For most of Barack Obama’s first term as president he talked passionately, if not persuasively, about the need for national unity. Even the Stimulus Bill – largely a laundry list of pent up Congressional desires – was described as a national effort to get the economy moving. His prime legislative initiative, Obamacare, was advertised as a way to extend medical coverage for those without insurance. Of course, it nationalized one-seventh of the American economy and set the stage for unprecedented government expansion. Although it may be premature to attach historical labels to the president’s first term, I think his record displays what might be called “soft authoritarianism.”
This label suggests the president moved decisively to expand government authority, but in so doing he employed the soothing language of necessary reform. Whether these decisions were needed or effective is largely a matter of speculation, but there is little doubt about the result.
However, the launch of the second term reveals a dramatic shift in attitude: soft authoritarianism has been converted into the hard variety. In its new form, the president has unhesitatingly indicated a desire “to win,” to decimate his rivals in the Republican party. Fiscal cliff negotiations and the anticipated negotiation over the debt limit indicate the president believes his election victory was a mandate. Both privately and publicly President Obama has referred to Republicans as “the enemy,” not rivals nor foes. He wants his way and believes he is entitled to get it.
Nowhere was this more evident than in his Inaugural address, what used to be described as a time to reach across the political aisle. Mr. Obama did no such thing. His tone was partisan and hostile. He even took an unwarranted slap at the Republican hopeful, Mitt Romney. This was more of a press interview than a national address, but in its way, quite revealing about presidential ambition.
Since spending is the president’s theme, it is already clear that budgetary decisions will dictate the national defense profile. The president’s desire to orchestrate the withdrawal of most international commitments will be justified as a response to fiscal exigency. Since Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are untouchable items, and since they constitute 42 percent of the national budget, defense has become the target for dramatic retrenchment. Without saying so, the president has implied that the U.S. cannot meet all of its international commitments and perhaps cannot afford to be a superpower.
In order to achieve his goals in a seamless way the president must gain control of the House. Hence all political efforts in the next two years will be designed to embarrass, deride and undermine Republican leadership even when Speaker Boehner acts in a decidedly accommodative manner. Republicans will be the target and divide and conquer will be the strategy with the encouragement of a third party a distinct possibility.
In another four years – should Obama be able to carry out his agenda – America will look like a very different country. The government will be the primary source of all economic activity. Taxes that are increasingly progressive will be encouraged. And the U.S. bilateral defense agreements will have as much value as the paper they are written on. The U.S. will have been Europeanized just as Europe enters the dust bin of history.
Here is the meaning of hard authoritarianism. Impose presidential will on the American people, friend and foe alike. Disregard traditions of national unity, even Constitutionalism. Give lip service to the Second Amendment, but deny guns to even law abiding citizens. Devalue the First Amendment through indictment and prosecution of those who defy “acceptable” opinion. Whatever happened to the hapless filmmaker who was falsely accused of precipitating the attack of the American Embassy in Bengazi? And use Executive Order to bypass Congressional authority. In the last four years President Obama used Executive Order 921 times, more than the aggregate of all presidents in American history.
This is not a pretty picture, but the signs are clear. President Obama is out for blood. He noted in the campaign that revenge against his opponents was appropriate. That time has come in the form of hard authoritarianism.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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