Maybe you didn’t realize that. And who could blame you? With the near complete absence of media coverage, I’m sure most Americans didn’t realize that the magic date came and went.
But it did, and I thought I’d do something really unique and different out there in the media, and comment on it.
It’s worth doing, anyhow, because I think about enough time has gone by to allow us to begin to see the tendencies of this new White House.
And, because it’s probably not really what it looks like to a lot of people.
I use the terms “tendencies” and “probably” carefully, and not because I’m hedging my bets, ducking and weaving, but because, among other contingencies, so much of a presidency is determined by developments outside of the White House. Therefore, a hundred days in, it would be an exercise in foolishness to attempt a full characterization of this presidency. That said, however, I do think we have begun to get a sense of its nature, and of the reactive proclivities it will apply to any external developments heading in its direction.
Before describing those, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to consider why Obama is largely misunderstood. There are three good reasons for this.
The first of these is that the new administration is truly multifarious in its endeavors, trotting around the world from Europe, to the Middle East, to Latin America, and messing about in domestic policy area after domestic policy domain here at home, ranging from environment to economy to civil liberties to healthcare.
The administration truly has its fingers in a plethora of pies. No question about that. But, of course, sticking your finger in a hundred pies is a wholly different proposition from baking them, or even one of them. And the extended metaphor, I would argue, absolutely and unfortunately applies to the Obama administration. I see a president acting across a panoply of policy domains, but acting boldly in none of them.
The second reason why one might misapprehend the Obama administration is because the foaming right, true to form, has gone so far out of its way seeking to make that happen. Of course, their hysterical fulminations about the president’s disastrous transgressions – you know, like shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, or bowing to the Saudi King – have now been denounced by even perennially foolish middle America, who recognize a good b*tch-slapping when they feel one, even if it took eight years for the signal from the one they got from the nice folks now skewering Obama to travel from cheek to cortex.
But those are only the smarter ones, and the less existentially terrified. Beyond that scary horizon there still remains a no-man’s land where resides about a third of this country, and who believe that any cognitive activity above the level of the reptile brain is somehow suspicious and likely part of some kind of communist plot. Who believe that George W. Bush was a real fine but misunderstood president. And who believe that the Republican Party really does have their interests at heart. These are the folks whom Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck get paid millions to further stupefy (which I always thought was kind of a dumb waste of money, since you could easily do it for a lot less cash).
Anyhow, in just the few short weeks that Obama’s been president I’ve seen these professional hucksters literally label him “socialist”, “communist” and “fascist”. They probably realize all too well the impossibility of these labels applying to the same person simultaneously, but they also know that for people stupid enough to imbibe the elixir they’re peddling, it isn’t noticed and wouldn’t matter if it was. When did contradictions ever get in the way of politico-theist dogma, anyhow?
Thus a second reason that one might think Barack Obama is reshaping America in some incredibly profound way is that fifteen minutes of listening to right-wing radio or television will overwhelm you with that very proposition. On the right side of your radio dial, ladies and gentlemen, the guy is little short of the Anti-Christ, come to decimate Western Civilization. Never mind, of course, that Jesus George left his successor very little remaining to wreck. Why should that matter?
But the third and biggest explanation for the misapprehension of Obama is as simple as that very contrast between the president and his predecessor.
Draw a long arrow across a piece of paper. Let’s call this, as Obama himself is fond of doing, “the arc of history”. Not to be too grandiose or determinative about it, it’s fair to say that there are certain historical tendencies, pressures and imperatives which compel societies and even species to move in certain directions. This is our arc of history. Now take the last ten percent of the arrow’s length, and bend it back upon itself, pointing in the opposite direction. This is the era of the Bush administration, which sought every imaginable opportunity to reverse history. When it came to gay rights, it was a reversal of ten years. When it came to civil rights and women’s rights, it was a reversal of three or four decades. When it came to principles of good governance, it was a reversal of a century. When it came to democracy, science and separation of church and state, it was a reversal of over two centuries. And when it came to fundamental civil liberties, the Bush people turned the clock back nearly a millennium, to the era before Magna Carta.
And, thus, the third reason that Obama falsely appears to be some sort of great change agent is that he walks on stage a fraction of an inch beyond where history’s arrow pointed of its own accord, but the country he inherits was dropped off decades behind that point. The gap between the retro-America George W. Bush bequeathed his successor and the baby steps Obama has taken in the direction of historical development is indeed substantial. However, it’s important not to misinterpret its meaning. That gap has everything to do with the giant leaps Bush took backwards while history was chugging along forward, and little to do with the tiny tentative inchings of the Obama administration. On issue after issue – from civil rights to relations with Cuba to global warming – the world and even American public opinion was progressing in a positive forward direction, while Bush and Cheney led public policy screaming the other way.