President Obama has been taking a good deal of flak, lately, for all the time he is spending on the golf course. He famously “took a break” from his latest vacation to address the horrors of the beheading of an American journalist by an Islamic extremist group, and to say a few words about the violence in Ferguson. Then it was back to the links. Some commentators have likened Mr. Obama’s golf habit to more unseemly and self-destructive habits, and indicated he may “need help” with an addiction. Obviously, the more strenuous criticisms come from the Republican side of the aisle, but even Mr. Obama’s political supporters clearly are exasperated by his seclusion and seeming indifference to the chaos in which his Administration and, increasingly, our politics and the world more generally, have been mired.
All this calls to mind conservatives’ frequent criticisms of President Eisenhower’s seemingly nonchalant attitude toward world events at the height of the Cold War. With armed communism marching over most of Asia and half of Europe, Ike seemed frankly uninterested in the job of governing. This led some frustrated “right-wingers” at the time to label Ike himself a communist, to which Russell Kirk famously replied: “Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.”
Some of us conservatives have heard this quip one too many times, but, as usual, Dr. Kirk was brilliantly cutting through ideological confusion. Mr. Eisenhower in no way showed “pro-Soviet” sympathies or actions; his seeming uninterest constituted no evidence of ulterior motives. The same might be said of Mr. Obama in terms of his liberal policy goals: he hasn’t betrayed the cause of forcing America farther and farther to the left, he has simply been playing golf. A few years ago one commentator wrote of golf’s addictive nature in an almost religious tone. But it seems clear that more needs to be said about what this “addiction” does and does not mean about the Obama and Eisenhower presidencies.
In President Eisenhower’s case, as historians have discovered over the course of several decades, there was much more going on than appeared from the golf outings. Ike’s has been called a “hidden hand” presidency, indicating his determination to make his influence felt behind the scenes, where it might have the greatest effect. In both domestic and foreign affairs, Ike was a delegator (much like his later, more physically energetic successor, Ronald Reagan) who sought subordinates whose principles and work ethic qualified them to carry out his program.
Ike gave up on many programs conservatives wanted, especially rolling back the basic elements of the welfare state and lowering taxes. But he was fully engaged in the Cold War. In fact, one might argue that Ike was a bit too engaged in the Cold War. As so-called “isolationist” conservatives were pushed aside as somehow “soft on communism,” Mr. Eisenhower worked hard to counter Soviet influence, and to make the U.S. militarily effective, even at the cost of important domestic values. Perhaps the most important reason for his pushing through a massive, destructive program of public works building freeways across America’s heartland was a determination to improve military mobility. Much of small town and rural America died in the process. Ike also engaged in many covert (and not-so-covert) military operations aimed at countering the Soviets, some of which arguably entangled us in other nations’ internal disputes more extensively than was wise. And, of course, he built up our military, as clearly was imperative under the circumstances, but in a manner he himself came, in part, to regret. It was Ike, after all, who first warned of the “military industrial complex” that conservatives should never forget is behind the corruptions of our “elite” universities and their ability to get away with robbing and propagandizing our children.
Ike made mistakes, some of them very big ones. But it would be simply wrong to say that he was not engaged.
And what about President Obama? The swamp of ineptitude, distrust, and failure into which his administration has descended might lead one to believe his disengagement more real and damaging to his program. Alas, such is not the case. Unlike Ike, who was engaged in both legislative and foreign policy programming, Mr. Obama has no real need for either. He has given up on the first, and never really cared about the second. This is not to say that he never wanted to accomplish anything, but, as someone convinced of his own rectitude, the bad faith of his adversaries, and the proper subordination of process to results, he always was going to have a very short lifespan as a mover of legislation. That said, his recent failures have not been programmatic, but concrete. He has gotten a good deal of what he wanted, and will get more. Unfortunately, reality is not kind to the sort of ideological programs he has supported, as the nation has found to its deep regret.
Mr. Obama achieved, in fact, the single greatest legislative goal of his administration, and has been spending the rest of his administration defending it and countering those who seek to undermine it. That goal was, of course, the government takeover of Americans’ medical care and, with it, institutionalization of the final capstone of the social democratic state. His supporters and detractors alike seem not to recognize just how momentous and revolutionary this finalization of the federal government’s ultimate responsibility for the well being of the people really is. Yet the Supreme Court’s abdication, through Chief Justice Roberts, of its responsibility to maintain the fundamental character of our federal government as one of limited, enumerated powers, has established, in concrete fact, that there no longer is any non-negotiable limit to the reach of the government into the lives of its people; it even may demand that they engage in activities the government deems in their interests. Once fully established, this principle leaves opposition to the total state without any principled, dependable defense. And, unlike in the Europe Obama and so many in his party want us to be, the United States, until recently, was not a society with a government of such all-encompassing responsibility and power.
As to world affairs, Obama never really cared about international politics, save in the sense that he always has held that the United States is an “imperial” nation that undermines the efforts of various “freedom fighters” around the world. Unlike the principled “isolationist,” Rand Paul, he has been willing to act when humanitarian needs achieve sufficient press coverage, but there never was an “Obama plan” in foreign affairs beyond distaste for our military.
What, then, is left for Mr. Obama to do? More than play golf, of course. Indeed, on a number of legislative fronts, from taxes to immigration policy, he has been an abject failure at achieving meaningful reform. Then again, he has shown time and again that he doesn’t need legislation to get what he wants. For example, merely allowing illegal immigrants into the country and refusing to do anything about them aids the cause of further undermining immigration standards and the sanctity of our borders.
Then there is the whole panoply of “lesser” policies Mr. Obama has sought to further: the range of left-liberal issues regarding “diversity,” sexual mores, and the continued attack on any religious participation in the public square have been furthered without legislation because, increasingly, ours is a nation of Presidential decrees (executive orders) and administrative fiat. And here President Obama can happily leave the heavy lifting to his various minions in executive agencies and, of course, his chief enforcer, Attorney General Eric Holder.
Mr. Obama has shown a willingness to simply change the law by issuing decrees labeled “Executive Orders” on everything from abortion to “climate change,” to the establishment of entire new federal bureaus. These and other less formal decrees have given marching orders to his supporters in various agencies to continue the daily work of radicalizing government, without the need for pesky legislation. Bill Clinton advisor Paul Begala summed up the use of executive orders to further policy goals quite well: “stroke of the pen … law of the land. Kind of cool.” One can give the stroke of the pen from the golf course quite easily, thank you very much. New law of the land, and back to the links. Kind of cool, but deadly for constitutional government.
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