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A nation divided, a president chastened

By Elvin Lim


On 9/11 each year, the media reenacts the trauma the American people experienced in 2001. Images already burnished in our minds are replayed. Memorials services are held, moments of silence are observed, and the national anthem is sung. National myth-making occurs at the very site where national disaster occurs, so that a new birth of freedom rises phoenix-like from the ashes of ruin.

Or so it seems. What is poignant about the memorial services this year is that they are occurring against a backdrop of a nation so divided that the unity and fellow-feeling that the media is drumming up on 9/11 appears almost to be a parody of reality. Just a week before, we heard a presidential candidate repeat his characterization of Social Security as a “ponzi scheme” in a nationally televised debate, followed by a didactic presidential speech to a joint session of congress where some members did not deign to attend.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the Arab Spring has arrived; but America is still reeling from three summers of discontent. The juxtaposition of a relative national consensus on foreign policy and a national dissensus on domestic policy reveal that Americans love their nation, but they also hate their state. This is the paradox that Barack Obama’s message of hope and change in 2008 tried to defuse; yet it has been the cold reality doused on his domestic agenda from this first day in office. If Barack Obama electrified a nation and rose to prominence when he declared that we are neither the red states of America nor the blue states of America; he has come full circle to the reality that we are still, if not even more so than before, both. Worse still, he must take some responsibility for the outcome.

In no other area has Obama done more harm to his credibility with the political Right than in the perception that he has broken the first commandment of fiscal conservatism: that government should do no harm; but the national debt is the surest proof that it has. Where there was once hope, many now look back and see hubris in the bank bailouts, the stimulus spending, and “clash for clunkers.”

Fourteen months from the next election, it has dawned on his team that even Obama, Camelot incarnate, cannot reconcile Americans’ patriotism and our deep distrust of the federal government. If it is now a foregone conclusion that there is going to be a huge enthusiasm gap between supporters of the Republican nominee and Obama groupies in 2012, then the president’s best bet is to do no more harm. If the economy is not likely to rebound anytime soon, there is little point picking yet another fight with small chances of victory, and even fewer guarantees of economic consequence. Obama’s jobs speech to Congress last week, then, was a fiery opening volley intended to disguise the new campaign logic for 2012: slow and steady wins the race. No more big ideas, just tried and tested formulas.

The day has come when even the USPS is no longer spared the vilification due to another perceived beneficiary of federal largesse. In such a day, Rick Perry has burst into the national scene, ready to take on the paradox that Americans are patriotic and anti-statist. Obama has lost the credibility needed to reconcile the tension in that paradox, so his best bet is to lie low, and hope for a Republican nominee to propose something crazier than Obamacare.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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Recent Comments

  1. Seana Graham

    Wow, Elvin, I couldn’t disagree with you more. If anything, I would say that Obama is too intellectual for the times. There is hardly a consensus on foreign policy and Obama is not the one who brought us the national debt. Further, I would say that his best bet is not to lie low at all, but to take the gloves off and drive home his case.

    I am not actually a part of his base and in fact have been critical of him, but not from the angle that you write from.

    I will agree that Cash for Clunkers was sheer propaganda.

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