Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

That is said to be writer Samuel Johnson's assessment of a man who married for a second time after the death of his first wife ... to whom he had been unhappily married for many years.

I have come to the conclusion that it has many potential applications to Barack Obama and his campaign for a second term — but I'm having some difficulty narrowing it down to the best one.

You see, I have long felt that it is an accurate appraisal of any voter's decision to vote for Obama.

Based on his record in office, it's hard for me to see how anyone who did not vote for Obama in 2008 would be inclined to vote for him now.

2008 was when his appeal was at its zenith, when his soaring rhetoric reminded many people of American presidents from the past who are still admired today.

And, perhaps more than any other presidential election in my memory, 2008 was a choice between a candidate in whom voters saw themselves as they wished to be — and a candidate in whom voters saw themselves as they really are.

The voters selected the idealized version — and many have been disappointed. Clearly. Only 45% of Americans approved of the job he is doing in a recent poll on the subject. That's quite a tumble from the 70s and upper 60s of the early days of his presidency.

But 2012 is a different election. Ultimately, Obama will be judged on whether he has delivered on his promises — as is every incumbent president.

Thirty–two years ago, Ronald Reagan summed it up for fence straddlers who were trying to decide whether to give President Jimmy Carter a second term: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked, and a majority of voters decided the answer was no.

Reagan the challenger was elected.

This is the eighth election since Reagan asked that question in his debate with Carter (ninth if you count the election in which Reagan defeated Carter). It is the fifth election in which that question has been relevant to one of the candidates (again, if you include 1980, it is the sixth such election).

When the answer has been yes, as it was in 1984 when Reagan sought a second term and in 1996 when Bill Clinton sought a second term, the incumbent has won a resounding victory.

When the answer has been no, though, incumbents generally lose (i.e., Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992) — although they have been known to pull out narrow victories once in awhile (i.e., George W. Bush in 2004).

I have no doubt that many of those who voted for Obama four years ago expected more from him than has been delivered.

Some probably feel obliged to support him now because they share the same party affiliation. For others, he pushes the right buttons when he speaks, whether his actions in office have matched his rhetoric or not.

Still others, I have concluded, feel compelled to support Obama — even if they are not satisfied with his performance in office — because they have decided that it would look bad to the rest of the world if the first black president is rejected by the voters.

Those people, I have noticed, are the first (but hardly the last) to point fingers at Obama's critics and label them racist — whether the label is deserved or not.

Now, I know that there are some people who will vote against Obama because of his race (which, as Morgan Freeman rightly pointed out recently, is not black but, rather, biracial). But far more of those who dissent from Obama do so from deeply held personal convictions.

I learned a long time ago that voters evaluate political candidates on the basis of what matters to them. Politicians (and their most devout supporters) do not get to choose what voters use to make their evaluations.

For some voters, what matters is a candidate's race (or gender or religion or sexual preference). I pity them because they are blind to the experiences and talents that many people bring to the table.

But we have been conditioned to assume that racism only works one way.

Lately, I have been wondering something: If we acknowledge that a certain portion of the vote that will be recorded against Obama in November will be due to his race, shouldn't we also acknowledge that a certain portion of the vote for him will be because of his race?

I know there are people out there who support Obama solely because he is black. I know some of them personally, and I know others from their arguments.

Arguments like ...

"Well, I know he isn't perfect, and I disagreed with him when he did W and X, and I didn't approve when he said Y and Z. And I don't feel comfortable with his positions on A, B and C.

"And he could have done more than he's done, but I'm going to vote for him, anyway."

These are the enablers.

And then there are excusers:

"None of this is his fault. He inherited a terrible mess that was years in the making, and it's going to take years to clean it up."

Perhaps, but recent polls I've seen say that about three–quarters of the voters believe the economy and jobs are the most important issues facing this nation.

That really isn't new. A majority of Americans believed that the economy and jobs were the most important issues facing us in 2008.

Or they will say, "We're screwed either way," and then they will tell you that they will vote to keep the guy who is in office.

I've asked some people if they would be inclined to re–elect a white president under these circumstances. They all said no, but they all said they would vote for Obama.

Four years ago, I told anyone who would listen (and even some who didn't want to) that whoever was elected, Obama or John McCain, his urgent mission would be to put America back to work.

If he did not, I warned, he would pay a severe price when he sought re–election.

Well, here we are, four years later. Obama has done little, if anything, to promote job creation. His policies have, in fact, restricted job creation.

And he continues to blame his predecessor — who certainly deserves his share of the blame for what he did in office but not for decisions that have been made since he left the White House.

This is pass–the–buck politics. It used to stop at the president's desk but no more.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Ronald Reagan didn't continue to flog Carter after he had been in office for 3½ years. Nor did Clinton continue to flog the first George Bush when he had been in office for 3½ years.

But Obama feels entitled to play by different rules, and some of his supporters — in what must be the ultimate example of the triumph of hope over experience — are willing to permit him to do so in spite of mounting evidence that points to the folly of such an approach.

I guess those people never watched a carnival shell game — because that's how it works. The guy who is playing the game keeps talking and keeps distracting, and the mark loses track of where he thinks the pea is.

We are about to embark on a week of shrill, unfounded name calling and mudslinging at the Democrats' convention in Charlotte, N.C., on behalf of a man who hasn't been able to bring unemployment below 8% in the entirety of his term.

That must be evidence of reverse racism.

Certainly, it is proof that Samuel Johnson was right.

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