It's not so much that we're a country with problems. Every country has its challenges, and compared to much of the rest of the world I'd take our particular batch hands-down. It's just that so many of ours are self-inflicted.
Still, looking out across the panoply of peril, all the unfortunate ways in which we get it wrong as a society, I can't help but think that what's at the bottom of the stack, providing a foundation for the rest, is a profound national stupidity. Maybe it's my professional bias as an educator, but I often think that our biggest single problem is our (often willful) ignorance. Moreover, that's the single national characteristic that enables so many of our other maladies. If only we would allow ourselves to think, it seems to me, so much of the inanity that passes for normal in our politics would be laughed off the stage, and we'd all sure be a lot better off for it.
Honestly, this was the single thing I found most compelling about candidate Obama (as opposed to President Obama, who's more or less been one disappointment after another). Whether he was talking about dumb wars, or the fear-marketing of guns, gays and god, or addressing the question of race in America, Obama would sometimes do something that America hadn't seen in its political class since Jimmy Carter was in the White House: He would sometimes tell the truth.
Mind you, not often, and not even the whole truth. But the comparison was nevertheless startling, so long has it been since we've seen anything like this. Ronald Reagan not only began the era of "America, The Movie", he personified it as president like no one else ever has. Why worry about national problems when you can have yellow ribbons, poignant sunrises, and kick-ass wars against mortal enemies like Grenada instead? America has never quite recovered from this turn to the fantastical, this Hollywood spectacle of a government. Indeed, so deeply rooted has it become that, in order to help hold onto our comforting delusions, we now have a tenacious mythology which has arisen around the Great Mythologizer himself. The mythmaker has become myth too. New lies promulgated to prop up the old ones.
Whatever. My guess is that if we can ever have a serious discussion of Reagan in the future, one of the great crimes that will be attributed to his presidency will be the same supposed virtue that our lame punditocracy ascribes to it now. They say it was a revival of the American spirit and a restoration of our national confidence. In fact, what it was instead was a grand journey of self-delusion taken by an entire country, and at great cost, much of which we continue to pay to this day.
Thirty years of this disastrous turn in American politics could make even the half-truths of someone like Barack Obama refreshing and welcome, sometimes even stunning. I had almost forgotten what it was like to have a politician talk to me like I was an adult with a brain, rather than some Sunday School kiddie in short pants, who could only distinguish between Mr. God and Mr. Satan, the one with the beard and the one with the horns. I had almost forgotten what it could be like to see a president describe the world in three dimensions, complete with nuances and complexities, rather than some silly faux dichotomy between Good and Evil, with our team always representing the former.
Since becoming president Obama has cracked that door open a bit once or twice, though far from sufficiently and even less than during his campaign. His Cairo speech had some of these elements. And then he did it again a couple of times last week, especially when he visited the Republican House retreat and held a televised Q and A with those scary monsters.
Much as I hesitate to say it, the changes in the Obama White House this last week are slightly encouraging. It's even possible that they've recognized what a suicide mission they've been on this last year and have taken some baby steps in the only direction available to them for survival, let alone any sort of redemption. Obama doesn't strike me as constitutionally able to throw a punch at an adversary. It's just not in his character. But this week, at least, he flicked a couple of spitballs. For this White House, that's progress.
In any case, there was much that was telling about the event. First, that this semi-hostile dialogue which many have compared to the British weekly tradition of Prime Minister's Question Time transpired at all was a somewhat profound development. Of course, that statement says far more about the pathetic nature of the American political system than it does about Obama or the cavemen from the Valley of the Right who questioned him. It's also enormously telling that the GOP resisted until the last moment allowing the cameras to roll during the question and answer period they really didn't want to go there. Think about that. You had a single meek politician going up against two hundred rabid bullies, and which side wanted to make sure the public didn't see the engagement? Did Republicans know something in advance that made them fearful of public exposure, even when going up against President Neville O'Bambi?
Perhaps it was the same thing that caused FOCS (Frighten Old Children Silly) "News" to cut away from the broadcast in the middle of it, despite the food-fight event being the very epitome of what television loves to show in politics. Uh-oh. Not only was Obama occasionally holding Republican feet to the fire, but he was even doing it without a Teleprompter! Evidently, the sight of the nice, genteel, reasonable black man helping a bunch of white sharks make themselves look like the stupid liars they are was all too much for Mr. Ailes and company. Seeing this was causing smoke to pour out of the ears of robo-regressives all across America, their circuits frying all at once. Cut to American Idol reruns, boys! Fast!
Why? Because Obama was actually making these lying thugs own, even slightly, the consequences of their destructive deceits. Here he was with the Republicans at their retreat, for example: "There was an interesting headline in CNN today: "Americans disapprove of stimulus, but like every policy in it.' And there was a poll that showed that if you broke it down into its component parts, 80 percent approved of the tax cuts, 80 percent approved of the infrastructure, 80 percent approved of the assistance to the unemployed. Well, that's what the Recovery Act was. And let's face it, some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities." Similarly, the next day he was tweaking seven Republicans who actually walked away from their own proposal for a bipartisan debt-cutting commission, just because the socialist president had subsequently agreed with them on the idea.
The Kumbaya Kid is considerably more gentle about whacking these Joe McCarthy prote'ge's than I would be. I'd like to see a lot more Harry Truman out of him, and a lot less Harry Reid. A lot more Betty Friedan, and a lot less Betty Crocker. Just the same, the Massachusetts election may go down as an inflection point in this presidency, the moment at which the White House figured out that standing by silently and watching yourself get your ass kicked by dress-up cowboy cowards unarmed with anything but lies and bullying tactics turns out to be, amazingly enough, something of a strategic error in national politics.
But what I find so astonishing about moments like this is how revealing they are of simple truths that somehow manage to get lost, particularly in the ranks of the Democratic Party. To begin with, Barack Obama has been hard at work for a year now, crashing an enormously promising presidency that just happens to also have his name attached to it, and the way forward has always seemed to me so transparently clear. Regressives in Congress (some from his own party), representing parasitical special interests, are sucking the blood from the American polity, even as the corpse begins to stiffen in rigor mortis. Maybe I'm just a sucker for that old fashioned democracy gospel, but I still believe that many times good policy can also be good politics. How much greater public fury at banks and other corporate predators does there need to be before the president realizes that actually taking on the malefactors of great wealth in this society also happens to be the best thing that could happen to him politically? How many times does he have to lose public support because of the astounding fabrications people are promulgating about him before he decides to stop playing nice and call the liars liars?
After seeing the president in action this week, the obnoxiously abrasive pundit Chris Matthews opined that Republicans should fear Barack Obama's learning curve. That one gave me a real chuckle. As far as I can see, no one in America has more to fear from Obama's learning curve than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is currently slated to be very much on the housing market in January of 2013. Indeed, the single thing most utterly astonishing to me about the Obama presidency is how such a politically astute candidate could turn out to be such an absolutely lame, slow-to-get-it, president. And I'm not even talking about the guy's policies or ideology, much of which I abhor, since they frequently amount quite literally to warmed-over Bushism.
I'm just talking about Obama's lack of street smarts. The health care bill was paradigmatic, though hardly the only example. When it comes to selling his policies and strategic communications and winning the battle, he is decidedly not Bush-like. That reality is made all the more ironic by the fact that, unlike Bush, Obama doesn't even need to resort to outrageous lies in order to pitch manifestly evil policies (even if his are considerably less than wonderful). Never has a president failed so dramatically to employ his best weapon the bully pulpit to market his proposals for the country. Never has a president gotten so little from such favorable conditions for presidential success as Obama did this last year.