February 02, 2009, 0:04 a.m.

President Hamlet
It’s ‘to Be or Not to Be’ Time for Obama.

By Victor Davis Hanson

Instead of Scott McClellan, who was inept and disingenuous as White House spokesman, we now get Robert Gibbs, a nicer sort—who is likewise inept and disingenuous.

For all the promises of a revolution in ethics, President Obama has created a new syndrome: The well-off can be made to stop evading their taxes by nominating them for cabinet posts. In any case, compare Bush’s cabinet picks with Daschle, Geithner, Holder, Lynn, and Richardson—and discover that there is no empirical evidence of any higher ethical standard for public office in the Obama era.

George Bush called for unity, passed some bipartisan legislation on prescription drugs and education, and appointed a few Democrats to his administration. Barack Obama appointed a few Republicans to his administration, but so far has not mapped out areas for bipartisan lawmaking. Despite his legendary cool and gravitas, he has scoffed “I won” (in the manner of Bush’s “I’m the decider”). The uniter went after Rush Limbaugh in a way that Bush never quite took on Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews.

Bush bumps into doors; so does Obama. Bush swaggered; so does Obama (often in a swimming suit). Not much difference there, either.

Bush said Iran was part of an axis of evil. Outraged media insisted that his braggadocio was unwise and gratuitously alienated Tehran. Obama said he wanted to talk to the theocracy without preconditions and improve on the mistakes of our past. Iran answered back: “This request means Western ideology has become passive, that capitalist thought and the system of domination have failed. . . . Negotiation is secondary, the main issue is that there is no way but for (the United States) to change.” So, like Bush’s, Obama’s words incurred Iranian disdain—but won some humiliation as dessert.

On other issues as well—the withdrawal plan from Iraq, the Patriot Act, FISA—Obama is Bush II. Your counterexample is Guantanamo? But Obama has not closed Guantanamo, which has mysteriously become complex and problematic, and therefore has disappeared as the Gulag and Stalag of the op-ed pages. Bush said in 2006 that he wanted to close it; Obama echoed that in 2009, but promised a task force to study how to do it within a year.

So is Obama Bush redux? Not quite.

The comparisons are simply to point out that Obama can pick and choose to do what Bush did, without worrying over press censure or consistency with his past protestations. Remember, there is no press now, at least as we have known it since Watergate. Sometime around mid-2007, during its coverage of the Democratic primary, it ceased to be investigatory and chose to become an adulatory megaphone. A news story on the front pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, or a piece aired on NPR, or a feature in Time or Newsweek, is simply a disguised op-ed on yet another underappreciated moral or intellectual gift of Barack Obama. He has transcended the traditional doctrinaire support for liberal governance and become a sort of talisman that offers exemption to our elite from all sorts of guilt and anguish in matters ranging from race at home to multicultural sensitivity abroad.

Obama, unlike Bush, is an adherent of the therapeutic mindset. The recession was caused by “them”—Wall Street greed mostly—and never “us,” we who borrowed too much for houses we could not afford and things we did not need. The solution will be the European socialist model, in which a few thousand well-trained elites, educated at our best Ivy League law and business schools, will form partnerships with private enterprise. These Guardians will make major economic decisions and redistribute wealth through high taxes and massive entitlements—albeit with the understanding that the managerial class in both business and government will enjoy lifestyles similar to those they led in the past.

The tragedy in all this—aside from the manifest hypocrisy of the first two weeks of the Obama administration—is that Obama is uniquely positioned to do things no other president could accomplish. He need not vote “present” or offer mere hope and change or continue to play Hamlet.

He could, for example, raise the age eligibility of Social Security benefits, cut back on the rates of annual increase, save the system—and hear little of the invective that would greet any other who tried it.

He could call for utopian pacifism, praise the U.N. to the skies, talk up the EU at every turn—but nonetheless allow Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Richard Holbrook, and James Jones to play a morose Shane to his noble-sounding Joe Starrett when the creepy Rykers and the bloodthirsty Wilsons of the world begin to cause trouble. We remember Bill Clinton not for all his bite-the-lip nonsense and therapeutic bromides, but largely for two major achievements: stopping the holocaust in the Balkans and ending government welfare as we knew it.

Obama could radically revise the tax code, not by mega-increases, but by simplification and transition to a flat-tax formula. We are beginning to suspect that the government’s revenue problem follows not from the percentages we pay, but from the fact that millions of Americans—from the lowly who take their wages in cash to the most exalted at the Treasury Department—too often cheat.

In the next year Obama can continue to run against George Bush and whine about the “mess” that “they” left him as he tries to turn the U.S. economy and government into copies of those in Spain and Greece. He can print money and label as “stimulus” a pork plan that is designed to empower Democratic constituencies at the price of leaving generations to come with decades of debt. He can use his formidable powers of rhetoric to talk of ethical progress while he allows Clintonian ethical regress. He can hope-and-change the world—and learn to his dismay that its thugs take such magnanimity for weakness to be ridiculed and indecision to be exploited. And he can end up a mediocre president who counts on historians to whitewash his presidency just as the media once ensured it.

Or President Obama can decline to be worshiped and instead stop the monstrous borrowing, unsustainable debt, and endless expansion of an increasingly incompetent government. And as solace, he can remember that his idol, Lincoln, was as hated by his contemporaries as he was worshiped by posterity—and that the latter is often predicated on the former.

— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.