Harsanyi: Comforting fictions of Obama’s farewell speech
Watching President Barack Obama’s soaring 2008 Democratic National Convention speech in Denver, I never imagined the kind of turmoil his presidency would incite. Almost everything has changed in the subsequent years, and yet his farewell speech to the nation was brimming with the same brand of haughty lecturing.
Obama loves to conflate progressivism and patriotism, pitting the forces of decency and empathy — his own — against the self-serving profiteers and meddling reactionaries who stand in the way. All of it is swathed in phony optimism.
The president’s central case for government’s existence rests on the notion of the state being society’s moral center, engine of prosperity and arbiter of fairness. Obama speaks of government as a theocrat might speak of church, and his fans return the favor by treating him like a pope. This was true in 2008. And it’s true now. Just check out liberal Twitterdom.
And for the most part, nothing is his fault.
“When Congress is dysfunctional,” Obama explained, “we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.” For the president, a dysfunctional Congress is a Congress unwilling to pass progressive legislation. That is not the definition of dysfunctional, I’m afraid. Nor is it the definition of extreme.
There is nothing in the Constitution instructing legislators to acquiesce to the president. In the near future, the Republican Congress will be passing tons of legislation, and I can assure you neither Obama nor his many fans in the media will be celebrating the fact that Congress is finally “getting stuff done” or “doing its job.” Progress will no longer be measured in the number of bills signed.
And it shouldn’t be. After all, if voters were displeased with the way legislators treated Obama’s agenda, they had the ability to replace these obstinate lawmakers with more cooperative ones. They did not. That’s because gridlock was created by a party that fooled itself into believing it could rule unilaterally. Also, after Democrats passed their massive health care law — and certainly, there were other reasons — Republicans kept expanding their majorities, and not only in Congress.
Americans voted for equilibrium in Washington, D.C. Congress was working exactly as it was intended. And it has nothing to do with gerrymandering or voter suppression or fake news or any of the other excuses liberals concoct to explain their troubles.
Moreover, the idea that Congress is catering to some “rigid extremes” because elected officials oppose policies that were passed in 2010 might be the prevailing opinion on the left, but it has no basis in reality. Republican positions — like them or not — are well within the boundaries of normal American attitudes. Most of them were mainstream liberal positions not that long ago.
That brings me to this nugget: In his farewell address, Obama warned, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted” (Because we don’t talk about politics enough, apparently!) and urged Americans to help rebuild “our democratic institutions.”
Our democracy isn’t in trouble. We just had an election, in which every citizen permitted to vote — and motivated — could do so. Our Electoral College, part of a broader system that most fairly embodies the will of voters in the nation’s 50 states, also worked exactly as intended.
Maybe Obama means we must rebuild our belief in the separation of powers and the Constitution, since his administration displayed far more creativity in executive power than it ever did in attempting to build coalitions to pass legislation.
He regularly ignored norms of governance, consistently losing cases before the Supreme Court, entering into international agreements without the Senate, creating immigration policy for millions without Congress and using the administrative state to legislate environmental policies that couldn’t even pass when Democrats controlled both houses. Those abuses were not normal.
Obama offered Americans a revisionist history of his entire presidency, casting himself as a resilient truth-teller and champion of democracy. The reality is quite different.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at the Federalist.