What do nine dead Gaza activists in the Mediterranean, nine-plus percent unemployment, and ninety years of oil catastrophe clean-up have in common?
How about one astonishingly tepid president?
How about one guy in the White House who squirms in his chair anytime someone uses the word “bold” and actually means it?
How about one dude in the Oval Office who seems much more interested in making deals to determine who should be the Democratic candidates for various state offices than in actually solving national problems?
We could hardly have a president more ill-suited to our time if we were to dig up Herbert Hoover and prop his weary bones up on the presidential throne.
Barack Obama has five major problems as president. The first is that he doesn’t understand priorities. The second is that he seems to have little strong conviction on any given issue. The third is that to the extent he stands for anything, it is for maintenance of a status quo that continues to wreck the country in order to service the greed of a few oligarchs. The fourth is that he fundamentally does not understand the powers and the role of the modern presidency. And the fifth is that he maintains the worst communications apparatus in the White House since Jimmy Carter prowled its corridors. In fairness to his communications team, though, he has given them almost nothing to sell. You try singing the praises of bailing out Goldman Sachs one hundred cents on the dollar, or of a health care plan that forces people to buy plans they don’t want from hated insurance vultures. It ain’t easy, pal. Yet, on the other hand, Bush and Cheney had far less than nothing to sell when it came to the Iraq war – indeed, they had nothing but lies – and their team handled that masterfully.
The fundamental characteristic of the Obama presidency is that the president is a reactive object, essentially the victim of events and other political forces, rather than the single greatest center of power in the country, and arguably on the planet. He is the Mr. Bill of politicians. People sometimes excuse the Obama torpor by making reference to all the problems on his plate, and all the enemies at his gate. But what they fail to understand – and, most crucially, what he fails to understand – is the nature of the modern presidency. Successful presidents today (by which I mean those who get what they want) not only drive outcomes in their preferred direction, but shape the very character of the debate itself. And they not only shape the character of the debate, but they determine which items are on the docket.
Moreover, there is a continuously evolving and reciprocal relationship between presidential boldness and achievement. In the same way that nothing breeds success like success, nothing sets the president up for achieving his or her next goal better than succeeding dramatically on the last go around.
This is absolutely a matter of perception, and you can see it best in the way that Congress and especially the Washington press corps fawn over bold and intimidating presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush. The political teams surrounding these presidents understood the psychology of power all too well. They knew that by simultaneously creating a steamroller effect and feigning a clubby atmosphere for Congress and the press, they could leave such hapless hangers-on with only one remaining way to pretend to preserve their dignities. By jumping on board the freight train, they could be given the illusion of being next to power, of being part of the winning team. And so, with virtually the sole exception of the now retired Helen Thomas, this is precisely what they did.
But the game of successfully governing is substantive as well as psychological. More often than not, timidity turns out not to yield the safe course anticipated by those with weak knees, but rather their subsequent undoing. The three cases mentioned at the top of this essay are paradigmatic.
By far and away the most crucial problem on the minds of most Americans today is the economy, as is often the case, but now more than ever. It’s hard to quite figure where Barack Obama is on this issue. What is always most puzzling with this guy is reconciling the fundamentally irrational behavior of his presidency with the obvious intellectual abilities of the president and the administrative masterfulness of the campaign he ran to obtain that office. It seems to me that there are four options for understanding Obama’s self-defeating tendency when it comes to the economic disaster he inherited. One is that he simply isn’t so smart, and doesn’t get the ramifications of continued unemployment at the level it’s currently running. The second option is that he’s just a policy bungler, who has the right intentions but makes lousy choices for trying to get there. The third possibility is that Obama recognizes this latest recession as the capstone (we hope) of a three decade long process by the economic oligarchy seeking nothing less than the downsizing of the American middle class, and he simply lacks the courage to attempt any reversal of this tsunami of wealth redistribution. The final, and scariest – but by no means least probable – explanation for Obama’s behavior is that he is ultimately no less a tool in that very piracy project than was George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
Whatever the explanation, Obama’s timidity early in his presidency not only failed to solve the problem, but more crucially, now precludes him from introducing any meaningful subsequent attempt at solving the problem. Obama’s management of the economic stimulus bill in the first weeks of his presidency was the very model of how a president should govern – provided, that is, that the nineteenth century hadn’t actually ended over a hundred years ago. This president, who has turned deference to others – including to his sworn enemies – into an art form, told Congress that he wanted a stimulus bill and let them fill in the details. What he got, accordingly, was a giant monstrosity filled with pet projects for each congressional district in America, with about one-third of it constituted by tax cuts in order to buy Republican votes which never came anyhow. Nor has there been, to this day, any urgency about the spending of those funds.
The upshot of all of this is threefold, all of it hugely negative. First, the government spent an enormous amount of money on the stimulus without solving the problem of the recession and unemployment. Second, it therefore massively exacerbated the national debt problem, with little gain to show for it. And, third, the combination of the first two factors effectively precludes any subsequent stimulus package from emerging out of Congress for the foreseeable future, the politics of spending in general and the stimulus in particular having become altogether radioactive.
And here we see how Obama’s failure to lead in the first instance has succeeded above all in digging him into a hole subsequently. We are likely looking at nine or ten percent unemployment for years to come, and Obama’s legislative cowardice has created a situation in which the only remaining meaningful tool by which to transcend this deep recession has been taken off the table. The public looks around and asks, “Why should we spend more money on economic stimulus, when all it does is fail to produce results, while simultaneously increasing the national debt?” It’s a legitimate question, except that it omits consideration of a third alternative, which is to actually do a stimulus correctly, pumping money into infrastructure, alternative energy projects, unemployment compensation, retraining programs and the like, all of which would positively impact the economy in both the short, medium and long terms.
You see the same phenomenon in virtually everything Obama touches. Lots of spiffy rhetoric. But then lots of deference to every other actor in the play (except, of course, for the interests of the American public or for his base of progressive voters), including those who are overtly trying to destroy the president. “You say that Republicans want to remove the public option from the health care bill? Okay, let’s give that to them. It’s bound to buy, golly, what? … zero whole votes from their caucus!” “You say they demand yet more tax cuts be included in the stimulus bill? Let’s do that! And watch them vote against it almost without exception.” Brilliant.
In the Middle East, Obama has spent his first year-and-a-half in office getting bitch-slapped by Noxious Netanyahu, with nothing to show for it but total embarrassment. It’s gotten so bad that you can no longer tell which country is the client state of the other. Is it the one with the economy, military, territory, population and political power that dwarfs the other, or is it the one that continually receives financial, military and political support from the other, no matter what it does? Including, for example, regularly invading its neighbors, strangling a population of over a million people, pissing off the whole world, and humiliating both the president and vice-president of its benefactor country by continuing to build more illegal, peace-preventing settlements, in direct, intentional and arrogant contravention of their expressed preference to the contrary. If Obama could possibly be more passive in this situation, it’s difficult to know how. Perhaps he could strap on a construction belt and assist the Israelis himself in building some apartment complexes in East Jerusalem. While he was at it, maybe he’d take his shirt off in the hot Mediterranean sun, and get in another one of those hunky president photos he seems so fond of.
The story is the same back in the Gulf of Mexico, where Obama recently had his very own Michael Dukakis moment. Trying to look tough, like Dukakis did haplessly riding around on that tank in the picture that spoke a million words (and sank a presidential campaign), Obama decided to use a four-letter word to show how serious he is about those mean fellows at BP and their errant flow of oil. Except that this president is so inept that he could only manage three of the requisite four letters. He told NBC’s Matt Lauer that he has been visiting the oil spill region “so I know whose ass to kick”. I mean, raise your hand if you think that that little display of anger for the cameras was about as authentic as Cheese Whiz. And simultaneously both far less and far more cheesy. But it gets worse. It then turns out that during all of the last 45 or so days, the president hasn’t yet had a phone conversation with the CEO of British Petroleum. Turns out Obama traveled all that way to New Orleans and still couldn’t get a postal code for the limey arse to which to fax over his presidential boot.
Like he would use it if he had it, anyhow. Can you imagine the conversation he might have with Tony Hayward?
Obama: “Hey, Tony, your oil spill is really causing me problems, so I thought I’d call to kick your ass a little.”
Hayward: “Screw you, punk. You do what I tell you.”
Obama: “Oh god, you’re right. Christ! Sorry. I forgot myself. For a minute there I thought I was talking to my daughter about her homework.”
Hayward: “Get your facts straight, pal. Starting with who here works for whom.”
Obama: “Yes, sir. Right away, sir. What can we do for you?”
Hayward: “Nothing at all would be perfect, just like you have been doing. Just let us drill where we want, spill where want, thrill as is our wont to the sheer brazenness of our lies, and bill your account for the damages. We’re not greedy we won’t ask for more than that.”
Obama: “You got it, Mr. Hayward. We’ll get right on it. Raaaahhm!!!”
The only thing more grim than the visage of the pathetic Obama administration in non-action is a consideration of the opportunity lost here. Obama had all the cards stacked in his favor, ranging from a destroyed opposition party, to a series of crises, to a public demanding change, to massive majorities in Congress, to global good will. He’s pissed it all away in his unrelenting dedication to mediocrity and inoffensiveness.
And the only thing more grim than that is to consider where this all leads. Every day I shudder a little more as yet another two-by-four is crow-barred out from the edifice of America’s experiment in liberal democracy. Every time the Supreme Court hands down a decision, it means more power for the state, more power for the imperial president (whom they also select when they feel like it), and especially, more power for the rich. Every day more people are dying in the stupid and endless wars of the twilight empire, for which nobody can even articulate a purpose. Every election cycle more lethally vicious regressives are victorious, crushing common sense and human rights in tandem, moving the country further in the direction of mindless fascism.
There’s no other word for it. This country is just plain rotting from within.
And, thus, perhaps the most tragic aspect of the Obama regime will not be the embarrassingly hapless conduct of this baseball of a president, getting smacked around by big steroid-sculpted biceps swinging fat slabs of menacing lumber at the velocity of their choice. Nor will it be the blown opportunities of epic proportion, not likely to be seen again for a long time.
It is likely to be, instead, the door that was opened for far worse to be inflicted upon the American public and the world.
By failing to stand for anything while the country crumbles, Obama has virtually begged those who would make the trains run on time to seize power.
And why shouldn’t they “take their country back” from this president, anyhow?
I mean, the guy wasn’t even born in America, right?
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.