Having failed to find a campaign message that resonates with voters, President Obama and congressional Democrats have settled on a bizarre closing argument: that Democratic candidates and American democracy are imperiled by the infusion of funds from undisclosed and foreign entities.
Obama’s attacks on campaign spending by pro-Republican groups are a transparent attempt to distract voters from his failed legislative agenda. They also highlight Obama’s increasing tendency to pick fights with political opponents, to demonize and smear his critics and generally to exhibit some of the most unpresidential behavior this side of Watergate.
The argument that foreign money is undermining the electoral process was thrust to the fore last January. During his State of the Union address, President Obama launched an unprecedented attack on the Supreme Court.
Obama alleged that in its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned restrictions on corporations’ political speech, the court had “reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.”
Obama’s accusation elicited Justice Samuel Alito’s famous “That’s not true” response.
Obama continued, “Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.” Obama then encouraged Congress to pass a law to overturn the court’s decision.
While much of the media focused on Alito’s alleged “breach of etiquette,” it was Obama who had unfairly attacked the justices, who attend the State of the Union out of respect for the President, at a venue that gave them no chance to respond.
More recently, Obama has repeatedly accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of “tak[ing] in money from foreign corporations” and “spending huge sums to influence American elections” by producing issue advertisements “without ever disclosing who’s behind all these attack ads.”
“Now, that’s not just a threat to Democrats,” Obama declared at a recent Philadelphia event, “that’s a threat to our democracy.”
The Chamber does receive membership dues from corporations abroad, some of which are foreign-owned. But donations from corporations in foreign countries account for much less than 1% of its budget.
And, importantly, the Chamber segregates foreign donations from money it uses for political advocacy. It’s a common legal practice employed by many organizations with international affiliates, including liberal ones like the AFL-CIO and Sierra Club.
It is surprising that the Obama Administration would raise the specter of foreign money entering American campaigns. It was only two years ago that Obama was dogged by similar accusations about his presidential campaign.
Obama’s mudslinging contradicts the image of a presidential candidate who claimed to herald an end to the politics of personal destruction. Sadly, as Obama’s approval ratings have descended, so has his rhetoric and bearing.
Obama’s combativeness began early. His campaign warned television stations against running a commercial that highlighted the candidate’s ties with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. And it threw unsympathetic media outlets off the campaign bus and plane.
Once in the Oval Office, Obama has repeatedly ridiculed conservative media outlets and personalities. His speeches are peppered with disparaging references to “Wall Street fat cats,” “the insurance industry,” “the oil companies” and the others who oppose his agenda.
Obama’s attacks are sometimes less direct. When talking about the economic crisis, Obama will often refer to “this crowd” or “those who created the mess” to deflect blame from his own growth-stifling policies.
Obama seems to enjoy throwing rhetorical punches, often going out of his way to pick fights. After acknowledging he knew nothing of the case, Obama accused the Cambridge police department of “act[ing] stupidly” in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates.
He essentially accused the majority of Arizonans who support that state’s commonsense immigration law of xenophobia.
Recently, Obama told Massachusetts donors that Democrats’ problems can be chalked up to the fact that people are “hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.”
That wasn’t the first time Obama blamed his political troubles on voters’ ignorance and impulsiveness. When he began losing primaries to Hillary Clinton two years ago, he told a group of San Francisco liberals that Midwestern workers cling to guns, religion and xenophobia as a way to explain their frustrations.
Whereas past Presidents talked tough to and about America’s foreign enemies, Obama saves his harshest words for his domestic political adversaries. Meanwhile, he bows to foreign dictators and greets the likes of Hugo Chavez with a hearty “mi amigo.”
Obama’s demeaning behavior cannot be all that surprising. Most past Presidents were Vice Presidents, military generals or governors before they ascended to the highest office in the land. They spent decades in the national spotlight, gaining the dignity, wisdom and stature necessary to be leader of the free world. Obama, in contrast, made the journey from state senator to the Oval Office in only four years.
And as James Ceaser noted of Obama in August, “the longer he is President, the less presidential he has become. Obama has reversed the usual process of growth and maturation, appearing today far more like a candidate for the presidency … than he did during the latter stages of his campaign.”
Greats like Washington and Lincoln were willing to admit mistakes and failure. Obama’s only “I screwed up” moment followed his aborted appointment of tax-cheat Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services.
It was only 16 months ago that Newsweek editor Evan Thomas called Obama a “brave” and “great teacher” who “stands above everybody.” Thomas later elaborated, saying “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above—above the world, he’s sort of God.”
To our media elites, Obama may always be a god-like figure who can do no wrong. To most Americans, however, Obama began a quick descent soon after taking the Oath of Office.
Obama was once defined by soaring rhetoric, lofty aspirations and sky-high approval numbers. All those have fallen back to earth with a President who today is more likely to sling the mud than to enchant the heavens.