By Rob Cohen, January 2010
One of the beauties of the 2008 Obama campaign was that it could be summarized in a single word: “change.” More beautiful still was the fact that this message could mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean: To Democrats, it meant a shift towards their ideology; to Independents, it meant an end to rancorous discourse and corrupt lawmaking; to the many different individuals in the United States and around the world who fell in love with Obama, it probably represented many different hopes. To everyone, it connoted that he was the anti-Bush, and for this mastery of sloganeering he won both the election and the Nobel Peace Prize.
We now know that some of these interpretations were incorrect. Few Obama supporters would contend at this point that business as conducted in Washington has changed significantly, or that purple moderation has carried the day; on the contrary, “change” has simply turned out to mean a major shift to the Left in policies emanating from Washington. Labor unions have replaced oil companies as the White House’s favored constituent, government deficits are created largely to funnel cash to the poor instead of the rich, and trial lawyers hold the influence that hedge fund managers once did. Meanwhile, partisan division remains high, one Goldman Sachs executive replaced another at the Treasury department, special interests had a field day with the health care bill, every appropriations bill contains dozens of pages of earmarks, and the average citizen grows daily more disgusted with Washington.
A left shift within foreign policy epitomizes how much Obama has spurned moderation in favor of embracing the Bush mirror image. Whereas the Bush Doctrine offered preemptive attack, the Obama Doctrine has emerged as a policy of preemptive conciliation. Five major diplomatic forays over the past year exemplify this monumental ideological reversal. We ceded a missile defense system in Eastern Europe in the belief that Russia would help us with Iran. We rejected a visit from the Dalai Lama in the hope that China would assist us with global warming. We apologized to Europe for past mistakes as we pleaded for their help in Afghanistan. We offered “negotiations without preconditions” to Iran while crossing our fingers that the belligerent dictatorship would help us build a peaceful future. And we are promising to relinquish nuclear weapons in the supposition that other nuclear powers will do the same. So far, all five efforts appear unrequited, while they have weakened the United States’ defense capacity and claim to moral uprightness in Tibet and Tehran.
Time will tell if these policy reversals will prove productive. But already clear is that Obama’s version of change has turned out to mean merely embodying the anti-Bush in policy foreign and domestic; in the arena where Independents wanted “change”—the corrupt, partisan manner by which Washington works—it seems that things have stayed the same. The change his voters believed in meant bringing CSPAN cameras to cover the health care negotiations, not giving a man with inside knowledge about Al-Qaeda in Yemen the right to remain silent. Obama must reverse course in 2010 if he wants to bring about the change his campaign promised to so many, or else risk engendering just as much cynicism and division among the American public as did his predecessor.