It was back in the early days of the Obama Administration—well, I guess this is still the early days, but I mean really early days, when Rush Limbaugh set the cat down amidst the canaries. The conservative talk-radio host told the Conservative Political Action Conference that he did not want Obama to succeed. Former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich quickly retorted that such thoughts were insane, and tantamount to rooting for the country to fail. The brief cat fight that followed gave some winter entertainment to Democratic audiences everywhere.
Closer to home, around this same timeframe, my wife had an encounter with an Obama supporter on Facebook. This fan of the new president’s asked my wife something to the effect of “Surely you want to at least give him a chance.” These are interesting questions posed to opponents of a new Administration. What does it mean to want a president to succeed? What does it mean to give him a fair chance? As big-ticket items on Barack’s first-year agenda come to a head in the Congress, with health care and cap-and-trade bills pending, now is as good a time as any to give some answers.
Is seeing the president succeed one in the same as seeing the country succeed? Clearly, Gingrich and Limbaugh saw it differently—though it was Newt who stooped to demagoguery in implying Rush wanted the country to fail, when the talk-show host simply didn’t accept the same linkage between chief executive and the nation itself. And I agree with Rush on this one. A president and a nation are not interchangeable and indivisible, and it borders on political idolatry to make it so. I recall reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fine memoir Wait Till Next Year, and she talked about being a teenager during the early years of the civil rights movement and the showdown over integration in Little Rock in 1957. Goodwin recalled learning for the first time that supporting one’s government policies were not the same as supporting the nation itself. During the Bush Administration, countless opponents of the Iraq War argued this same point. Today, it is those opposed to the liberal agenda of Obama who must draw the distinction between the government and the nation.
Politically, it often works out differently. If the economy improves and the nation stays secure from terrorist attacks, Barack is going to be re-elected. For those that oppose his policies, doesn’t that put one in the awkward position of rooting for unemployment and terror hits? Let’s be frank—if one gets consumed with hating the current president that’s always a possibility. Democrats were exultant in the bad news of the Bush years, and it’s naïve to think Republicans are shedding too many real tears over the failure of the unemployment numbers to improve. But that strictly refers to political professionals, who make a living off their ability to win elections, and activists, who tend to let hatred of their domestic opposition blind them to the bigger picture. I would stand on the ground that it’s better for the long-term political health of the country if voters stop ceding so much credit and blame to the president for things he has minimal control over—such as the economy, and recognize that he’s just one tiny factor in large world. If we understand that, it becomes quite possible to root for peace and prosperity, while opposing a specific political agenda every step of the way.
What about giving the new president a chance? What does that mean? Here we have a question that sounds good on the surface, but has no real substance. Most people have developed their political views over a period of years. And if one really doesn’t believe that large government spending constitutes stimulus, or that the liberal agenda on health care and the environment has merit, why should they change their mind simply because a new president won? Barack won fair and square and he has every moral right to push this agenda. But those that oppose him—both in the Congress and the country at large, have an equal right to oppose an idea that they’ve already examined and found wanting.
I think a more reasonable way of putting this is asking voters of a strong partisan leaning if they will judge a new president of the opposite party by the same standard they judge one of the home party. Or will they adopt a posture of just wildly flinging opposition about in spite of any attempts at good will? The latter has been the track record in every presidential administration in recent vintage. George Bush Senior worked with a Democratic Congress on liberal initiatives in civil rights, disabilities and the environment and got nothing but abuse for his trouble. Bush II reached across the aisle to Teddy Kennedy and enacted a big federal move into education, and got even more abuse. In the current Administration, Obama nominated a Court justice who could turn out to be palatable to pro-lifers and got the professional conservative attack machine in his face.
The double standards have to end. As one who thinks George W. Bush a good president and Barack Obama thus far a poor one, I’ve done my best to clean up any double standards. In the opening year, I’ve given tacit support to Judge Sotomayer, and noted the vitriol of Barack’s critics mimics those of Bush, to name the most prominent. And if by some miracle, Obama suddenly morphed into a pro-life, pro-marriage, strong on defense, U.N.-bashing leader, I’ll be the first to sing his praises.
To suggest that “giving him a chance” means supporting ideas I’ve already thought through and don’t like is an unreasonable request. As is the implication that support for a specific political agenda is tantamount to patriotism itself. What is reasonable is that everyone judge a president by the same universal standard, regardless of party, and that peace, prosperity and the value of every human life go above short-term political considerations. Most people instinctively understand this. It's political activists who need some help.