by Joel Kotkin 01/24/2015
With his recent series of executive actions on U.S. policies ranging from climate to energy, immigration and, most recently, Cuba, Barack Obama is working to fulfill his long-held dream of being a “transformative” president. By decisively circumventing Congress with bold decrees, the president has won the plaudits of his core media supporters, with predictable “amens” from Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post and from the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who described him as a more “transformative” president than either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.
From his earliest days in office, Barack Obama made no secret of his desire to be a “transformational” president. And in Washington’s alternate reality, many in the media still revere Obama, a president with approval numbers in the low 40s, according to RealClearPolitics.com. One giddy CNN commentator even compared our chief executive to “Superman.” Obama insiders have little doubt about his greatness. Former campaign manager Jim Messina calls him not only “transformative” but among the “all-time great presidents.”
Yet, despite these huzzahs, it seems that voters are less than impressed. One reason: Americans may want some change – and may even be willing to sacrifice some to achieve it – but appear less enthusiastic about being “transformed.” They seem more comfortable with change done through the evolutionary swamp of congressional politics, reaching consensus on important issues and being presidential the old-fashioned way.
The most recent transformational president, ironically, was George W. Bush. In his case, this was less a matter of ambition (or even narcissism) than a reaction to the events of 9/ll. Bush’s transformational reordering of American foreign and military policy left us with a persistent mess that his successor, and, likely, Obama’s successors, will have to clean up.
Likewise, it’s hard to see this president’s “transformative” foreign policy ideas as particularly successful, or even well-considered. In many ways, notes Harvard’s Joseph Nye, our best foreign-policy presidents – such as George H.W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower – are “transactional,” while rejecting what he calls “the cult of transformative leadership” pursued by such idealists as Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
When he took office nearly six years ago, Obama was determined to “reach out” to the Islamic world. Given his own multicultural background, not to mention his famously silvered tongue, Obama seemed sure to turn the Islamic world into our ally. But, as is so often the case, in reality, the U.S. has become steadily less popular since his election. It appears that Muslims have been no more mollified by Obama’s words, not to mention his drones, than by George W. Bush’s bolder bombs-away interventions.
Another exercise in transformational futility has been Obama’s much-hyped “pivot to Asia.” He’s ended up pivoting in circles while China begins to construct its own version of wartime Japan’s imperialist “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” As China’s military capacities grow, the president is stripping down, something that terrifies our friends in East Asia.
Perhaps no issue has less resonance with ordinary Americans than climate change, ranking consistently at the bottom of voters’ expressed concerns. In survey after survey, economic issues such as unemployment, the economy and the federal budget resonate with voters, while climate change barely registers.
But among those closest to Obama, and to the gentry liberals who are his primary funders, there is no issue more “transformational” than climate change. After all, only a transformative president, like a modern-day Moses, can keep the waters from rising over us as we flee the evil pharaohs of the fossil fuel industry.
This is not to say climate is not a concern, even if you are skeptical about some advocates’ more hysterical claims. It is probably a good idea to address carbon emissions, if for no other reason than pollution is bad and that the scientific “consensus,” although far from unimpeachable, is strong enough to suggest taking steps not to overheat the planet. So the question is how to best address this issue, and at what cost.
Unfortunately, the president’s transformational addiction has led to some poor, and likely counterproductive, decisions. This actually hurts the green cause, as most Americans, according to a recent study appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change, are more interested in adapting to climate change than radically reorienting their lifestyles to prevent it. They may fear a changing climate, but not so much that they want to disrupt their lives in the kind of radical ways suggested by many environmental activists and their business backers.
One thing Americans are not enthusiastic about is – in the name of climate change – sending more of their jobs to developing countries. Obama’s recent much-ballyhooed pact with China on emissions allows the world’s fastest-growing polluter, with a terrible record on this issue, to reject scrutiny of its efforts to limit carbon emissions until 2030. India, another rising greenhouse emitter, refuses even to set a similarly bogus deadline.
This all leaves America, and its even more clueless European allies, slouching toward the nirvana of an energy base dependent on “renewables.” In Germany, and here in California, radical steps have raised energy prices and pushed industries to seek out places with less-Draconian regulations. Sadly, neither greens nor the administration has embraced the more evolutionary approach: substituting natural gas for far-dirtier coal. This switch has already helped the U.S. reduce its carbon emissions faster than any major country, far more, indeed, than the self-righteous Europeans, whose expensive and inefficient green policies have left them burning more coal.
As with climate change and foreign policy, good intentions no doubt underpinned the president’s recent orders affecting undocumented U.S. residents. But the way the measure was carried out – after the election, and without the support of Congress – all but guarantees deeper conflict over immigration policy in the coming years. Although most Americans support some form of legalization, most, including many Latinos, also opposed using executive authority to do so.
Getting legislation through Congress may well be painful, and slow, but there is something worthwhile in achieving broad support within both parties. This is particularly true when the opposition, as it does now, has a near-record degree of control of the House and a solid majority in the incoming Senate. The Reagan 1986 amnesty plan had its critics, but it allowed this critical issue to be handled in a bipartisan way. Reagan, clearly a more transformative president than either George W. Bush or Obama, still followed the basics of the Constitution, and acknowledged the importance of getting broad congressional buy-in on his policies.
But, given the imperial manner that Obama employed, immigration policy can be dismissed by some as little more than an effort to expand big government’s – and the Democratic Party’s – client base into the next century. One can argue that this strategy is, indeed, transformational, but in a way that threatens to exacerbate ethnic tensions and worsen the economic plight of citizens – Latino and otherwise – already in the country.
Back to Evolution
The president’s bids, without popular or congressional support, to achieve transformation by decree represents a dangerous turn for the entire political process. This is unhealthy in the long term, not only for Republicans and conservatives, but, down the road, likely for liberals as well. Liberals like law professor Jonathan Turley believe his fellow liberals may someday “rue” their support for Obama’s “uber-presidency” when a conservative president, citing the Obama precedent, also rules by decree.
The overall growth of transformational politics endangers the country. If conservatives sometimes overreach in terms of military affairs or regulations in the bedroom, modern transformational liberalism sees itself as blessed by the gods of science, while, of course, ignoring those things – such as the efficacy of natural gas or the need for GMO foods – that are not compatible with their worldview. These polarized positions leave as many as three in five voters, according to Gallup, wishing for a third party.
A healthy political system, of course, changes, but needs to do so – outside of a major emergency – at a pace that the population can absorb. Every significant change in recent years – from growing legalization of marijuana and gay marriage to bold experiments in educational reform – has come, as it should, from states and localities. This allows change to occur congruent with the values of specific locales, and go national only when this stance appeals to the majority of legislators and voters.
As we know from nature, evolution is often messy, and sometimes how it works is surprising. But, with patience and time, natural systems, like political ones, tend to be able to rebalance and adapt. By jettisoning evolution for transformation, President Obama, following a predecessor seen by many as inept, has made this adjustment process far more difficult and contentious than it would otherwise be.
This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.