Reality check

If history is any guide, Barack Obama is at the height of his popularity as he is sworn in as president of the United States. Most of his fellow citizens, regardless of their party, will be hoping and perhaps praying for him as he begins at least four years of service to his country as the single most powerful man not only in the United States, but in the world.

Like most of his predecessors, Obama will enter the White House with the opportunity to turn electoral success into something more. Indeed, most recent polls tell us that the American people have placed more faith in him than in some who have come before him. They have taken his rhetoric to heart. They truly expect him not only to tackle the serious problems confronting the nation at home and abroad, but to do so as a unifier with the national interest rather than his own interests or those of his party as a guide. This hope is perhaps naïve, but prevalent. The question is whether he will be able to live up to these expectations.

Thus far, Obama has been doing what he does best. He’s been giving speeches rather than making hard decisions. He has appointed a Cabinet he may have difficulty controlling, and the all-important hiring decisions that have been announced for lesser jobs are not encouraging. In government, personnel choices usually dictate policy, and in the new administration, the president’s early personnel choices would seem to indicate that his administration is preparing to move quickly and decisively to the left.

Even more ominous is the early establishment of an external grassroots lobbying capability designed, apparently, to keep his political operation intact and functioning and to create an army of activists his White House can mobilize in support of his legislative and political agenda. The operation will reportedly be housed at the Democratic National Committee, but will operate independently of the Democratic Party. Some press reports suggest that the new president and his advisers hope to raise as much as $75 million a year to fund the operation and eventually dispatch hired operatives to virtually every congressional district in the country.

If these reports are true, one is forced to conclude that the president and his advisers envision a permanent campaign the likes of which Americans have never seen. Past presidents have encouraged their outside supporters to speak up on their behalf, but none had the technology or the money to do what Obama’s people are planning. One can only assume that the army they are building will be used to go after both Republican and Democratic incumbents who dare to disagree with or even question the White House on issues deemed important by the president or his men, to prepare the ground for the 2010 elections in districts currently held by Republicans and to dominate discussion of those issues in the public square.

During the transition, the Obama team considered the possibility of putting all this together within the White House itself, but backed off when it became clear that it would be blatantly illegal for them to use taxpayer funds to do what they now hope to do outside, with private funds. Given those involved both within and outside of the administration, it is fair to predict that this will be a machine that will be prepared to play political hardball and take no prisoners. After all, the final shots are likely to be called by Rahm Emanuel, who could emerge as a sort of Democratic Karl Rove without table manners and far more willing than Rove to use a blackjack on his boss’s critics.

Interestingly, Barack Obama today stands before the American people as a unifier, much as George W. Bush did in the days following Sept. 11, 2001. The public today, as then, knows that Americans face tremendous problems and really want a leader who will keep them together.

Political reality and his own performance prevented Bush from providing that leadership, and it is my guess that within a few months our new president will find the unified support he sees today slipping away for the same reasons.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.