So, let me see if I have this straight.
One year ago, the Democrats won commanding victories resulting in control of the presidency and lopsided majorities in the House and Senate.
One year ago, the Republican brand was so weak that the party was on death watch, literally capable of sliding into the history books alongside the Whigs and the Federalists.
One year ago the country was enthralled with the notion of a new president who seemed committed to solving a host of problems and, above all, offering change from a hated predecessor and his disastrously failed politics.
But now, today, that promised change seems a lot more like chump change instead.
Now, today, the Big Hope president has virtually nothing of import to show for nearly a year in office.
Now, today, that president continues to follow the policies of his horrid predecessor on everything from civil liberties to civil rights to economics and foreign policy.
And now, today, he and his comrades in Congress have squandered whatever goodwill they once had and face an angry public turning back to the right, desperately seeking solutions to their problems.
Better still, this is likely only the beginning. Does anyone think the job situation is going to get better in the next year? How about Afghanistan? Does anyone believe that the public will be enthusiastic about Obama’s healthcare plans, assuming anyone can locate them, and assuming that a bill can actually get through Congress? Who out there thinks that his position on global warming will please anyone in America, even as it does next to nothing serious about addressing the problem, and even as it remains – like his healthcare ideas – playing hide-and-seek with the American public?
I am not surprised that Barack Obama – like the last two Democratic presidents – has turned out to be a conservative, corporate creature whose interest in the public interest is scarce and superficial. What does surprise me, though, is just how bad he is at playing politics, especially where his own self-interest is overwhelmingly at stake. Can this really be the same person who ran such a remarkable campaign last year, stealing the presidency from two of the great figureheads of American politics?
Obama is one of the most articulate politicians in American history. And yet, his communications strategy is the absolute worst I’ve seen since Carter. In fact, what’s most stunning about it is that his team seems to have dismissed all the lessons learned over the last three decades – especially from masterful Republican administrations – about how to market presidents and policies from the White House. This is no longer rocket science, if it ever was. How can a guy this sharp be so clueless and, thus, adrift?
Obama is also one of the smartest people ever to sit in the Oval Office, but he has demonstrated astonishing levels of cluelessness about what the public wants, about the nature of his opposition, and about what makes a presidency successful. He doesn’t understand that the public will follow you if you lead them, especially if you do so with passion. He doesn’t get that the conservative movement is a lethal cancer seeking to commodify, monetize and profitize every aspect of America, and therefore is committed to the destruction of all else, including this administration, despite even that it is essentially staffed by Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t understand that the most successful American presidents were the ones who brought a vision to the table, and fought for it.
Fundamentally, Obama is an anachronism. He is essentially a nineteenth century president operating in a crisis era, as the early twenty-first grapples with cleaning up after the late twentieth.
Historians sometimes debate over whether history makes the man or the man makes history. Leaving aside the sexist construction of the question, I think, manifestly, it has to be both. Almost all the great presidents served during time of great crisis, usually war. But that doesn’t guarantee their place in the historical pantheon. You have to also meet those challenges of your time. Lincoln is widely considered America’s greatest president. His predecessor, James Buchanan, is generally thought to be the country’s worst. Both faced the same crisis of Southern secession, but they responded to it very differently, earning their respective places in history. On the other hand, had the civil war come twenty years earlier or later, we’d hardly even know their names, except as the answer to trivia questions. “Who was the first president from Illinois?!” “Who was our tallest president?” And so on.
Obama could be Lincoln – or better still, FDR – if he wanted to be. He has chosen instead to be Buchanan. Faced with crisis scenario after crisis scenario, the candidate of ‘change’ repeatedly and instinctively homes in on the weakest, most centrist, most useless response possible. His stimulus bill probably stopped the economy from continuing its free fall, but it leaves the country stuck in months or even years of unyielding recession at worst, and jobless recovery at best. His healthcare bill helps in some important ways, but does nothing to hold down costs in a society that utterly wastes one dollar out of every three it spends in this area, and it does nothing to make healthcare more affordable for most Americans. He seems to have some interest in a global warming bill and a banking regulation bill and maybe even doing something about civil rights for gays. But in none of these areas is there any sense that he will do what is morally necessary. Likewise, with Afghanistan, all the indicators seem to suggest that he will opt for some numbingly anodyne middle ground.
The guy is a leaky bucket at a time when the boat has been swamped. He’s an pressureless fire hose when the house is in flames. A tattered parachute when the ground is coming up fast. A rusty musket as the Huns come over the ridge. At a time when America needs a bold, powerful and wise leader in the White House – principally to undo the damage of the bold, powerful and sociopathic guy who was just in there – we have instead Mr. Rogers’ pet gerbil. Complete with cardigan sweater and barbiturate-laced water supply. Obama seems to want nothing more than to be liked. In the neighborhood called Earth.
The great irony, of course, is that he is accomplishing just the opposite. Gallup recorded his job approval ratings right after his inauguration at 69 percent. Today they are down to 50. That’s not 35 percent, like his predecessor, to be sure. But since when did being better than George W. Bush become the standard? A backed-up toilet was more popular than Bush a year ago today. Hell, even gonorrhea was more beloved. But the point is that dropping fifteen to twenty percent in job approval in what is likely to be the best year of his presidency, at a time when the public is likely to be most generous, is a spectacular failure of the first order. Even according to Obama’s own pathetic standards. If all he wants is to be liked, he’s still blowing it. This is the equivalent of having every fourth friend or family member drop you on Facebook. Not a good sign, especially if you live for popularity.
It didn’t have to be this way. He could have been both a great president, a popular president, and a heroic president. All he had to do was be willing to treat the people who already hate his guts as political enemies. All he had to do was be willing to treat the people who live to fleece the country as treasonous thieves. All he had to do was to speak clearly, act boldly, and lead a broken country down the bright shining path toward repair that is obvious to anyone who is willing to look. But since that group excludes most Americans right now, this notion of bold leadership is especially essential.
In fairness to Obama, the public doesn’t really know what it wants these days, and best of luck to the two new Republican governors trying to cut taxes without deficit spending. If they can do it, they will only do it by slashing government services. Idiotic voters love tax cuts in the abstract. They will most likely feel a bit less enamored of closed schools, pothole proliferation, massive prisoner releases and state parks that cost as much to get in to as professional sports stadiums now do. For the last several decades, these selfish citizens have been all to willing to be trained by one of the sickest regressive mantras of them all – that government is just some bloated pig wasting tax dollars, and therefore that they could have their tax cuts without any cost to service, or without deficit spending. Apart from occasional lip service to Jesus, there is nothing closer to the core of the regressive/Republican canon than this tax-cutting chant.
It’s a complete lie, of course, and it took about five minutes into the Reagan administration to show that. Reagan slashed taxes so much that he tripled the national debt in eight years time. That problem wasn’t helped by the fact that Republicans actually blow through cash faster when they control the government than do supposed “tax-and-spend Democrats”.
But now the day of reckoning has arrived, especially for the states, which generally do not have the federal government’s capacity to tell gigantic lies through borrowing. People in New Jersey and Virginia have been stupid, and all they had to do to see how stupid they were being is to look at what that “economic girly-man” Arnold Schwarzenegger has been doing to Caleefornya. The state government is essentially conducting a going-out-of-business fire sale, and its creditworthiness is now about as good as Bernie Madoff’s. Government services are being tossed overboard as if they were lead cannonballs in a leaky rowboat.
This is the denouement of regressive fiscal policy these last decades. Lotteries won’t save our state and local and federal governments anymore. Selling off land and highways and other assets no longer works, ‘cause they done all been sold. Privatization of every service from prisons to the military not only doesn’t save money, it only gives you less quality at greater cost. And whodathunk that? Who could imagine that converting a not-for-profit government program into a profit-making private one would cost more? Profits don’t cost anything, do they? And you know how much more efficient(!) business is than the government, right? Like health insurance, for example, where overhead is a mere thirty-five percent, compared to the outrageous two percent of Medicare.
So, yeah, in fairness to Obama, the public doesn’t know what it wants, except that it wants it all. Since that can no longer be provided, it will happily pull the lever for any politician offering the sweet song of “change” from the status quo, the more vague the promise and the more aggrandizing to the voter, the better.
But that doesn’t mean Obama isn’t both a fool and a disaster to his country for his relentless pursuit of mediocrity in governance and tepidness in policy. He’s a fool because he doesn’t realize that he and his party have become the anti-change incumbent targets of the very same tool they rode to power. In 2010 and then again in 2012, they will be smashed by angry voters demanding that something be done, just as they were in elections held this week.
And he’s both a fool and an American disaster because he could have written a much different story for the history books. Americans want their leaders to lead, oddly enough. Voters are incredibly lazy about understanding politics, in between their bouts of rage at the lousy politicians selected by those darned… lazy voters. That laziness means that they will follow you if you lead. They’ll even follow you, for a while anyhow, if you’re ideas are insane. George W. Bush is the paradigmatic case. Americans didn’t want the war in Iraq. They didn’t really even want the massive tax cuts. But he hammered those policies home, using every technique of the bully pulpit to masterful effect, and he got what he wanted, even when he lacked a majority in Congress. He might have gotten his Social Security theft bill through Congress as well, had he not already established himself to the electorate as a liar and a disaster-inducing idiot. (Bush should get on his knees and thank Darwin that he failed on that front. Seniors would likely be lynching him now if his bill had passed.)
Obama could have been a bold, decisive and game-changing leader, but he has chosen instead to be Bill Clinton in the time of Franklin Roosevelt. He wants to do something about the Great Depression. But not too much! He want to respond to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi threat to plunge the world into a thousand years of darkness. But only if no one would get hurt! He want to make sure Americans aren’t ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed. But only if the Republicans literally seeking to destroy his presidency will go along for the ride!
Brilliant. He doesn’t get that people want leadership from the president, that they absolutely demand that in a time of crisis, and that they will drop you like so much depleted uranium if you don’t bring it during a time of big, multiple crises. Like now. This guy is fast wearing out his welcome.
The mood of the public today is anti-incumbent, and the president and his party are the incumbents du jour to be anti against. They have exacerbated their problem by failing to take the steps sufficient to really solve problems, and by focusing on problems other than the one absolutely at the top of the public’s list right now – jobs and more jobs.
Most of all, though, this president has almost completely lost control of the communications high ground. For a president in the American system of distributed power – especially one who, unlike George W. Bush, is unwilling the toss the Constitution and its separation of powers into the garbage can – communications mastery is everything. You can only win by skilled use of the bully pulpit. Obama, on the other hand, has allowed himself to be defined by others, not least of which including a now revived and revanchist Republican Party, blood dripping from its fangs, a very hungry look gleaming in its eye.
So, for example, most Americans now think Obama is a liberal, despite the fact that he is actually quite conservative (except if you count as liberal spending a ton of money to clean up the regressive right’s multifarious messes).
And most Americans do not consider themselves liberal.
Neither of these outcomes was necessary. A skilled and gutsy and bold President Obama would have staked out an agenda clearly in the public interest, identified just as clearly the opponents to that agenda and their motives, hammered home his relentless sales pitch to the public, twisted arms right out of their sockets in Congress, and forged a new progressive majority in America over sensible policies, leaving the minority of old white male crackers out there foaming at the mouth, forming the core of the Republican Party. Tony Blair was the model here. He aggressively painted – quite accurately – the British Conservative Party of Thatcher and Major as the source of the country’s woes, and he never stopped reminding people of their disastrous reign. Meanwhile, Blair did nothing much in office, signed up for the Iraq war – totally in opposition of public sentiment, lying all the way – and helped to bring on a vicious recession. And he still bought the Labour Party more than a dozen years in office, just by reminding the public of how bad the Tories had been.
Obama is, instead, taking himself down and – in as cruel a twist as history can muster – the progressive values he long ago walked away from, along with him.
Where we go from here could be very, very ugly. The GOP right now is in the process of alienating and crushing every last scrap of moderately sensible politics from within its ranks. That means that American voters will very likely have the following choice in 2010 and 2012: On the one hand, a discredited do-nothing Democratic Party that promised change and didn’t deliver; and on the other, a rabid, ultra-regressive GOP that is itself promising change from the failed former would-be change-providers.
Before you guess who would win that contest, bear in mind that this is likely to be happening under still dire economic conditions and a shrinking national standard of living.
You may be forgiven for thinking that that scenario is all too reminiscent of a certain European country in the 1930s.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.