This week, Barack Obama called for a $50 billion spending program to launch a long-term public works infrastructure upgrade of road, rail, airport and other transportation facilities over the next six years.
According to coverage in the New York Times, “officials said that, under the best case scenario, if Congress acts quickly, the plan could start creating jobs over the course of 2011. But the officials emphasized that the White House does not view the proposal as a ‘stimulus, immediate jobs plan,’ calling it instead a ‘six-year reauthorization that’s front-loaded.’
“With only a few weeks of this year’s Congressional session left before lawmakers head home to campaign for re-election, the White House concedes it may face an uphill battle in getting the plan passed this fall, either before lawmakers break for the mid-terms or afterward, in a lame-duck session. Typically, transportation measures do get bipartisan support, but they often require months of work.”
Hmm. Like Martin Luther King before him, it would appear that Barack Obama truly has a dream.
And look at how much our dreams have shrunk in forty years. King dreamed of a society in which people were judged by the content of their character without regard to the color of their skin. Barack Obama has a dream about being able to scratch together a few nickels so that the country can do what it manifestly should have been doing decades ago.
And look, as well, at how much we’ve shrunk as a country. A substantial chunk of King’s magisterial dream has already come true (with, of course, much yet to be done). Obama’s puny one is dead on arrival.
I can’t imagine what the guy was even thinking.
It’s a dream to believe Republicans would agree to anything whatsoever at this point, after they’ve blocked every possible initiative they could, so why is he still indulging that fantasy?
It’s dream, now that Obama has helped Democrats boot away Teddy Kennedy’s seat in liberal Massachusetts, that Republicans would even let this plan come up for a vote in the Senate.
It’s a total and complete dream to believe that they would do so right before an election.
It’s a dream to believe, with the administration having completely blown the national discourse these last two years, that the public would favor any further government spending now.
It’s even a dream to imagine members of Obama’s own party passing this legislation in the current political environment.
And it’s a dream to think that it would matter if they did. Obama is the great master of far too little, far too late, and far too poorly done – when and if it’s done at all.
So many dreams. Given the president’s evident desire to indulge deeply in hallucination, I say if he wants to dream, why doesn’t he let himself go…?
Why doesn’t he just dream that the economy will double in size overnight? It would be so much easier than doing the hard work of actually building it. It would be so much easier than having to show the political muscle necessary to make things happen in the current environment.
Why doesn’t he just dream that Planet Earth will grow a thermostat – right near the Potomac for that matter – so he can just reach over and turn down the temperature? It would be so much easier than actually leading the battle necessary to stop a handful of global-scale predators from getting rich by cooking life forms on this planet out of existence.
Why doesn’t he just dream that regressives will fall down on their knees and ask the country’s forgiveness for ripping it off blind over thirty years and running?
Why doesn’t he just dream that Iraqis will forget about a millennium of ethno-religious conflict and just make nice with each other next week?
Why not dream that Islam disappears from the planet? Maybe then America could win in Afghanistan.
Why not dream that Judaism disappears from the planet? Maybe then the settlers will unsettle the West Bank and Obama’s pathetic Middle East peace initiative could actually work.
Why not dream that Christianity disappears from the planet? Maybe then we Americans could all start thinking, rather than just fearing, hating and killing.
Why doesn’t he just dream that it was January 2009 again, and he could have a do-over?
I watched Obama’s press conference this week, and I was reminded again of what a misfit he is for the presidency, and what a misfit he is for our time. He doesn’t seem to get the concept that an effective president has to get in fights. He doesn’t seem to understand that there are genuine enemies to the public interest out there (and, mostly, that they’re not to be found overseas). He doesn’t seem to understand that the reason presidents have to get into fights is because these enemies exist, because they are ruthless and entirely sociopathic, and because their victories are the public’s losses.
Instead, there was Barack at his latest public event, demonstrating once again how it is possible for abysmal communication skills to reside within the body of a sometimes gifted communicator. There was the halting, ineffective, delivery. There was the blood-drained absence of passion on topics where the expression of some serious outrage is not only not a bad thing – as he seems to believe – but would be eminently healthy and highly welcome. There was the president almost never taking the opportunity to grab the bully pulpit, stake out the ethical high ground, show the kind of leadership that the public always craves from its chief executive, and deliver a moral lecture to call us to our senses. There he was continuing to treat the oligarchy of this country and their Republican marionettes not as predatory enemies of the people, but rather as nice, well-intentioned folks who have a slightly different but just as respectable a set of ideas from his. There was the president ducking difficult questions about his own previous assertions, hiding from the word “stimulus”, and almost never grabbing affirmative control of the discourse and the agenda. And there he was, frankly, looking altogether and all-too-often rather annoyed with the whole business.
Watching performances like that, I frequently find myself really wondering why this guy ever sought the presidency. Getting there is one of the most physically and emotionally difficult things a person can do. It’s one of the biggest mountains there is to climb. So why did he go through all that just to be a placeholder president? Why succeed at campaigning only to tank at governing? Why be a historically great candidate only to have history regard you as a failed president?
Notwithstanding this repeat of yet another rather tepid public performance, there’s lots of media buzz this week that “Obama is back!”, because of one or two speeches he gave recently. For example, here are the opening lines from an email blast just sent from the folks at MoveOn.org: “Dear MoveOn Member: Remember what it felt like to watch Barack Obama back when he was Candidate Obama? Seeing him fired up and ready to go in front of a crowd of 20,000? Well, as of this week, that Obama’s back. On Wednesday, he gave a feisty, tough speech that showed just how irresponsible Republicans have been, how crazy it’d be to give them back control of Congress this fall, and what he proposes to do to get our economy back on track.”
You know, this whole concept just infuriates me beyond belief. Let’s just take the best case scenario here, to start with. Let’s just say that over the last two years Barack O’Bambi was too nice a guy, too committed to changing the bitter partisanship in Washington, too much a believer in the healing powers of his own magical self. That is the best case scenario – the most generous interpretation of this failed presidency – and even that is enough to disgust me to the bone. Sorry, but I don’t want a president that shockingly naive.
Our national problem isn’t that we honorably disagree over two equally respectable philosophies of governance and therefore don’t get along because we’re all such good citizens that our passionate commitment to the public weal as we each see it best pursued leads us to be occasionally intemperate. No. Our problem is that there is a group of elite raptors who are seeking to vacuum every ounce of wealth out of the pockets of the other 99 percent of us and scoop it into their own pockets instead, and that they’ve employed a set of politician stooges who have in the last several decades jettisoned all meaningful behavioral limitations on what they’re willing to do to achieve those ends. In that sense, the idea of some religious crackpot cracker in Florida burning the Koran isn’t some bizarre anomaly. It is, instead, precisely the logical outcome of a set of politics in which you have “mainstream” members of Congress challenging the president’s very nationality and his religion, calling him a socialist, and accusing him of legislating death panels to kill grannies. It is precisely what we should expect to have happened. It is precisely the product of three decades of Atwater/Gingrich/Rove style politics.
These (alleged) people cannot be negotiated with, because they are not interested in public policy-making that is in the national interest. That’s not their mission, and only a naive fool or someone who had spent the last thirty years underground excavating the seventh moon of Jupiter would fail to understand that. Changing the tone in Washington – which, in any case, is always a far secondary aspiration relative to getting people jobs, protecting the environment, ending criminal wars, and so on – simply will never happen until all the bomb-throwers and barrier-builders in Congress are driven from the temple, and until political aspirants across the land get the message that whatever form of McCarthyism du jour they are contemplating employing in order to get elected will cost them more votes than it will gain them. Neville Chamberlain is almost universally despised and derided today for trying to negotiate with Hitler. Which part of that lesson do you not get, Barack?
But, of course, this is only the most charitable interpretation of how Obama’s presidency might be explained. The second-to-the-worst-case scenario is that he has exactly the same masters as Republicans do, but is simply a bit nicer fellow than they are in terms of implementing their common plutocratic objectives.
Which leaves the very-worst-case scenario, being the same oligarchy-serving Obama just described, with the added bonus of a boundless cynicism. This Obama governs in the interest of the overclass, but shows up on your television set three months before every election talking like some sort of progressive champion of the people.
I suspect that’s what we’re looking at right now, and it makes my eyes bleed. Like many progressives, I feel duped by the Obama of 2008. (I know there are many other lefties out there who think that any of us were fools to believe that Obama might have done great things as president, but I think those folks were wrong to assume that. I’m quite sure they would have said at least as much in 1932 about the theretofore aristocratic, safely uncontroversial and careerist Franklin Roosevelt. But look how that turned out. FDR became a “traitor to his class” and turned crises into great progressive achievements. LBJ – a Texan, for chrissakes – did much the same during his at-bat. Obama had at least as much potential to join that club.)
I’m furious enough at Obama for squandering opportunity, for taking care of the privileged and allowing the rest of us to suffer, for reviving the monsters of the right instead of finishing the job of crushing them, and for setting back the cause of policies and ideas I care passionately about. But it adds massive insult to injury for him to turn around and come, hat in hand, back to the people who put him into office, singing his populist song right before an election.
Maybe he’s even sincere. Maybe even slow-learning Obama has truly learned a lesson and turned a corner. Maybe. But how do I and tens of millions of people like me know that? How do we know that if we were to drag our weary butts to the voting booth to endorse his party again, that Progressive Barack won’t bait and switch us once more, disappearing for another two years in favor of Corporate Obama, only to resurface just in time for the next election?
Screw that. I’m way too pissed off to take the remotest chance of that happening. The irony of Obama is that nothing has so distanced me from the Democratic Party than the great socialist himself. Even another John Kerry-style yawner in 2008 would have done far less damage to my nearly non-existent affections for the party at that point. Let’s face it – among progressives, the Democrats had been living off of a combination of reputational inertia and the endless insanities of the alternative Republicans for three or four decades leading up to the last election. However, because Obama was no ordinary politician engaged in ordinary, cheap campaign rhetoric, because he came to office at a time of crisis – thus opening the door to more serious reforms than would otherwise be possible – and because the right had so badly repudiated their own politics, I believed there was a real chance this time could be different, just as it was under LBJ and FDR.
And there was, indeed, a real chance. It’s just that Obama booted it. The result has been disastrous all around. I know I speak for many in saying that I can’t imagine ever trusting him with my vote again. I don’t even expect to vote Democratic again in my lifetime. The exception would be if the left were to do what the far right has done to the GOP – namely, hijack the party. That might happen, but I don’t it see it on the horizon right now, that’s for sure.
As for Obama, it’s hard to imagine any way in which he has not sealed his fate as a one-term president, and one of the great failures in that high office. He’s the James Buchanan of our time – the milquetoast who faced great crises but brought only tepid, conventional, status quo and restrained solutions to the table. He has failed, just as Buchanan failed, and he will likely therefore join Buchanan on the list of the lousiest presidents.
Obama is going to get whacked hard in November, and this election will be a more personal repudiation of the president than are most mid-terms. It will be widely seen as his loss more than the party’s. He will have three choices at that point. He can make little strategic change and keep his existing politics. But the pressures from within and without to alter course will be too enormous for that to be likely.
Second, he can turn to the left and become truly the people’s president. Despite the fact that this is the only real possibility for salvation (though he probably doesn’t even have time for that anymore), he is extremely unlikely to do so, not least because the election will be falsely but nearly unanimously read as a wholesale repudiation of Obama’s already ‘socialist’ tendencies. A turn to the left would be loudly and endlessly trumpeted by the right as spitting in the public’s eye. And since Democrats never, ever, argue back, that narrative will carry the day, just as the socialist narrative has ludicrously carried the day so far.
The last option will be to turn to the right, as Clinton did, and hope that in 2012 he can convince grumbling voters that the GOP nominee is slightly more insane than he has been anemic. I have little doubt that this is the direction he will go.
Unlike Clinton in the 1990s, however, he is unlikely to have an economic boom that could allow people to forget politics and vote for incumbents. My guess is that current unemployment levels will not abate in the coming two years. Indeed, because the half-baked stimulus of 2009 is now about out of gas, there is a very real chance that things will get worse. Nothing kills a presidency like recession. But add to that slow drip decline the endless GOP investigations of bogus administration scandals you’ll be seeing on a television set near you starting next January, and you can stick a fork in this president.
That’s all well and good and completely just, as far as I’m concerned. I’d relish doing the sticking myself, actually. It’s just that – and I hope here that the president can pardon another eruption of my silly tendency toward civic responsibility that occasionally gets the better of me – it’s a disaster for America and for the world.
Maybe if Barack dreams energetically enough, though, it doesn’t have to happen.
Maybe if he just dreams that he has a chance to be one of the great figures in American history because he inherited great crises requiring profound solutions, it will come to pass.
Oh, wait a minute. That dream already did come true.
Only he turned his dream opportunity into a nightmare by showing up for the war armed with a cap gun.
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.