The old Obama reappeared this week.
Well, sorta, anyhow.
He gave a speech that liberals could find inspiring.
Again, sorta. And only if you don't pay attention to a few gigantic caveats.
Let's come back to that. First, though, the good news. The president got closer than he has in a very long to time to drawing serious lines of distinction between two very different approaches to the social compact in American society. This is work he has desperately needed to do these last two years, and work that has been wholly lacking from this most anemic of presidencies. When I and others criticize Obama for failing to present to the American people an overarching narrative that helps to define for us where the battle lines are drawn, who the good and bad guys are, and what we should believe in and fight for, this is what we critics are talking about. The absence of this narrative (and the gaping vacuum that absence has created for others to fill) is one of the main reasons that this presidency has failed so miserably.
Of course, the deeper problem may well be that such a clarion call is lacking from the president because any underlying convictions of that sort are equally absent. Every meaningful indicator suggests that if you pull back the facade of the anti-war, minority, young, community organizer Democrat, what you get are the politics of Dick Cheney, and sometimes worse.
But apart from that most serious of problems, Obama has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the office he occupies. Even with all the power he has to push buttons that would destroy the planet, and even with all the millions of people who work underneath him in the federal government, and even with his trusty veto pen, any president's greatest weapon in a system of separated powers is the bully pulpit. This soapbox is crucial not only for purposes of persuasion, but also for the deeper task of framing (which does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to persuading, anyhow). A smart and effective president gets what he wants by using the bully pulpit to set the agenda of what is debated, by framing how issues are perceived (to use the classic example -- is it an "estate tax' or a "death tax'?), by selling the public on his position regarding the issue, and then by persuading them to demand that Congress get on-board.
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This president almost never does any of that. Worse, he sits by passively while others do exactly that sort of work instead, on their terms. The full measure of Obama's failures in this respect can be taken by the sheer outrageousness of what Republicans get away with saying. If Harry Truman was in the White House, there'd be no death panel bullshit or birthers, and anyone stupid enough to talk that smack at the president's expense would pay the heavy burden of being ridiculed for the drooling imbeciles they absolutely are. If FDR was president, we'd be sufficiently reminded that the same kleptocratic elite who crashed the global economy in order to steal from the vast majority of Americans should not be given remotely serious consideration with regard to anything they say (indeed, they should count their blessings just to be on the happy side of prison walls), especially when these thieves call for more of the exact same policies.
Ah, but that was back when Democrats were Democrats. We, instead, get Barack Obama.
Still, for those of us who have so much lamented the absence of political courage in this president, he appears to have taken a step in the right direction this week. A step. Nobody should get overexcited here. You wouldn't exactly say that his speech showed balls. Well, maybe one. Or two-thirds, perhaps, rounded up to one. In any case it's fair to say that this week, finally, Barack had a ball.
Or so it appeared, when the president actually went so far as to do the vision thing in his speech. Here's the key excerpt, where he discussed the Republican plans for America's future: "Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can't afford to invest in education or clean energy, even though we can't afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That's not right, and it's not going to happen as long as I'm president. The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan's own budget director said, there's nothing "serious" or "courageous" about this plan. There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There's nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know. The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism. We take responsibility for ourselves and each other, for the country we want and the future we share. We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives."
Oh look, America. It lives! Finally the president speaks out about something. Finally he portrays a contrast between the forces of darkness and the rest of us. Finally he draws a line in the sand. Finally he awakens from his long slumber.
Well, like I said. Sorta. I despise Obama and feel passionately that he has betrayed the country. That said, I'll give him (or even Sarah Palin) credit for getting it right when they do, should that miraculously happen. I do that because my biggest loyalty is to something grossly missing from American politics, and that is a little dose of honesty. So give the president his due for what he did. But while we're at it, let's also recognize this for what it is -- and what it isn't -- in all its full glory.
The most important single observation to make about this speech is that the president has lost before he's begun -- his newfound willingness to make (mostly oblique) contrasts, notwithstanding. Or, more accurately, it is we who have lost before he's begun. Anyhow, this is pure Obama. Yield, yield, yield. Then go into negotiations with vicious thugs where -- shockingly -- you wind up yielding more. That the president could end up in such a position on this particular issue is the most astounding example of this pattern yet. Have we really forgotten, already, who made this mountain of debt, which is now presented by the very same people as the implacable imperative requiring us to slash social spending? Was it liberals who insisted on tax cuts for the wealthy these last thirty years, saying ti would raise federal revenues? Was it liberals who decided to invade Iraq on the basis of lies, and not pay for a nickel of those trillions spent with increased taxes or spending cuts? Was it progressives who created a needlessly overly-expensive new prescription drug benefit? Was it liberals who blew the doors off of domestic boondoggle spending when they controlled Congress last decade? Was it liberals who deregulated the finance industry, then bailed Wall Street bankers out one hundred pennies on the dollar after they imploded the global economy? Was it progressives who funneled hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies to giant oil and agricultural corporations? Was it liberals who massively expanded spending on so-called national defense, even though the US has no serious national enemies anywhere on the planet?
No, it was not. It was the exact same set of freaks and monsters who now demand that we must push poor and elderly Americans into the gutter, because the effects of their policies have now drowned us in an ocean of debt, and so that we can do even more of all of the above. It doesn't get more obvious than this. The point is, if you can't negotiate from strength on this issue, you can't negotiate from strength, period. Need I say more about this president?
But negotiating to win appears to be the last thing on Obama's mind, anyhow. I'm not the first armchair psychologist to note that the guy seems to prize being liked above all other virtues, quite literally including among those others the health and welfare of the nation, a responsibility which he himself sought. And he desperately seeks this social approval even when the people whose kind feelings he covets are spitting in his face, and rolling him, and trouncing him in elections by saying the most outrageous things about him personally, and -- most importantly -- not at all liking him at the end of the day, despite his very best efforts.
You could see Obama's craving for acceptance in the content of this speech, and in what he left out. When he talked about how things had gone wrong in the past, he didn't name names, leaving listeners to believe the Great Republican Lie that everyone is equally culpable. Or even worse, that theirs is, as they claim, the party of fiscal responsibility -- a lie of astonishing proportions. You could see it when Obama was delivering the toughest lines of his speech. He kept doing this strange thing with his mouth and chin that made it look very much like he was in pain getting out those words. And you could tell by how he ad-libbed -- both what he included, and what he omitted. At one point, he was supposed to say "Finally, there are those who believe we shouldn't make any reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security out of a fear that any talk of change to these programs will usher in the sort of radical steps that House Republicans have proposed". And he did say that. It's just that he dropped the word "radical" when he delivered the line. At another point, he spontaneously added the following to the prepared text: "And even those Republicans I disagree with most strongly I believe are sincere about wanting to do right by their country. We may disagree on our visions, but I truly believe they want to do the right thing".
The guy obviously has a hard time confronting people. Which is fine with me, if that's how he wants to run his personal life. I don't care if Michelle makes him dress up in a Bozo The Clown costume and rides him like a pony in the East Room, and he's too wimpy to object. That's up to him. But I'm not okay with Mr. Happy for my president. I don't want Tom Hanks in the White House, man, I want George Foreman. Or, as former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos once put it, I want somebody "with a Peace Corps heart and linebacker eyes". I can't tell whether Obama has any sort of heart at all, but if he does, it's a Wall Street heart. And as for the rest of his anatomy, I don't think he's quite pro football material, do you? Do they take people with cupcake eyes in the NFL?
Obama's ad-libbed statement is telling in another crucial respect, as well. I don't know if he really believes that ridiculous sh*t he mouthed about "those Republicans I disagree with most strongly", but if he does we are in such a major world of hurt. I'm sorry, Barack, but John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and George Bush and Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the rest of that ugly crew -- they're not sincere patriots who really want to do right for the people of America, but who just happen to have a bit of a different vision than most folks do. That particular lie -- almost the biggest in the entirely of American politics, a sport with more lies than an endless-loop video of a marathon golf tournament -- is such a huge part of our problem, and such a big chunk of the explanation as to why this country is in the state it's in. These are not patriots, Fool. These are predators. If heroin dealers wrapped themselves in the flag, would you "truly believe they want to do the right thing"? If Hitler belted out the Star Spangled Banner right before the Battle of the Bulge, would you have believed he was "sincere about wanting to do right" by America? Y'know, I could very well be the world's worst poker player that ever lived, but by god almighty I'd like to sit across the table from this guy for half an hour. Meanwhile, if we have any hope of saving this country, it's got to start with some truth in advertising. Difficult as it might be for certain Harvard graduates to comprehend, kleptocratic sociopathic marionette politicians crushing the American public by ruthlessly doing the bidding of an insanely greedy corporate oligarchy are not exactly what you'd call patriots. Is it too much to demand a president who can sort out something that basic?
Obama was also vague in offering his supposed alternative to the Republican plan. You can see that, especially in the way he contradicted himself regarding one of the cheapest ploys commonly used by Washington politicians. He rightly pointed out that "Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse -- that tackling the deficit issue won't require tough choices". Good point, Barack. The old "waste and fraud" ruse is as tedious as it is unfortunately effective. But how is that you then, later in the very same speech, tell us that "Over the last two years, Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again."? Or that "We will reduce wasteful subsidies and erroneous payments" in healthcare? Isn't this precisely the sort of nonsense you just got done criticizing others for doing?
Obama also throws out grandiose vagaries like this one about the cost of the US military, saying we need to: "conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world". Really? Let's me see here now. You're two-and-a-half years into your presidency, your fighting that same number of meaningless wars abroad, your country is drowning in debt, and you're just now figuring out that we need to rethink the bloody empire? And you're proposing that some unspecified person is to begin this process, somehow or another, at some unknown future date? Maybe it'll be like the Deficit Commission Obama created. He put the truly scary Alan Simpson in charge of that abortion. Given that George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense is also serving as Obama's Secretary of Defense, I wonder how this would turn out. And when. After years -- years, not months -- of being a senator, running for the presidency and being the president, couldn't we expect somebody to be able to articulate a real plan here?
There are gigantic opportunities sitting there for anyone who genuinely would want to chop federal spending. Opportunities that would not only permit real benefits to the country, and would not only be popular with the public, but would represent incredibly astute politics, forcing the Republicans to defend the worst monsters on the landscape, and forcing them to twist themselves into gruesome pretzels, indulging in the worst forms of overt and high comedic hypocrisy. We're not talking about low-hanging fruit here, people. We're talking about peaches, pears and plums that have been picked, cleaned, shipped, purchased, sliced and delivered to the president's dining room table, sitting there in his expensive china fruit salad bowl that Nancy Reagan bought. Can we not agree to end massive taxpayer subsides to giant corporations making record profits? Can we not agree to have a genuine minimum tax for all well-to-do individuals and corporations, so that GE can't make $17 billion in profit and still wind up being owed money by the US treasury? Can we not agree to end tax incentives for exporting American jobs overseas? And wouldn't it look really embarrassing to oppose any of these initiatives? I mean, come on.
And then there's the whole tough guy routine. Even when Obama says stuff like, "But let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves.", or, "In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again." -- even when he talks tough like that, does anyone, especially Republicans, take this guy seriously? Isn't he the guy who said he'd for sure close Guanta'namo? And who wanted the public option? Why doesn't he think Republicans will try the same game of chicken with him on tax cuts for the wealthy that they did last time? And why should we expect that the Capitulation Kid will have a better solution to their gambit than he did last time? And if he does have one, why didn't he freakin' whip it out in December? Face it, nobody folds like Obama. He's the origami president.
Which means that I've given up believing his pretty words in speeches like this. Indeed, I suspect that this speech is actually just a bunch of pretty words meant to bring people like me back into the fold. People whom Obama will need a year from now, especially if jobs do not reappear, and if the GOP nominates Twit Romney, who then makes a case to a credulous and bleeding public that he's got the ol' private-sector-jobs-creating-know-how-magic in his fingers (you know, just like the kind that the ridiculously flush private sector is using right now, as we speak, to not create jobs). Obama knows he will be vulnerable in 2012, and he needs to bring his base back home, after two-and-a-half years b*tch-slapping us with all the regularity of German train schedules, and some of the politics too.
This was not a real speech about progressive values. This was not the resurrection of Harry Truman, a fighter battling for the public interest, a pugilist willing to name names and bloody faces.
This was a campaign speech.
And even if it wasn't, it is the measure of Obama's abysmal presidency that people like me believe that it was.