A meditation on Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan joined the crowd that turned on George W. Bush in what I thought was (in Noonan’s case) a grossly unfair manner in 2008. I wrote critically about one of Noonan’s weekly Wall Street Journal columns in which she identified with the public disapproval of Bush that April in “Season of the witch.”

Having turned on George W. Bush, Noonan moved on to support the election of Barack Obama later that year. Noonan all but endorsed Obama in her 2008 column “Obama and the runaway train.” The anti-Bush and pro-Obama columns fit neatly together. She wrote of Obama just before the election:

He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.

In a sense, Obama delivered, but in another sense Noonan got everything wrong. Obama has changed the direction and tone of American foreign policy, alright, yet the change hasn’t yielded the results Noonan anticipated.

Noonan has now turned on Obama. She actually turned on him a while ago. In a recent column — “The unwisdom of Barack Obama,” behind the Journal’s subscription paywall but accessible via Google — Noonan condemned Obama on one of the grounds she had supported him in 2008: “His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.”

Now you tell us.

In her defense, Noonan might plead that she acknowledged the paltry evidence in support of her 2008 claim that Obama has “good judgment.” If “judgment” were the issue, perhaps the excuse would mitigate the verdict that Noonan herself is guilty of incredibly poor judgment.

Yet the problems with Obama run much deeper than poor judgment. Noonan overlooks his sophisticated ignorance and leftist ideological rigidity. If you were following the news in 2008 and acquainting yourself with Obama’s background, you had to work hard to miss the evidence. Indeed, Noonan must have worked hard to avoid mentioning any of it and to work up her lyrical tribute to Obama in her 2008 column.

We have written a lot over the years about Obama’s ignorance and ideology. Bret Stephens focused on Obama’s ignorance in the Wall Street Journal column “What Obama knows” (behind the Journal’s subscription paywall but also accessible via Google). Noonan to the contrary notwithstanding, Stephens writes: “[E]ven at an elementary level, Mr. Obama often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It isn’t so much his analysis of global events that’s wrong, though it is. The deeper problem is the foundation of knowledge on which that analysis is built.”

I would go further than Bret Stephens in that column (as he would as well). Something beyond ignorance explains Obama’s affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and his hostility to Israel. The ideological component of Obama’s failures is probably the most important.

He advertised it in his promise of “fundamental transformation” of the United States. He clearly meant it. He has done his best to deliver on it. He has another two years to work on it. And on this score, he knows what he is doing and it would be a serious mistake to count him a failed president.

NOTE: This is adapted from my post “High Noonan.” I am taking the liberty of reposting it as a companion to “A meditation on David Brooks.”


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