I remember what it was like to get into Yale. At seventeen, that mildly sunny Friday afternoon in December opened into an oceanic river yawning into a skyline of vague but destined brilliance. All the sacrifices I’d made, compromises I’d swallowed, and hardships I’d weathered had suddenly yielded the finest dividends I could have hoped for. By the time May rolled around and I had conquered my International Baccalaureate exams, I was incorrigible. My star was rising, and the idea that anything this side of matriculation mattered was a nearly impossible sell.
And yet, the real world tumbled on. I needed money for college, so I had to get a job for the summer between high school and pre-orientation. For only the second time in my life — and the first in the private sector — my time was a facet of other people’s bottom lines, and they cared not one whit for my imaginations of grandeur. My Jeep sputtered and demanded service like a petulant millennial. I had to lose a Saturday changing out a flat tire and buying a new one. Gas prices were suddenly my concern, rather than just my parents’. Beyond all that, I finally got to New Haven only to find my star not quite as bright as I had let myself believe. I learned a lot about humility from age 18 to 22.
I don’t know what, exactly, President Obama learned over the four years of his first term. I notice that second-term Obama inherited quite a mess — underemployment is higher, more people are out of work, racial disparity is wider, and labor participation is lower than when first-term Obama moved into the White House. Not surprisingly, the economy, jobs, and the debt are the top issues for most Americans. More bafflingly, however, none of these issues appears on the short list of a second-term agenda that reads more like a progressive manifesto than a disciplined contract with America.
What’s most striking, however, is not the fact of his shameless liberalism — most of us expected that much — but the way his meteoric boldness is divorced from what should by now be intuitive political understanding. Assuming the Democrats believe their own mythology, Team Obama must posit that the president’s aggressive interjection on any sensitive issue is likely to complicate, if not derail, consensus-building. So in light of a bipartisan Senate outline for immigration reform, what on Earth did President Republicans-All-Hate-Me expect to accomplish with his immigration speech? Does he honestly believe including immigration provisions for same-sex spouses will be more feasible because of his public grandstanding? Is it all of a sudden the case that his front-and-center presence will grease over the wheels of political action? Did his perceived failings in his first term really come down to not enough sternly worded speeches?
Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The corollary, of course, is that it is amazing how much you can obstruct your own stated goals when your primary concern is husbanding your own legacy. (But if Obama is going to cultivate part of that legacy on the rocky, urban soil of gun control, at least he had the forethought to have a camera ready for that one time he went skeet shooting.)
So let’s not mince words. In the late push to enshrine the progressive revolt against the prosperity of Reagan’s free markets and the Clinton-Gingrich balanced budgets, Obama has all but sidelined the once central push for jobs and a robust economy. In doubling down on the creeping expansion of the welfare state, he is expected to ignore the advice of his own jobs council in favor of an expansive regulatory regime. Never mind that free enterprise and some attendant inequality are vital to a climate of robust innovation. With a contracting economy and unemployment eking upward, the unemployment of the jobs council certainly clarifies priorities.
Notwithstanding the stagnant economic promise of Barack Obama’s America, the president’s left flank remains determined to see in him the same singular greatness he doubtlessly sees in himself. All flaws, failings, and ambitions unrealized are the fault of maleficent Republicans tilting bitterly at the windmills of Hope & Change™ because they hate minorities or something. The president’s approval ratings are impressively high on the afterglow of his re-election, and liberals have already carved his place in the 21st-century Pantheon of the “post-Rushmore Rushmore.” While the media remains complicit in the impression of progress on jobless “hot button” issues, this polling advantage might persist for a time. But eventually, the ultimate questions will crescendo: Where is the progress? Where are the (good) jobs?
The flying unicorn mythology of Obama’s legend — a hodgepodge of truth, legerdemain, and outright fantasy — was a problem evident in that early rebuke of Eric Cantor: “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” It continued in a pattern of unanimous rejections at the Supreme Court through the recent judicial rebuke of the unprecedented expansion of executive authority to declare when the Senate is not in session — a step even George W. Bush did not take. Most recently it emerged in the fantastic notion that a skeet-shooting photo has any more relevance to a discussion on the right to self-defense than “American Idol” balloting has to the right to suffrage.
Obama’s cool hubris is a fascinating extension of the atmospheric self-infatuation that characterizes his young American bulwark of support. It’s small wonder that a generation raised on social promotion — as opposed to demonstrable merit — and feel-good pop moralism — as opposed to substantive ethics and results — would increasingly rate itself “above average” while clinging to a commander-in-chief who simultaneously embodies and enables the party of lip-service responsibility amid spiraling insolvency.
The sad irony is that Obama’s governance is in many ways the instantiation of the America of my generation. The staggering self-absorption prevents the kind of raw but earnest self-reflection that would reveal a rather inconvenient but obvious truth: we would rather convince ourselves and others that we love and represent humanity than undergo the hard, unflattering work of ensuring that anyone but ourselves is substantively better off. Thus the focus on “hot button” issues to the neglect of a broader, practicable vision of the world. As William Kremer put it, “Narcissists may say all the right things, but their actions eventually reveal them to be self-serving.”
To the degree that young America is the Obama demographic, we are The Post-Everything Generation of Internet activists, community organizers, and It Gets Better. Our leaders are terrified of civilian weaponry they don’t bother to understand and yet are comfortable deriding a prince in active military service. They borrow endlessly with no regard for our future or our children, and we dutifully enable them with paeans to “intersectionality” and “kyriarchy” (neither of which, according to Windows and Chrome, are even words). Our philosophy is post-reality, our metric post-results, and our outlook post-narcissism. We are a cesspool of vanities anathema to pride or consequence. We are the generation of Hope, which is but reified wind.
But nothing is forever. One day soon, Obama’s colossal pride will stumble in the ever-quaking rumble of reality, and my generation will discover its liberalism is at odds with its entitlement. In the end, we all just want to do right by our convictions. As my eighteen-year-old self discovered the world wouldn’t change my ruined tire, no matter how much I valued and deserved my weekend, there will be a day of reckoning for the big-government activism of the Obama coalition.