Walter Russell Mead Declares Peak Obama

Peak Left? Playing off the idea of peak oil, Walter Russell Mead, in The American Interest, declares this moment in Obama’s presidency to be “Peak Left” for the United States. The tide is going out for liberalism, says Mead, and we’re heading back to the domestic and foreign policy priorities of the Bush years:

The post 9/11 Bush foreign policy led to two long and unhappy wars. America had lost the trust of its allies without defeating its enemies. At home, the Bush tax cuts led to an exploding deficit, and the orgy of deregulation (admittedly, much of it dating from the Clinton years) led to the greatest financial crash since World War II and the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“Could a set of political ideas be more discredited?” liberals ask. The foreign policy failures of the Bush years, they believe, should have killed conservative ideology about America’s role in the world, and the financial crisis, they are certain, should have driven a stake through the heart of conservative economic doctrine. Yet: Here we are, six years into the Age of Obama, and the Tea Party is alive and Occupy is dead.

In other words, Mead (a conservative) acknowledges that the Bush era looks disastrous in retrospect, and yet the far right is more energized than the far left (Tea Party vs. Occupy), therefore it’s a sign we’re headed back to the Bush years.

But does this analysis really make sense? Does it follow that, if the most extreme wing of a political party is animated, it’s a sign of a party’s strength? 1968 and 1972 suggest different. In both of those presidential election cycles, the Democratic Party had a radical activist wing in the streets constantly, and a Republican still won the presidency with relative ease. So perhaps the Tea Party’s energy is indicative of a well-financed, but broken, wheel that is squeaking loudest. But here’s Mead pushing his case:

[F]rom a practical point of view, it is almost inconceivable, despite the cries of “Run, Elizabeth, Run!” emanating from the gentry left, that someone more liberal than President Obama will be sent to the Oval Office anytime soon. It took the unique circumstances of two wars and a financial crash to open a path to the White House for Barack Obama; absent similar circumstances, successful candidates are likely to come from his right for the foreseeable future.

Well, yes, of course, but how far to Obama’s right will the next president be? “Hillary far” or “Cruz far”? Obviously the more likely answer is “Hillary far.” And wait for the essay from Mead should Hillary win. Suddenly she’ll show herself to be, in his estimation, “worse than Obama.” She’ll be the new fright face for American conservatives to hate; the symbol of the godless (and now lesbian) march to European socialism.

But for now, declares Mead, it’s high tide for “left-leaning Democrats,” and “the country has already moved on.”

Moving on or moving back? For conservatives, moving on, of course, means moving back to the good ol’ days of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policy crusades circa 2001-2008, which means fresh wars on:

  • France (European socialism and diplomacy);
  • blacks;
  • Hispanics;
  • Asians;
  • financial regulation;
  • terrorism;
  • Castro (his brother);
  • the poor;
  • marijuana;
  • feminism;
  • evolution;
  • immigration;
  • health care reform;
  • compact fluorescent light-bulbs;
  • arugula at Walmart;
  • the environment;
  • vegetarianism;
  • PBS;
  • global warming science;
  • Islam;
  • atheists

And of course, don’t forget the war on gays. By Mead’s logic, that long and tiresome war will be back. The politics of gay bashing shall return.

Is there really a liberal to conservative language shift in progress? Beyond the far right, there’s little evidence that any of the above issues, or the way conservatives talked about them between 2001 and 2008, are in a state of revival. They seem, in fact (with the exception of financial regulation), to be in a slow but steady retreat. None of them seriously animate the majority of people’s fervid anxiety–or are even likely to. The country talks differently. America, in the Age of Obama, has calmed down. It talks more liberal. If the way conservatives talked in the 2001-2008 period was a corporation, its market share would be in slow, but unmistakable, decline.

Other Bush-era attitudes that aren’t coming back either. During the Bush years there was no war on the national debt (the debt to GDP ratio is still a serious problem). That issue got ignored until a Democratic president could be made the lightening rod and scapegoat for it. Now that the economy is growing, the issue has receded from attention again. It will be back.

And let’s not forget the Bush era wars with weapons (real weapons, not just media and cultural ones). We had two of those inspired by Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war, and they were accompanied by the crassest sorts of anti-Muslim hysteria and illegal torture. Obama, thankfully, reversed course on preemptive war, the demonizing of Islam qua Islam, and torture.

Walter Russell Mead, by the way, in his essay, puts torture, bewilderingly, in scare quotes, as if it’s something he’d be happy to see return to American foreign policy after Obama leaves office.

2016. Evidence that we have not reached “Peak Left” is that our next national election is going to take place under enormous pressure on both parties to have women and minorities on their presidential tickets. And what will decide the next election won’t be which candidate will go farthest in promising to reverse Obama’s courses, but which will promise to modify, consolidate, and (in some cases) extend them. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will say it differently, but at bottom they’ll be promising to mend the Obama Age, not end it. They’ll tweak (a little more or less health care, a little more or less pressure on Russia, etc.), but not disrupt, Obama’s general courses.

Whoever will be the next president won’t win because they promised to torture terror suspects, bomb Iran, break diplomatic relations with Cuba, reverse gay marriage, or re-criminalize marijuana in Colorado. They’ll win because they’ll come across as non-Bush era moderates mixing liberal and conservative ideas that please a sufficient number of constituents to reach a majority of the vote. Exactly like Obama did.

Two issues, post-Obama, we can’t “move on” from. Two festering issues going forward, and which may or may not get addressed adequately in 2016, are how we’re going to get our debt to GDP ratio down to something sustainable (say, 60% rather than the current 100%), and how we’re going to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis. Regulation of banks is eroding again, the stock market looks to be moving into bubble territory (if it’s not already there), and the next recession will surely hit before 2020, putting fresh strains on the debt. These are issues larger than left vs. right, and from which we don’t have the luxury to “move on.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Walter Russell Mead Declares Peak Obama

  1. andrewclunn says:

    If he does have a point, it’s that the vast majority of Americans seem to not give a damn about the torture / interrogation issue, so the group with more motivation can win by virtue of being loud, uncompromising, and actually showing up an election day. I’m at a family reunion this week. There are only three people here who are to my right politically, but damn it if they aren’t the most politically engaged ones.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hmm. Interesting point. It reminds me of Butter’s (Lindsey Graham’s) quip that there didn’t seem to be enough “angry white guys” to swing elections anymore. That will be tested in the next election cycle, certainly.

      • andrewclunn says:

        Oh and as a complete aside. I can’t view your site at work, but do read your posts in the emails that I receive when you post a new one, and there have been some really good ones lately, so keep it up!

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