Barack Obama may be our first African-American president, but he’s first got to stop finding his muse in Scandinavia. With his speech for the Nobel, perhaps he’s showing some sign of losing his northern obsession.
On the campaign trail, Obama showed a poet’s sensitivity about both America’s exceptionalism and our desire to improve our country. His mantra about having “a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas” resonated deeply with tens of millions of Americans.
Obama’s more recent recasting as a politically correct Nordic seemed out of sync. His speech in Oslo – a surprising defense of American values and role in the world – must have shocked an audience that all but the most passionate courtiers suspect he does not deserve.
But the bigger challenge will come when he rushes off to Copenhagen to push for his politically dubious climate change agenda. This will take a more serious break from his unfortunate tendency to identify first with the global cognitive elite.
This is a particularly European, and particularly Scandinavian, affliction. In these countries professors, high-level bureaucrats, and corporate chieftains usually dominate the media, policy making and public perceptions. This constitutes an essential part of what is often called the “Scandinavian consensus” model.
It works pretty well there. Historically homogeneous, affluent and well-educated Scandinavians generally accept working hard and giving up much for people for the poorer members of societies. These admirable attitudes reflect noble Nordic virtues of thrift, study and social trust.
These values also work reasonably well in Nordic parts of America, such as in North Dakota. When a local economist told Milton Friedman “In Scandinavia we have no poverty”, he replied: “That’s interesting because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either.”
As Obama may finally be learning, America is not Scandinavia, outside a handful of places. It is a big, amazingly diverse country with an expanding population. In a country made up of so many crunched together cultures an expansive welfare state faces many problems. (This is one reason northern Europe is having such a difficult time with its immigrants.)
In a diverse society, you cannot assume that everyone will play by the rules. Coexisting with very different kinds of people, Americans tend to be less than enthusiastic about paying high taxes to support them.
Demographics are also a major factor. Our relatively youthful and socially diverse population includes a large component of people, particularly males, with limited skills and education. Yet, at least until they were blindsided by falling poll numbers and stubbornly high unemployment, Obama’s administration treated the recession as if it could be cured Euro-style by simply adding more employment in government, education and medical care.
Similarly the president’s to date dogmatic embrace of an extreme climate change agenda seems one more saleable to Danes or Swedes than people in the Dakotas or South Carolina. After all, they are well-positioned to absorb the costs. Norway and Sweden enjoy huge reserves of hydropower, the largest sources of renewable fuels. Norway also has lots of oil to boot and fellow traveler Netherlands still boasts strong reserves of natural gas.
The dense land use policies associated with the climate change agenda fit better into small compact cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo than their sprawling American counterparts. In America, the vast majority lives in sprawling suburbs and small towns. With the exception of the Northwest few parts of the U.S. rely on hydropower, with most of the country reliant on coal, oil and natural gas.
Then there are political risks to Obama’s dogged embrace of the alarmist “climate change” agenda. Recent Gallup, Pew, and Rasmussen surveys show weakening interest in global warming and increasing levels of skepticism. Today we even have considerable disputes over whether the temperature is even warming. Certainly a series of cold winters and mild summers might make some casual citizens a bit skeptical.
Even one of the scientists whose email was hacked recently at the UK’s University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit wondered, “Where the heck is global warming?” The revelations, now widely known as Climategate, make clear that some of the science – and the scientists – behind the most apocalyptic predictions are suspect, a view now held by a majority of Americans, according to a recent Rasmussen survey.
Yet so far, Obama appears blissfully unaffected by the swirling controversy. But the man has a full capacity to surprise. Perhaps he will understand that just because the media and his climate advisors have circled the wagons, this may be a case where the “crowds” may be onto something that the self-proclaimed experts would rather ignore.
Perhaps if President Obama had studied history, rather than law, he might realize that “smart” (i.e. highly credentialed) types often get things terribly wrong. After all, a century ago eugenics – that some races were intrinsically superior to others – stood as the reigning ideology of the scientific community. Back in the 1970s, the scientific consensus embraced by his science advisor, John Holdren, predicted imminent mass starvation, a catastrophic decline in resource availability, and a bleak future for all developing countries, including China and India. This assessment proved widely off the mark.
Of course, having committed himself to today’s climate orthodoxy, Obama may find it difficult to reverse course. Not only does he seem ill-disposed to challenging the cognitive elites but he also gains support from the well-funded warming lobby – rent-seeking utilities, “green” venture capitalists, investment bankers and urban land speculators – who hope to wrest huge fortunes from a strict carbon regime.
If he wants to regain his effectiveness, however, the president needs to realize that these groups and the science establishment are just a small fraction of the country that elected him. His speech in Oslo may be the first sign he may be waking up from his Scandinavian slumber to become the assertive, independent American leader that we need.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press early next year.