John Kennedy fused together the technocratic and the audacious, the banal and the poetic, in a way that the modern left knows it’s at sea without. Sadly, he was also a white scion and an elite philanderer, and his wife thought that Lyndon Johnson — the man obliged to do for civil rights what Kennedy did not — had him murdered. She also called Martin Luther King, Jr. a “terrible” “phony” who loved drinking and orgies.
Caroline can wave these things away — and, of course, has. For its part, the progressive left must blame the political failure of what Ross Douthat calls “the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence” on Oswald, on Nixon, on the gravity of a fallen world that brought down its shooting star.
The embittered redreaming of dreams surrounding Kennedy’s poetry of The New Frontier is back with a vengeance as Obama’s lyrical ode to a New Foundation — or Winning the Future — or whatever — crashes hard against the reality his policies have done more to cement than to change.
The president’s frustration is evident. Progressives cried foul when conservatives pulled out of context Obama’s claim that “we’ve been a little bit lazy” over the last couple of decades. But the context was “something called SelectUSA that organizes all the government agencies to work with state and local governments” to boost foreign investment, as Obama described it to the audience of CEOs gathered in Hawaii to talk economic cooperation.
The scandal is not “lazy.” The scandal is “we.” For Obama, the “we” is the grand “partnership” between big government and big business, the only recognizable organizing principle of his administration.
Just so, to the disgust and delight of Republicans, the president alleged that “we’ve lost our ambition” and “our imagination” — at a campaign event in San Francisco where he (unsuccessfully) pitched a big new round of government spending on infrastructure.
As progressives of the left would seem obliged to believe, the president appears convinced that opposition to his policies means opposition to his poetry — and that, since there are no dreams to justly dream but progressive dreams, opposition to his plans is nihilism, weakness, drift, malaise, a moral defect that amounts to its own kind of treason against some future America.
It is, resolutely, not his mindset, not his mood at fault. Beset by enemies, put upon by the world, victim of deliriously unreasonable expectations proudly and maximally leveraged, Barack Obama is a tragedy for the left because he proves that the contradictions of progressive politics cannot be resolved even under the most historically favorable conditions. And he is a hero because he proves that, in our time, the closest the left can come to greatness is to try, try again.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.