David Gelernter: What keeps this failed president above water?

David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats), just published by Encounter Books. Earlier this month he wrote “Why do we live in America-Lite?” for us, briefly summarizing the themes of his new book. We invited him to return with something that expands on the themes of the book. He has graciously responded with the column below, applying the themes of his new book to explore Barack Obama’s apparent political buoyancy:

Surprise is the beginning of wisdom, and President Obama and his campaign so far are deeply surprising. His presidency is a basket case, a failure with a capital F, and yet he is neck-and-neck with Romney. The only comparable failure since World War II was Jimmy Carter’s—and Carter, it’s true, gave Reagan a tough race in 1980. But Carter at least attracted a stiff primary challenge from Edward Kennedy. And voters were scared of Carter’s opponent (the terrifying extremist Ronald Reagan); they might not be inspired by Romney, but they are comfortable with him. Obama’s showing this year is a surprise from many angles.

The utter failure of this president is rank. History’s most expensive plan ever for buying your way out of recession barely propelled the economy uphill, and now, in a squeal and stench of smoking tires, the Obama Special (sweating, straining, roaring, leaking dollars) is slipping back down again. The president’s signature approach to governing is to ram through some wildly-unpopular measure and then take a bow as the audience hoots. He did it with his famous unreform of healthcare, and again with the blocked Keystone pipeline. His attorney general would be a joke if he weren’t so dangerous, but Obama likes him. The president did give up such unpopular ideas as closing Guantanamo, card-check, a criminal trial for KSM in Manhattan à la P.T. Barnum, cap-and-trade–but only because there was no way to push these things through. (Although when Obama can govern by decree instead of by legislation, he is only too happy. Legislation has always struck him as a monumental bore.)

Iran disdainfully snubs him, Russia snubs him, Europe ignores him, the Israelis can’t stand him, the world grows more dangerous by the hour. He did indeed take out Osama, and has moved aggressively to kill terrorists. But any other president would be deemed to have turned these victories into defeats by his tone-deaf campaigns afterward to squeeze out maximum political gain–as if he had killed Osama himself, bare-handed. The cost to US intelligence sources or the dignity of the office matters nothing, evidently, as the Obamiacs mash every last drop of juice out of the pulp. In fact this is a man to whom “cost” seems like a foreign concept, a word he has never learned.

He used to seem intelligent and articulate, capable of wit and charm when he felt like trying. But assaulting Romney, he is arrogant and patronizing. Nowadays his smiles are ominous. The grim satisfaction he takes in mocking, goading and heckling Romney calls to mind an Elizabethan bear-baiting.

But even more surprising than his political super-buoyancy is the resurrection of big-government, 1930s-style economic thinking in the Democratic party long after it was taken out with the trash along with Jimmy Carter, and once more (for good measure) after Gingrich smashed Clinton in the ’94 midterms. The failure of central planning and state-managed economies is one of the big themes of the 20th century. But Obama’s handlers have yet to tell him.

His biggest asset is being black. People feel virtuous when they vote for him, or support him, or at least don’t trash him. We all like to feel virtuous. One has the impression that most commentators write off the whole question of his surprising political resilience by assuming, implicitly, that race explains everything.

But it doesn’t. There is more to this story. Obama perfectly fits the personal profile of the Culture Machine that runs so much of the American elite nowadays.

The Machine is run by PORGIs, who are just like Obama: post-religious, globalist, intellectuals or at least intellectualizers (who talk and act like intellectuals even if they don’t quite qualify themselves). And his being black, with an African father, an African name (icing on the cake) and a childhood spent in a Muslim nation (the cherry on top!) makes him beyond perfect–makes him nearly divine. We’re unlikely to hear anyone say so during this campaign as frankly as Evan Thomas of Newsweek did in 2009: reviewing the president’s recent speech in Cairo, Thomas explained to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above—above the world, he’s sort of God.” But we all get the idea.

He is post-religious: he took his family to a church where the religion seemed to be America-hatred. There are no biblical echoes in his speeches, as there have been in the speeches of so many presidents, left and right, and such other American leaders as Martin Luther King. “Pandering to religious nuts” is the way PORGIs analyze such references. Another way to describe them is quintessentially American. We are, after all, a biblical republic. The idea of America– freedom, equality, democracy, and America as the promised land–grew straight out of the Bible. Obama is the first American president to put all that stuff behind him. As for American Zionism, American Exceptionalism, the city on a hill—it is one part of the American creed that Obama simply rejects.

He is the perfect globalist. America is intellectually and spiritually too small for him. He and his colleagues in the PORGIate rise as effortlessly as hot-air balloons to the level of global versus merely national. Obama Obaminates America’s acting alone. He likes to pull into the mix not only our allies but our opponents. Russia must help with Syria. Russia and China must help with Iran. In the globalist worldview, “enemy” is a childish idea and has been eliminated. Venezuela, North Korea, Iran are not criminally dangerous, they are naughty, and must be reasoned with, scolded and eventually welcomed home with a big hug.

You might think that Obama makes a poor intellectual: he doesn’t seem to read; ideas evidently mean nothing to him. But notice that he governs on the basis of theories and not facts. And he graduated from Columbia and Harvard. Case closed.

If conservatives were serious, they would think much harder about the Culture Machine (aka the Establishment) and the ways in which Obama is typical instead of exceptional—typical of a new type of Establishment leader, the new Machine Man. We’re used to old-fashioned political (usually Democratic) machines. But those political machines compare to the modern Culture Machine like a stick of dynamite to an H-bomb. While conservatives worry about debt and taxes and huge problems abroad, the left is busy pulling the whole country out from under them. While conservatives fiddle around on the roof, robbers are rifling the house and stealing the children. Conservatives might consider climbing down and having a look. Obama is only the first of a new breed.

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