The spirit and phantom of ‘Yes, we can’

Yates Walker Conservative Activist
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But for the last few years, optimism has been a hallmark of the conservative movement. Back in my ignorant and politically unaffiliated twenties, I was initially drawn to the right side of the aisle because of conservatives’ swagger. Republicans preached self-reliance and projected confidence. Democrats always seemed to be complaining about something. Both sides had problems. The right saw obstacles. The left saw impasses. Even before I could identify the issues, I knew which team was mine. And that first impression has held true for most of my life. But, in recent years, conservatives have lost a bit of their trademark pep. We’re beginning to sound almost as gloomy as liberals.

Many smart conservatives, including the great Mark Steyn in his latest opus “After America,” have suggested that our nation is doomed, citing the election of Barack Obama as evidence of an incurably capricious citizenry. As their argument generally goes, Barack Obama is not the root problem. His election is merely a symptom of a national epidemic of unseriousness. Just over 53% of us voted for a man with zero executive experience to be the president of the United States. To be sure, this is cause for concern. Barack Obama is the least qualified chief executive in at least a century. The most morose of our doomsayers insist that his election marks the end of the responsible American voter, and that inevitable decline is sure to follow. I’m not quite so pessimistic. And, in defense of 53% of my countrymen, Obama had a good slogan.

There was no genius behind the “Hope and Change” of Obama’s first presidential bid. Regardless of party, every candidate for executive office campaigns on some banal vision of brighter days ahead. Despite our troubles, we Americans are an unusually cheery bunch, and we expect the same from our leaders. Aspirant candidates always tell us that the sun’ll come out tomorrow. Obama’s 2008 version was novel only because it was a little on the nose.

It’s the “Yes, we can” chorus that, in retrospect, was inspired.

In the aftermath of Obama’s 2008 victory, it was glowingly reported that Michelle Obama was the Rembrandt behind “Yes, we can.” The cutesy narrative was that Michelle had authored it, and Barack wasn’t crazy about it as a campaign centerpiece. But Michelle insisted upon it, and now look where they are. Yay, girl power!

During the campaign, I loathed it. It was an incomplete sentence. “Yes, we can … what?” I would snarl at the ecstatic hoards of chanting zombies whenever Obama rallies appeared on my TV screen. A predicate was implied, but, without context, it was meaningless. For a cranky conservative like myself, I sometimes attempted to complete the sentence. Yes, we can … create more dependents? Yes, we can … surrender to our enemies? Yes, we can … outspend our predecessors? The surface vapidity and endless repetition drove me to distraction. But what I couldn’t see through my McCain malaise was the fundamentally American sentiment the slogan captured so beautifully.

“Yes, we can” is a full-throated message of defiance. It is optimistic, exultant and resolute. It is the aspirational script of American classics from “The Little Engine that Could” to Rocky Balboa. And, shockingly, the message is individualistic. If the “we” were collectivist, Obama’s poll numbers would be in considerably better shape. No, the “Yes, we can” mantra was a reflexive statement. It’s what Americans believe about themselves. And, perhaps most hopeful of all, the statement is transcendent — one of the very few remaining cultural threads that 21st-century Americans share with the revolutionaries of 1776. For them, the “Yes, we can” sentiment was an outrageous conceit that ultimately overthrew both an empire and world history, as America’s first generation took its initial steps toward self-government. Indeed, it is a promising sign that the sentiment still resonates with the American people.

So the spirit of “Yes, we can” is alive and well, and thank God. Unfortunately for Obama, its phantom lingers as well.

Running against a despised — however unjustly — opponent is a mercurial asset. Even during his meteoric rise, Obama didn’t benefit politically from his Bush-bashing (which is something his campaign staffers still don’t seem to realize). Candidates don’t win office in this country by tearing down others. They win by building us up. Barack Obama won the presidency by appealing to America’s best angel, our belief in ourselves, the all-American can-do attitude incarnate. That’s why his struggles have been perplexing, both to him and to those who voted for him.

Americans are accustomed to politicians failing to deliver on their promises, but Obama didn’t run on policy. His campaign was a pageant of optimism and empowerment, so Barack, the president, is not merely disappointing. His performance is antithetical to Barack, the candidate.

The years of the Obama administration have delivered a sequence of “No, you can’t” missives to the American people. You can’t take care of yourselves, so I’m going to give you national health care. You can’t read a mortgage before you sign it, so I’ll deal with the banks. You can’t manage your money responsibly, buy a reasonable car, insulate your homes, etc., so here, have a government handout. The result is mystified ex-supporters taking to the streets with inchoate declamations aimed at everyone with a job.

To win a second term, every president in modern history has increased his voter base from his first election. Unable to rally supporters around his successes, Obama sees one road to victory: blame, then kill, the GOP. Obama will attempt to resurrect “Give ’em hell” Harry Truman and try to sell an unlikely narrative — that the newly elected Republicans are to blame for a recession that Obama couldn’t buy his way out of with $5 trillion.

Here’s the tragic or poetic part, depending on your perspective. The more successful Obama is in his effort to ridicule, vilify and destroy the Grand Old Party, the more distant he becomes to the one opponent he cannot assail, his phantom nemesis: Barack Obama 2008.

Want to make a friend? Tell her she has boundless potential. Want to win an election? Tell everybody. Obama did the latter in 2008. In 2012, he haunts himself.

Yates Walker is a conservative activist and writer. Before becoming involved in politics, he served honorably as a paratrooper and a medic in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He can be reached at yateswalker@gmail.com.