economists fear it would reduce trade and stir alarm about a wave of protectionism.

He's another Jimmy Carter on foreign and national security policy. Carter had misplaced confidence in his ability to bend anyone, including dictators, to his view through persuasion. He was a talker, not a doer. A year after he met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Carter was shocked when Brezhnev ordered an invasion of Afghanistan. His talks with North Korea led to a treaty on nuclear weapons that the North Koreans soon violated. Carter was surprised again.

Obama's willingness to meet with dictators or other anti-American leaders has raised the Carter fear. He sometimes talks about diplomacy as if it's a panacea, a surefire way to solve the world's problems. On the other hand, Obama is committed to sending more American troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. And he's backed away from a rapid withdrawal from Iraq now that a status of forces agreement has been reached. Perhaps the fear of Carter redux is exaggerated.

Obama has nerves of jello. This fear may be unfair, since there's no evidence one way or other as to how he might react in a crisis. David Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Obama "possesses an enviable inner calm." Maybe, maybe not. What Obama does have is an enviable outer calm. Inside, he may be wracked with doubts and anxiety as he takes over the presidency. We don't know. The problem is he's never had to make a truly tough decision.

Presidents with strong nerves are decisive. They don't balk at unpopular decisions. They are willing to make people angry. President Bush had strong nerves. President Clinton, who passed up a chance to eliminate Osama bin Laden, did not. Obama is a people pleaser, a trait not normally associated with nerves of steel.

We'll soon discover if any of these fears has merit. Obama made a series of clever moves during the transition, reaching out to conservatives and picking evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. But these were cost-free, ephemeral, and didn't reveal much. What Obama does as president will tell us all we need to know.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.


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