If you like hyper-partisan stream of consciousness rants, be sure not to miss Fouad Ajami’s take on Obama’s “summer of discontent,” a stylishly written diatribe that, eventually, doesn’t seem to say anything. Since it lacks a unifying thesis, one can only approach the piece in parts. First, we find a disjointed critique of Obama’s optimism, one that only holds together by assuming its conclusion and ignoring the potency of national rebirth stories:
[Reagan’s] faith in the country was boundless, and when he said it was “morning in America” he meant it; he believed in America’s miracle and had seen it in his own life, in his rise from a child of the Depression to the summit of political power. [. . .]
In contrast, there is joylessness in Mr. Obama. He is a scold, the “Yes we can!” mantra is shallow, and at any rate, it is about the coming to power of a man, and a political class, invested in its own sense of smarts and wisdom, and its right to alter the social contract of the land. In this view, the country had lost its way and the new leader and the political class arrayed around him will bring it back to the right path.
Obama and Reagan actually have a lot in common here, a conclusion Ajami struggles to disclaim. Both, in fact, spoke of optimism, national rebirth, and a struggle to reclaim the American dream. If their visions of a reborn America differ, their central messages do not. Ajami may not be too excited about Obama’s vision for America, but a majority of the country still is, and one man’s disapproval does not make the dream of a nation “shallow.”
Second, the by-now-familiar line that Democratic distaste for town hall “protestors” is anti-democratic:
So our new president wanted a fundamental overhaul of the health-care system—17% of our GDP—without a serious debate, and without “loud voices.” It is akin to government by emergency decrees. How dare those townhallers (the voters) heckle Arlen Specter! Americans eager to rein in this runaway populism were now guilty of lèse-majesté by talking back to the political class.
Who you think has the better of this argument probably turns on whether you think gun-toting mobs screaming about Nazi “death panels” constitutes “serious debate.” If you do, then by that definition, you’re right: Obama and the Democrats do want to stifle “serious debate,” as detrimental to the policymaking process. But if you think “serious debate” should have fewer guns and Hitler mustaches, and more calm discussions about deficits, insurance premiums, and the problem of insurance companies systemically abusing patients, then I submit that we don’t know how Obama feels about “serious debate,” because the Republican Party has made no bona fide attempt to engage him in one.
Ajami imagines that these two problems — Obama’s failure to convey a message of optimism that appeals narrowly to angry conservatives like him, and his inability to get the GOP interested in the real work of government, as opposed to angry, Godwin’s Law-flouting whining — together prove that “Mr. Obama’s charismatic moment has passed,” the spell has broken, and his presidency is over. Maybe it has, and maybe it is, but if so, it isn’t because Obama’s charisma has given out. It’s because the GOP has hit on three things more powerful than charisma: fear, pessimism, and elitism.