The Placeholder Presidency of Obama


Hey, remember Seinfeld?  Remember how it billed itself as a “show about nothing”, and how, in fact, that’s what it was?

I think we’re at the point now where it’s become inescapable that the Obama presidency is also a show about nothing.

It’s the same as Seinfeld.  Except for two things.

First, unlike Seinfeld, it bills itself as a show about something, if not everything (remember Mr. Bigtime Change from just last year?).

And, second, the nothingness of the Obama administration is not very goddam funny, thanks just the same.

Consider the following crop of headlines, all from the New York Times, and all published in just the last week alone:

“49 Million Americans Report a Lack of Food”

“N.A.A.C.P. Prods Obama on Job Losses”

“The Drug Industry Cashes In”

“3 Democrats Could Block Health Bill In Senate”

“Another Standoff May Be Looming On Abortion Issue”

“Obama Hobbled in Fight Against Climate Change”

“Leaders Will Delay Agreement On Climate”

“Obama Backers Fear Opportunities to Reshape Judiciary Are Slipping Away”

“Guantánamo Won’t Close by January, Obama Says”

“China Holds Firm On Major Issues In Obama’s Visit”

“As Weight of a Relationship Tilts East, Obama Opts for Nuance and Deference”
“Israel Moves Ahead on Plans to Expand Settlement in Disputed Part of Jerusalem”

“Kurdish Legislators Threaten Boycott of Iraq Election”

“High Costs Weigh On Troop Debate For Afghan War”

If you get a sense from this list that the man holding the most powerful position on the planet is bound and determined to be an object of action, rather than a proactive force on the historical stage, there’s a good reason for that feeling.  That appears to be precisely his intention.

At a time of significant peril to the country and the world, this president will not act.

And he certainly will not act in any way that is remotely controversial.  In normal times, that list would cover just about everything.  In our era, however, where rabid regressives have entirely lost even a remote satellite uplink to reality, and have devoted themselves to destroying Obama’s presidency at any cost, there is nothing that a president who is worried about ruffling feathers could actually do about anything.  If he salutes the fallen returning to Dover Air Force Base, they excoriate him.  If he shows a scrap of politeness bowing to the Japanese emperor, they eviscerate him.  If he claims he was born in America, they call him a liar for it.

That seems to be fine with Obama.  He seems quite content to be a placeholder president, just as Bill Clinton was before him.  And, you know what?  Placeholder presidents can be just fine.  If you’re living in the nineteenth century, that is.  They’ve even been survivable recently, though the scale of blown opportunity can be jaw-dropping.  Just the same, every time I find myself cringing at the thought of Bill Clinton’s eight year self-reverential celebration of all things Bill Clinton, I can always rescue myself by remembering how much worse things there are than indifference in the White House.  At last, I have finally discovered a reason, however slim, to be grateful to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.  Thanks for the perspective, fellas.

This president, however, doesn’t have the luxury he seems so intent on taking.  He came to office at a time of multiple crises.  2009 sure as hell isn’t 1997.  It isn’t even 1993.  It’s a lot worse, and on multiple fronts.

In fairness to Obama (a sentiment which I’m finding increasingly difficult to muster up as the first year of his presidency segues into the second), many of the problems represented in the headlines catalogued above are America’s problems, not necessarily his, per se.  They would, that is, have greeted any new president inaugurated last January, and lots of them are going to take years or decades to go away under the best of circumstances, assuming they ever do.  But that’s also the point – he is the president, and he is supposed to be fighting to improve his country’s situation.  In case after case, however, he appears instead to be sitting aloof on top of his mountain, evidently admiring his admiration.  The problems aren’t necessarily of his making, but the absence of credible solutions to those problems very much is.
To be even more generous to this president, these aren’t, generally, just any random national problems that he inherited, either.  They are chiefly the product of America’s insane and disastrous experiment with regressivism these last three decades.  They are, in short, Reagan’s and Bush’s gift to Barack.  But again, while he’s not responsible for his inheritance, he is responsible for what he does with it.  And what this fool has done with it is to turn it into a Seinfeld sitcom.  That is to say, nothing.  He not only doesn’t identify the paternity of this bastard child for all to see, he won’t even speak up as the very same people who left him this plate of swill have the gall to blame him for it and seek the destruction of his presidency at every turn.

There is, of course, a certain profound richness to the notion of these regresso-bots critiquing Obama from the day he walked in the door.  “He’s spending outrageous amounts of money!”, they fervently decry.  What, you mean like the last guy did, the one who doubled the national debt from $5.5 trillion to $11 trillion?  What, you mean because spending huge sums is the only possible way to clean up the economic meltdown and myriad other disasters bequeathed to him?  What, because it ain’t cheap to pay for two sprawling unfinished wars, banking system rescues, a car industry gone off the cliff, unemployment insurance for millions and a drowned city?

But enough with the fairness doctrine already.  These caveats don’t begin to mitigate the epic disaster of the Obama sclerosis.  This guy isn’t just a deer caught in headlights, he’s Bambi on the 50 yard-line, under the klieg lights of a national stadium.  He’s Mr. Bill.  No, strike that.  He’s Mr. Bill’s nerdy little nephew, Kirby Herbert Pollywog Bill.  He’s a beetle walking across a school yard, where a hundred bored sixth-graders are standing and staring at their feet during an outdoor assembly.  He’s a tenth inning hanging tired arm curve ball with an angry Babe Ruth at the plate.  He’s Neville Chamberlain and Spongebob SquarePants’ love-child.  Suffering from an anemic blood disorder.  Republicans just live for this sort of Democrat – which is to say, nowadays, practically every Democrat.  They eat them for breakfast.  And, as much as I loathe Republicans – rather like I feel about, say, botulism – I mostly don’t blame them.

And, as much as it pains me ever to find myself agreeing with a regressoid, Edward Whelan, president of the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center, was right when, expressing his surprise that the Obama administration has made so few nominations to fill open positions in the federal judiciary, he noted:  “On judges as on so much else, this administration seems to be much less competent than both its supporters and critics expected”.  Hear, hear.

Count me in on that one.  I didn’t know what kind of politics these guys would have, but I felt real confident that they’d be damn good at those politics, whatever they were.  And not without good reason did I come to that conclusion.  Obama is obviously smart, and he ran a near-perfect campaign, just as he had to, in order to win the presidency against long odds.

And, you know, it may even be the case that these guys would be good at their politics.  But, apparently, we’re never going to find out, since they don’t seem capable of trying.  When they’re not busy, as they are so much of the time, aping the regressive policies of Bush and Cheney, they’re working hard at hardly working.  Folding cards, blowing opportunities, missing deadlines, breaking promises.  It’s hard work putting on a show about nothing, lemme tell ya!  Think of all the liberal judges they failed to appoint just today alone!  Think of all the prisoners they haven’t transferred from Guantánamo!  Think of all the egg they have to wipe off their faces as they get spanked by Israeli prime ministers, Big Pharma CEOs and punky members of their own party alike!  Think of all the women whose reproductive rights they have to sell out in order to get their Aid To Corporations With Dependent Billions legislation through Congress!  Imagine the number of American children and grandchildren who must be saddled with a load of debt and a climate like Venus, just so Obama can receive his Daily Minimum Allowance of ass-whuppin’ every day!

Nah, man.  It can’t be easy takin’ it easy.  I thought George W. Bush’s act would be a hard one to follow.  That little puke took 1020 days of vacation during his eight years serving as Cheney’s marionette.  That was more than one-third of his presidency, and it far exceeded the time taken by any other president.  Who could top that?!

Obama’s smarter than Bush, though (and how tough is that?).  He’s figured out how to take vacation while on the job.  And so he has.  All around him serious crises for the country and the world rage across the landscape, demanding attention.  But Barack remains in comfortable contemplation, never breaking a sweat.  On a good day he might share with us some of his famously stirring oratory, filled with broad platitudes about niceness and bipartisanship.  On a really good day we’ll get half-measures, poorly communicated, to deal with full problems.  But on most days, alas, we just get an undiluted shot of Goldman Sachs, Big Pharma and every other corporate plutocrat working directly out of the Oval Office.

Why is Obama such a do-nothing dud?  Does he feel for financially strapped Americans to the point of doing his own permanent staycation in the White House, the better to model his empathy for them?  Does his personality simply prevent him from doing anything that some person or another might object to?  Is he yet another tool of Wall Street, whose only difference from George Bush is stylistic?  Did some guy in a black suit and sunglasses pull him aside after the election, and say, “Okay, so you’re the president now.  You’ll be following our instructions from here on out, in exchange for which we’re gonna let you live.”?

I don’t know what his deal is.  But I do know that this presidency is catastrophic for progressive ideas, and likely as well for the remaining shards of American democracy itself.

As to the former, our values and solutions are being ridiculously associated with this fundamentally conservative administration, and ironically repudiated right along with its mounting failures.  This is yet another marketing masterstroke by the regressive right, a group of folks whose politics are so obscene that they’ve been forced to become geniuses at slinging bullshit.  They remind me of nothing so much as the poor fat kid in junior high who had to learn to use humor to keep from getting pummeled every day after school, and grew up to become a famous comedian as an adult.  But, whatever.  The upshot is that Obama is going down in flames (or would be, except that his muted implosion is careful even to lack that much cinematic drama), and progressivism will be tarred for years and decades because of that.  Our politics will be blamed for committing a crime, when they were actually in another country (literally) at the time.

As for American democracy, I think it likely that the elections of 2010 and 2012 will mark continuations and indeed extensions of the pattern from 2006 and 2008.  The condition of the country sucks.  People want change.  But, unless something dramatic happens, they continue to only have two choices – the party in power, or the other party.  In 2010 and 2012 the incumbents will be the pathetic Democrats, and the only real alternative will be the just recently comatose Republicans, newly revived courtesy of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Since we can expect the GOP monsters to win those elections handily under such conditions, the question becomes, what will that party stand for, and who will represent it?  Here, the signs are especially bad.  From New York to Florida to Alaska to all across the radio dial, the GOP is doing the impossible these days.  It is actually becoming more regressive, more repressive, more narrow, more stupid, more greedy and more vicious.  It’s hard to imagine they could surpass their current personal bests in the pathology decathlon, but indeed they are.

Meanwhile, my guess is that the winner of the GOP nomination in 2012 will be the winner of the presidency that fall, just as the real contest in 2008 was to win the Democratic nomination.

My guess is that that person is now running around the country plugging her book.

And my guess is that the next go-round of Reaganism/Bushism will make the last one look like a friendly game of gin rummy by comparison.

They will almost certainly have to pull the plug on any remaining vestige of democracy at that point, since their policies will be utterly useless in addressing people’s mounting concerns and their growing impatience.

Get your passport renewed.

Mexico might be a good alternative.  The weather is nice and warm.

And, evidently, the money is good.  At least compared to what the very sick Uncle Sam’s got going on his hospital ward.

Here’s one more indicative (and quite real) headline to add to the list above.  No offense to my amigos south of the border, but you can file this puppy under “Y”, for “You Know The Show Is Over When…”

“Money Starts to Trickle North as Mexicans Help Out Relatives”

DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.  More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.

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