Barack Obama was supposed to be a transformational president. Remember that?
He certainly marketed himself as such. He certainly – like an FDR or a Lincoln – was handed a context of crisis which simultaneously demanded of him and permitted him to be transformational as the leader of the country at this fraught historical moment.
Watching him deliver his state of the union address this week revealed anything but that, however. This is a shrunken president, playing small-ball at a moment of peril. Watching Obama talk before a global audience, I could not help but think of the weakness and irrelevance of this human platitude production machine, so out of touch with the threats and concerns of our time.
Is it possible to imagine that people will be still talking about this speech twenty years from now? Were they even talking about it twenty minutes after he gave it?
The measure of a presidency is the degree to which it responds, and responds effectively, to the issues before the country. This is why Lincoln is almost universally regarded as the greatest of American presidents. Faced with the greatest of American crises, he responded. (I actually happen to disagree with Lincoln’s violent response to secession, just as I opposed, and for the same bloody reasons, President Bashir’s violent initial reaction to secession in southern Sudan, but that’s another essay.) Similarly, until nation-wrecker par excellence George W. Bush came on the world stage, Lincoln’s predecessor James Buchanan was largely regarded by history as the worst American president, precisely because he failed to deal with exactly the same crisis he would then bequeath to Lincoln.
This is the test of presidents – Can you rise up to the challenges of your moment? – and it’s a fair one. And, given that benchmark, we can ask how history will evaluate Barack Obama. The way to answer that question is to catalogue our great challenges, and to ask how is the president addressing those? Some of these are obvious. Some are obvious, but less immediately threatening. And some, ironically, are so fundamental that they are generally not even perceived, like water is to fish.
What was so amazing about Obama’s speech was his sheer gall in not addressing the most prominent and urgent questions in our political sphere, right here and right now. How is it that the guy can go on about the murderous killing spree in Tucson, and yet utter not a word about a solution? I mean, after all, only about 30,000 Americans die every year, year in and year out, from gun violence. I suppose the president is just waiting for it to get serious – then he’ll advocate for a solution? As long as the NRA doesn’t mind, that is (hint: they do).
Or how about Egypt? The country is exploding before our eyes, and the “Leader of the Free World” cannot use the occasion to tell “President” Mubarak to stand down? He can’t inform the Egyptian dictator that the massive amounts of American aid he receives are being cut off? Or does he even recognize Mubarak as such? I saw PBS anchor, Jim “Softball On Quaaludes” Lehrer, interviewing the Vice President, who couldn’t even admit that Mubarak is a dictator. I guess the Egyptian leader has just been extraordinarily lucky, winning landslide “elections” for thirty years running now. That can happen, you know.
Well, at least the president was better in his speech when it came to the one thing Americans really care about right now (and, foolishly, that probably doesn’t include the proliferation of guns or US support for Middle Eastern potentates) – jobs, jobs, jobs. Did you catch the president’s jobs program in his speech? No? Golly, I didn’t either. I just heard endless platitudes about education, infrastructure and light rail. You know, that’s all really cool stuff, and maybe, if we’re lucky, it will raise GDP by six-tenths of a percent in the year 2040 (though, of course, if it did, all of that revenue will go to the rich, as it has for the last thirty years).
But right now real humans are suffering the real pains of job loss and foreclosure, and all this president can muster in terms of a solution is the hiring of yet more Clinton administration retreads, the very same people who turned the Democratic Party into a Ladies Auxiliary of the GOP, and whose deregulatory fervor brought us precisely to where we are today. Out goes Emanuel, in comes Daley. Out goes Summers, in comes Sperling. How inspirational. I’m gonna go start knocking on doors for the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign first thing tomorrow morning! We need real solutions in this country! Yes, coming soon to an election campaign near you: “Clinton II: The Folks Who Brought You WTO, the Annihilation of Welfare, and Bank Deregulation Now Carry the Hope and Change Flag!”
Charles Blow noted in the New York Times this week that Obama’s State of the Union speech was only the second one by a Democratic president since Harry Truman in 1948 that did not mention the poor and the need to fight against poverty. This continues the trend started by Bill Clinton to pander to the middle class and that cohort’s insufferable and seemingly endless capacity for selfishness. Gone, in the 1990s, was the commitment to those most in need, and every reference instead was to serving the middle class, though in fact Clinton and his team were really looting them on behalf of the plutocracy, as Obama is now doing as well. Blow goes on in his article to show the absolute inverse statistical correlation between income level and support for Obama in the 2008 election (The less money you make, the more likely you were to vote for Obama), which makes the president’s priorities even more egregious. There he is in his speech talking about the stock market “roaring” back, while ignoring the needs of the hardest hit Americans, who just happen also to be the ones that most ardently supported him when he wanted what he wanted – to be president.
I’m quite sure the calculus in the White House is “What the hell do we care? Where’re these people going to go in 2012? What are they going to do, vote for Ralph Nader?” And, I guess if that whole morality thing isn’t an issue for you, then such a cynical political calculation is probably not so far off the mark. If, like Bill Clinton, you just want to be president at all costs, you probably should sell-out the poor, as Clinton did with the unconscionable welfare bill he signed in order to guarantee his reelection. Especially if you’re Obama, who can pretty much count on getting every black vote in the country, no matter what he does, along with a lot of white liberal guilt votes as well.
But I suspect that Obama, even if he can pull out a second term, will wind up were Clinton manifestly has, and it’s pathetic to see. Bad Bill gets all the adulation of a political Mick Jagger, and he gets to hang out in the Hamptons with all the real Mick Jaggers of this world. But you can see that he’s a profoundly unsatisfied man, now in the latter years of a life dwindling toward conclusion. He desperately wanted to be great, and he just wasn’t. Even if you leave out the tawdry stuff.
Clinton, in what surely wins the world prize for the absolute pinnacle of narcissistic self-obsession, once lamented that he didn’t have the good fortune to have a crisis during his presidency, so that he could join the pantheon of Lincoln and FDR as one of the greats in American history. George W. Bush will never have Clinton’s remorse problem, of course, because he drowns his insecurities in booze or the alcohol-free version of the same, otherwise known as religion. But Obama is likely too introspective to avoid his fate. Clinton governed during more or less stable and munificent times. Bush was a crisis walking in the door, had a crisis on his watch, and turned everything he touched into crisis. Obama’s situation is a bit more subtle. He actual has multiple crises on his plate, but they are somewhat less obvious. Obama will know, when it’s all over, what he could have done, what he should have done, what history is screaming out needs to be done. And he – like Clinton, but lots more so because eight years of Bush have made these much more perilous times – will know what he did and especially didn’t do.
You might think that the global warming issue was an obvious candidate for presidential leadership, now that we’ve noted that nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded occurred during the last decade-and-a-half. But the scepticism-for-fun-and-profit industry has managed to muddy the waters of public perception sufficiently so as to prevent anything remotely resembling a serious response to what is unquestionably the greatest crisis in all of human history. If you look at what real scientists are saying about this, then it appears that we’re headed for a planetary catastrophe of epic proportions. This is here, and it is now. And, given the unfortunate opposing array of special interest profiteers and legitimate developing country desires to industrialize, it is going to take global leadership to wake people up to what we’re facing. But did the president even mention this greatest of all challenges in his speech?
At home, we are a society sickened by a cancer of greed, which has rendered our political process broken and profoundly dishonest on a good day, and utterly predatory all the rest of the time. And there aren’t many good days in American politics right now. Here’s a place where Obama could have really had a serious impact. Once again, what is required here is presidential, moral, bully pulpit leadership to define the problem, wag the finger, call our enemies our enemies, demand a solution, and push it across the goal line. Given the direction that the Supreme Court has been going of late, it would appear that nothing short of a constitutional amendment will any longer suffice in breaking the death-grip of money on public policymaking in America. Politically, that is an extremely tall mountain to climb, though there may be enormous reserves of public support that could line up behind such an initiative. But it is almost wholly unimaginable today, in the absence of presidential leadership, for that to be successfully placed on the national agenda and then driven through.
This is, in so many ways, the single key that unlocks all the doors to solutions for our various national ailments in the United States. If we could get special interest influence out of governing, we could deal with our spiraling debt, for example. We would not have had this Great Recession we’re all living through (all living though except, of course, those who are dying). We could address global warming. We could get the guns off our streets. We could scale back our military and our wars dramatically. We could depopulate our for-profit prisons. We could end any reason for the Republican Party to continue to exist.
And so on. The list is endless. This is the great issue of our time. It is hardly new, but the degree of institutionalized greed has reached astonishing proportions today, and a once fat context of American world dominance, unending resource availability, and relatively benign environmental consequences for plundering has ended. Our current practices are anything but sustainable, but nobody is talking about it. A great president would have made this debilitating greed the defining issue of his presidency. Indeed, a great president would have realized that by changing, at the beginning of his administration, the nature of who the political class in Washington actually serves, everything else would have become possible in subsequent years of his presidency. A Congress owned by Goldman Sachs will never pass meaningful financial system reform. But a Congress that actually serves its constituents instead would easily do so. A government owned by the NRA will never deal with gun violence. But a government answerable to the public interest rather than special interests would. And so on.
We also fail to appreciate the level of danger entailed by the character and quantities of sick invective coursing through the veins of our political system. Even worse, if we do ever talk about that – as the Tucson shootings have caused us to do, for five minutes, anyhow – we get it entirely wrong, especially by imposing a false equivalence to the supposed sources of the problem. That would be ridiculous if it weren’t so pernicious. There is no Glenn Beck of the left, nor a Rush Limbaugh, nor the equal of any of the other even more caustic freaks of right wing radio. The closest one could come to that (and still not get very close at all) would be Keith Olbermann, and look what happened to him. Amongst the political class, the same is true. There is no Satan Plain or Michelle Bachmann of the left.
The rhetoric of these monsters, sustained over decades now, is incredibly corrosive to the national esprit de corps. The ramifications of this destructiveness will be felt powerfully, and for a long time to come. But the ascendance of such damaging lunacy has only been possible because of the silence of anyone and everyone carrying the flag of political sanity. When Democrats aren’t busy being coopted, they’re busy being cowardly, something I find especially remarkable given the sheer buffoonery of targets like those mentioned above. I mean, just how hard would it be to ridicule a serial-divorcee and drug addict like Limbaugh, when the guy runs around lecturing the rest of us on family values?
Nobody fails this test quite like Obama, either. Even Clinton did better than this cat. Barack just seems to want to be liked, just wants to get along with everybody, even when they’re trashing his mama in public. There seems to be virtually nothing you can say about him – even if you’re a Republican leader in Congress – which he will not fail to respond to. Question his citizenship, his religion, his patriotism – it’s endless, and all too unfortunately, loads of numbies out there in Americaland believe this nonsense.
On the other hand, if all Obama wants is a second term, then perhaps he is being strategically smart. As vacuous as his speech was, the response by GOP would-be wunderkind Paul Ryan turned out to be just another in the party’s continuing string of embarrassments (remember Bobby Jindal?). Ryan looked small and petty coming after Obama. And the amount of explicit and implicit deceit in his party’s newly-found hostility to debt (he seems to have conveniently forgotten Cheney’s “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter”, an indictment of all Republican administrations of the last thirty years) was only exceeded by that in Michelle Bachmann’s ludicrous tea bag rant.
Unfortunately, what makes good politics for Obama makes disaster for the country. The GOP – either the Radical Mouthfoamer wing or the Even More Radical Mouthfoamer wing – is likely to continue making the president look sensible by comparison. Given that unemployment probably will not fall significantly between now and November 2012, the White House has probably figured out that being the less insane option for voters in that contest is their only prayer of winning reelection. They may be right, though it depends on who the GOP nominates. Traditionally, however, the economy is nine-tenths of the equation. An incumbent president sitting on top of a crappy economy is almost always heading for the door.
But even if he wins, what for? Every time I look at this president, I wonder what the hell he wanted the job for.
I mean, after all, we’ve already had James Buchanan.