Interview with Charles Krauthammer: 'Obama Is Average'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Charles Krauthammer, the leading voice of America's conservative intellectuals, discusses Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, the president's failures and the state of the United Nations and the international community.
Krauthammer on US President Barack Obama: "In Obama's view, America would subsume itself under a fuzzy internationalism in which the international community, which I think is a fiction, governs itself through the UN."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krauthammer, did the Nobel Commitee in Oslo honor or doom the Obama presidency by awarding him the Peace Prize?
Charles Krauthammer: It is so comical. Absurd. Any prize that goes to Kellogg and Briand, Le Duc Tho and Arafat, and Rigoberta Menchú, and ends up with Obama, tells you all you need to know. For Obama it's not very good because it reaffirms the stereotypes about him as the empty celebrity.
SPIEGEL: Why does it?
Krauthammer: He is a man of perpetual promise. There used to be a cruel joke that said Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be; Obama is the Brazil of today's politicians. He has obviously achieved nothing. And in the American context, to be the hero of five Norwegian leftists, is not exactly politically positive.
SPIEGEL: It hardly makes sense to blame him for losing the Olympic bid in one week, and then for winning the Nobel Prize the next.
Krauthammer: He should have simply said: "This is very nice, I appreciate the gesture, but I haven't achieved what I want to achieve." But he is not the kind of man that does that.
SPIEGEL: Should he have turned down the prize?
Krauthammer: He would never turn that down. The presidency is all about him. Just think about the speech he gave in Berlin. There is something so preposterous about a presidential candidate speaking in Berlin. And it was replete with all these universalist clichés, which is basically what he's been giving us for nine months.
SPIEGEL: Why do Europeans react so positively to him?
Krauthammer: Because Europe, for very understandable reasons, has been chaffing for 60 years under the protection, but also the subtle or not so subtle domination of America. Europeans like to see the big guy cut down to size, it's a natural reaction. You know, Europe ran the world for 400 or 500 years until the civilizational suicide of the two World Wars. And then America emerged as the world hegemon, with no competition and unchallenged. The irony is America is the only hegemonic power that never sought hegemony, unlike, for example, Napoleonic France. Americans are not intrinsically imperial, but we ended up dominant by default: Europe disappeared after the Second World War, the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, so here we are. Of course Europeans like to see the hegemon diminished, and Obama is the perfect man to do that.
SPIEGEL: Maybe Europeans want to just see a different America, one they can admire again.
Krauthammer: Admire? Look at Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly: "No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation." Take the first half of that sentence: No nation can dominate another. There is no eight year old who would say that -- it's so absurd. And the second half? That is adolescent utopianism. Obama talks in platitudes, but offers a vision to the world of America diminished or constrained, and willing to share leadership in a way that no other presidency and no other great power would. Could you imagine if the Russians were hegemonic, or the Chinese, or the Germans -- that they would speak like this?
SPIEGEL: Is America's power not already diminished?
Krauthammer: Relative to what?
SPIEGEL: To emerging powers.
Krauthammer: The Chinese are rising, the Indians have a very long way to go. But I'm old enough to remember the late 1980s, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" by Paul Kennedy and the prevailing view that America was in decline and Japan was the rising power. The fashion now is that the Chinese will overtake the United States. As with the great Japan panic, there are all kinds of reasons why that will not happen.
Look, eventually American hegemony will fade. In time, yes. But now? Economically we now have serious problems, creating huge amounts of debt that we cannot afford and that could bring down the dollar and even cause hyperinflation. But nothing is inevitable. If we make the right choices, if we keep our economic house in order, we can avert an economic collapse. We can choose to decline or to stay strong.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that Obama deliberately wants to weaken the US?
Krauthammer: The liberal vision of America is that it should be less arrogant, less unilateral, more internationalist. In Obama's view, America would subsume itself under a fuzzy internationalism in which the international community, which I think is a fiction, governs itself through the UN.
SPIEGEL: A nightmare?
Krauthammer: Worse than that: an absurdity. I can't even imagine serious people would believe it, but I think Obama does. There is a way America will decline -- if we choose first to wreck our economy and then to constrain our freedom of action through subordinating ourselves to international institutions which are 90 percent worthless and 10 percent harmful.
SPIEGEL: And there is not even 1 percent that is constructive?
Krauthammer: No. The UN is worse than disaster. The UN creates conflicts. Look at the disgraceful UN Human Rights Council: It transmits norms which are harmful, anti-liberty, and anti-Semitic among other things. The world would be better off in its absence.
SPIEGEL: And Obama is, in your eyes,
Krauthammer: He's becoming ordinary. In the course of his presidency, Obama has gone from an almost magical charismatic figure to an ordinary politician. Ordinary. Average. His approval ratings are roughly equal to what the last five presidents' were at the same time in their first term. Other people have already said he's done and finished because his health care plans ran into trouble; but I say they're wrong. He's going to come back, he will pass something on health care, there's no question. He will have a blip, be somewhat rehabilitated politically, but he won't be able to pass anything on climate change. He will not be the great transformer he imagines himself to be. A president like others -- with successes and failures.
SPIEGEL: Every incoming president to the White House has to confront reality and disappoint voters.
Krauthammer: True. But what made Obama unique was that he was the ultimate charismatic politician -- the most unknown stranger ever to achieve the presidency in the United States. No one knew who he was, he came out of nowhere, he had this incredible persona that floated him above the fray, destroyed Hillary, took over the Democratic Party and became president. This is truly unprecedented: A young unknown with no history, no paper trail, no well-known associates, self-created.
There was tremendous goodwill, even I was thrilled on Election Day, even though I had voted against him and argued against him.
SPIEGEL: What moved you that day?
Krauthammer: It's redemptive for a country that began in the sin of slavery to see the day, I didn't think I would live to see the day, when a black president would be elected.
Now he was not my candidate. I would have preferred the first black president to have been somebody ideologically congenial to me, say, Colin Powell (whom I encouraged to run in 2000) or Condoleezza Rice. But I felt truly proud to be an American as I saw him sworn in. I remain proud of this historic achievement.
SPIEGEL: What major mistakes has Obama made?
Krauthammer: I don't know whether I should call it a mistake, but it turns out he is a left-liberal, not center-right the way Bill Clinton was. The analogy I give is that in America we play the game between the 40-yard lines, in Europe you go all the way from goal line to goal line. You have communist parties, you have fascist parties, we don't have that, we have very centrist parties.
So Obama wants to push us to the 30-yard line, which for America is pretty far. Right after he was elected, he gave an address to Congress and promised to basically remake the basic pillars of American society -- education , energy and health care. All this would move America toward a social democratic European-style state. It is outside of the norm of America.
SPIEGEL: Yet, he had promised these reforms during the campaign.
Krauthammer: Hardly. He's now pushing a cap-and-trade energy reform. During the campaign he said that would cause skyrocketing utility rates. On healthcare, the reason he's had such resistance is because he promised reform, not a radical remaking of the whole system.
SPIEGEL: So he didn't see the massive resistance coming?
Krauthammer: Obama misread his mandate. He was elected six weeks after a financial collapse unlike any seen in 60 years; after eight years of a presidency which had tired the country; in the middle of two wars that made the country opposed to the Republican government that involved us in the wars; and against a completely inept opponent, John McCain. Nevertheless, Obama still only won by 7 points. But he thought it was a great sweeping mandate and he could implement his social democratic agenda.
SPIEGEL: Part of the problem when it comes to health care is the lack of solidarity in the American way of thinking. Can a president change a country?
Krauthammer: Yes. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it. Back then, we didn't have a welfare state, we didn't have old age pensions, we didn't have unemployment insurance. This country was the Wild West until FDR. Yes, you can change the spirit of America.
SPIEGEL: If Obama is so radical, why is the left wing of the Democratic Party so unhappy with him?
Krauthammer: They are disillusioned because he has ignored some of their social agenda, such as gay rights; continued some of the Bush policies he had once denounced, such as the detention without trial for terrorists; and on his large agenda for education and energy, where he has had no success.
SPIEGEL: How could Obama still win Republican support for healthcare reform?
Krauthammer: He should finally realize that we need to reform our insane malpractice system. The US is spending between $60 and $200 billion a year on protection against lawsuits. I used to be a doctor, I know how much is wasted on defensive medicine. Everybody I practiced with spends hours and enormous amounts of money on wasted tests, diagnostic and procedures -- all to avoid lawsuits. The Democrats will not touch it. When Howard Dean was asked why, he said honestly and explicitly that Democrats don't want to antagonize the trial lawyers who donate huge amounts of money to the Democrats.
SPIEGEL: What would be your solution?
Krauthammer: I would make Americans pay half a percent tax on their health insurance and create a pool to socialize the cost of medical errors. That would save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used to insure the uninsured. And second, I would abolish the absurd prohibition against buying health insurance in another state -- that reduces competition and keeps health insurance rates artificially high.
SPIEGEL: But you also need to cut back on healthcare expenses.
Krauthammer: It is absolutely crazy that in America employees receive health insurance from their employers -- and at the same time a tax break for this from the federal government. It's a $250 billion a year loophole in the government's budget. If you taxed healthcare benefits, you would have enough revenue for the government to give back to the individual to purchase their own insurance. If you did those two reforms alone, you would have the basis for affordable health insurance in America.
What the Democrats seem to be aiming for, however, is something somewhat different: the government gets control of the healthcare system by proxy; you heavily regulate the insurance companies, you subsidize the uninsured. That kind of reform would also work, but less efficiently -- and because of its unsustainable costs, we would, in the end, have to go to a system of rationing, the way the British do, the way the Canadians do, there is no other way. Obama can't say any of that, the word rationing is too unpopular.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krauthammer, can a Nobel Peace Prize winner send more troops to Afghanistan?
Krauthammer: Sure, I don't see why not. The prize could have two contrary effects. It could give him an incentive to send more troops to show his own people that he is not an instrument of five Norwegian leftists. Or it can work the other way where in order not to lose the popularity he obviously feels from Europe, he would be less inclined. I think whatever impulses come out of those considerations neutralize each other. The prize will have zero effect on his decision.
- Part 1: 'Obama Is Average'
- Part 2: 'What the Obama Administration Pretends Is Realism Is Naïve Nonsense'
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