It would be all right with me if the voters of Arkansas were correct in deeming President Barack Obama to be an extreme liberal wholly out of touch with them.
That is to say I would have no problem either with a genuinely liberal president or with fellow Arkansawyers who made accurate assessments.
But they don’t because he isn’t.
The fact—resisted though it be amid the misapprehensions of Arkansas—is that Obama actually is only a little left of center and is mildly to the right of Bill Clinton, the state’s favorite son.
Surely you remember the good ol’ days of Clinton’s culturally palatable centrism, not to mention pragmatism and bipartisanship. According to conventional wisdom in Arkansas, those traits were infinitely preferable to these near-socialist ones that the people of Arkansas now profess to behold in their despised president.
But Clinton raised taxes on high incomes without a single Republican vote. He put his wife behind closed doors to remake health care and try to give everybody a government health security card. He let the government get shut down before he would go along with Republicans on cutting spending. He eschewed foreign military action until he had no choice in Kosovo. He survived impeachment for perjury on a straight party-line vote.
Contrast that with the supposed European socialist now occupying the White House.
Obama caved to Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts on high incomes. He signed congressionally designed health care reform modeled after ideas advanced by the conservative Heritage Foundation as alternatives to Bill and Hillary’s liberal proposals. He offered to House Speaker John Boehner to “go big” on entitlement cuts. He continued George W. Bush’s foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden.
Obama did indeed run up the deficit with a stimulus measure to keep the economy from collapsing as he entered office. Of course Clinton pushed a stimulus package, too, when he entered office—and when the economy was fine.
The fact is that Obama inherited most of this ongoing deficit, taking office in mid-fiscal year only a few weeks after the Bush administration’s $789 billion bailout of Wall Street. He ran it up with stimulus spending. It otherwise rose because the economy had collapsed and outlays for Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment benefits exploded.
But in regard to budgets that he actually has proposed as president, beginning with the one for the fiscal year starting nearly a year after his election, Obama has raised spending at a slower rate than Clinton.
Obama did indeed bail out the automobile industry, which paid the government back. Of course Clinton bailed out not American companies, but a whole foreign country, Mexico, which, actually, also paid back the loan.
Obama did indeed hop aboard generational change, albeit late, to embrace gay marriage. Of course it was Clinton who was liberally way ahead of that cultural curve, trying to let gays into the military nearly 20 years before.
Anyway, gay-rights advancements are less matters of political philosophy than of generational inevitability.
So I’m fully with Janine Parry, the political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who told this newspaper Sunday: “People’s perception [of Obama as a wild liberal] is demonstrably off-target.”
I only partly agree with my good friend, Anna Farris of Arkadelphia, vice chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party. As an explanation for the gap between the reality and the professed perception of this president, she told this newspaper for that same article:
“I’m afraid it all boils down to race.”
I rely instead on greater nuance, though perhaps it’s actually euphemism on which I rely.
While old-fashioned racism is surely a factor, I suspect there are many in Arkansas who feel alienated from Obama but who would accept a Colin Powell presidency or even a Condoleezza Rice one.
Prevailing Arkansas aversions to Obama are more broadly issues of culture than skin color, more a matter of what some call “otherness.”
Obama had a Kenyan father. He went to Muslim school in Indonesia. He was a community organizer. He had an acquaintance who had committed radical and insurrectionist acts as a younger man.
He had that wild pastor, Jeremiah Wright, while Clinton had W.O. Vaught—though we are accountable only for ourselves, not our pastors. Obama is no more the same as Wright than Clinton was the same as Vaught.
The other factor in Obama’s alienation in Arkansas is the big lie.
Republicans simply are more effective than Democrats at declaring a simple untruth loudly and repetitively through a pliable and powerful echo chamber of talk radio and cable news, thus embedding that untruth beneath the superficial consciousness of people otherwise disengaged.
If you could take Obama’s style and policy positions and put them in someone born to a widowed mother in southwestern Arkansas, you would have . . . well, you thought I was going to say Bill Clinton.
But it actually would be Clinton’s marginally less liberal younger cousin—more disciplined, more inspiring, less pedestrian, much less understood.
John Brummett is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.