(‘76 Contributor) Considered a cancer-surviving “bad*** on a bike,” it turns out Lance Armstrong is just a bad guy — and a fraud. Armstrong”s admission that he doped his way to seven Tour de France titles even prompted CBS News CEO Jeffrey Fager to Think Again about his network”s role in the “Miracle Man”s” narrative. “We helped create the myth,” he acknowledged, because “we wanted to believe this absolutely inspirational story. But we were duped.”
Unearned moral superiority and blazing self-righteousness hastened Armstrong”s rise as he slandered and sued whistle-blowers into submission. “I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative,” the master manipulator told Oprah Winfrey, “and if I didn”t like what someone said, I turned on them.”
Consider how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struggled to control her narrative during last week”s congressional hearings on the Benghazi terrorist attacks, which claimed four American lives, including the first U.S. ambassador murdered since 1979. To deflect responsibility and shape public opinion, Clinton hollered self-righteously, “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they”d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
But if the deaths were caused by a premeditated attack launched on the anniversary of 9/11 by anti-American Islamic terrorists — not a protest turned violent over a YouTube video, as originally asserted by U.S. officials — shouldn”t that inform how we prevent future American deaths from terrorist attacks? Isn”t it misleading to suggest anything other than the facts?
President Obama worked hard to promote the narrative that he”s determined to resolve America”s mounting fiscal threats. In February 2009, just days after signing his $833 billion economic-stimulus bill, he convened a fiscal-responsibility summit at which he pledged “to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term.” He acknowledged, “It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we”ve long neglected.”
In 2010, to demonstrate that his commitment to “deal with these broad structural deficits” wasn”t “just an empty promise,” Obama appointed the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. It responded to his appeal for “tough choices” by recommending tax and entitlement reforms similar to those enacted by Canada before its remarkable economic and fiscal turnaround.
But instead of pursuing reforms, Obama campaigned for Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthiest Americans — though not Clinton-era spending levels, which averaged 19.8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product compared with Obama”s 24.4 percent average — securing in the fiscal-cliff deal a tax-rate increase from 35 percent to 39.6 percent on incomes more than $400,000.
Economic realities are overtaking Obama”s “fiscally responsible” narrative: The economy surprisingly contracted last quarter, U.S. debt ($16.4 trillion and growing nearly $4 billion every day) exceeds the size of our economy, Medicare and Social Security actuaries say the programs are underfunded by $60 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office projected a fifth consecutive trillion-dollar deficit this year.
Absent rapid economic growth to bring debt-to-GDP levels down to manageable norms, Americans aren”t confident in a future that holds only unacceptable alternatives — massive middle-class tax increases and/or rapid inflation. Yet when Republicans urge enactment of reforms Obama once promised and his fiscal commission recommended, he calls them heartless and “out of the mainstream” and questions their morality by suggesting that they “have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Recently he blamed them for the U.S. economic contraction.
As Obama discards his “fiscal prudence” narrative in favor of a “benign government” narrative, consider that our bloated government sector is not only crushing the private economy — it”s handicapping Americans” opportunity to earn the success from which achievement and happiness are derived. Obama might favor “collective action,” but it”s the freedom to determine one”s life “profit,” however defined, that our founders meant by “the pursuit of happiness” — America”s moral promise.
Americans are aspirational and self-reliant, so it”s heart-wrenching to note that after spending $15 trillion in the “War on Poverty,” America”s poverty rate hasn”t budged, the number of Americans dependent on government checks is at a record high, and the percentage of Americans in the work force is at a record low. Rather than denigrate policymakers who want to reverse these trends by reverting to our founders” limited-government design, Obama should summon the magnanimity to collaborate. It”s how our best presidents have served the national interest — by promoting unifying narratives, not divisive ones.
At the Civil War”s end, President Lincoln (whose pro-slavery opponents indeed were morally inferior) proclaimed, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” Think Again — history rewards “unifiers” like Lincoln, not self-righteous bullies like Lance Armstrong.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. Melanie welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.