Prescient even for Gore Vidal, as early as 2002 he nailed W.'s exit, "Mark my words, he will leave office the most unpopular President in history." Fortunately, we won't need Vidal's cheeky brilliance to imagine Barack Obama's finale, short of a miracle, as the most bloodied and compromised president in decades. Did Mr. Obama not have a clue what the president does, namely lead with vision, for he knows not how to do it? How in a political moment did the "fierce urgency of now" dissipate into the false currency of then?
Few begrudge the whimper had it followed some real, systemic bang. Okay, miracles happen but right now Obama looks ripe (overripe) to reduce the power, range, and efficacy of the American presidency. No small irony emerges here. For a president beholden to Bushthink and its policies (on war, deficits, terrorism, TARP, and tax rip-offs), Obama's legacy contrasts with Bush's unarguable, historic triumphs (policy aside). Yeah, I finally can answer my tiresome taunt -- how Obama is NOT Bush.
Thug or hero, W. and Cheney propelled the main contour of American politics and history since Lincoln or TR. No administration since FDR condensed more power in the presidency, seizing not just imperial but tyrannical, torturous command -- invading at will, dispatching subsidies and tax favors, crony deregulation, Constitutional violations, invasions of privacy (phones, banking), and stripping church/state separation. Like Nixon, they even sabotaged their own regime (outing a CIA agent for political revenge).
And the historic measure of this unfettered, basically unimpeached power? No pain, no penalty, no punishment, That, despite huge Bush-Cheney disapproval numbers, no offsetting restraint came forth (not media, courts, Congress, nor voters) to impede riding roughshod over Congress, bullying allies, corrupting appointments and agencies, ultimately poisoning the judiciary for my lifetime. That no in-depth investigation, let alone indictments followed, if only to establish the facts, qualify as criminal negligence, as history will show, set at Obama's feet. Ditto, the Gulf Oil spill.
What W. Wrought Wrecks Obama
How curious the continuation of so many Bush policies spawned almost opposite political results. Obama is popular enough, but his presidency is shaken, dithering and withering, his tactical /strategy range blunted even with Democrats. Opposite to vaunted expectations, Obama has actually shrunk his presidency, undercut its leverage and esteem, defaulting first to wimpy Democrats, now rigid rightwingers. Yes, re-empowering Congress after tyranny can be good, but less so when rebalancing favors the same crew chockablock with putzes.
To think the selfless Obama managed, inadvertently, to sacrifice his own presidency to save the other party, just to keep the system going. Way to go, Barry.
One norm, thankfully, has returned -- Obama's vice president is not co-president, nor the power behind the throne. Unlike Cheney, ordering Bush with a pail to clean up his countless messes, Biden rushes in after White House blunders, not without grace. True, elevating one's V.P. (whom voters barely vote for) to be top dog is the height of executive arrogance -- a contemptuous prank by an ill-prepared court-appointed president. That made doubly illegitimate Bush-Cheney's hegemony. Frankly, switching Biden for Cheney is one of Obama's few conscious, anti-Bush moves: this V.P. doesn't shoot friends in the face and, given the chance, would certainly dish out more chutzpah than Obama against Repugs. Who could deliver less?
Indeed, the great distinguishing Obama factor so far is, despite his bully pulpit -- he refuses to bully anyone, thus the Obama "pulpit" turns to pulp. Unused power, like flood water, seeks equilibrium elsewhere. Obama is not just risk-adverse but power-adverse, elevating good will to bullies as if good manners. "I'll take John Boehner at his word," he proclaimed, making me wonder who's more deranged. Boehner lies like a rug, mimicking Tea Party blather that suits the propaganda de jour. Taking Boehner "at his word" means taking Obama at his -- dispelled by his dissembling. We have confirmed, however, Obama the thinker's real-time "theory of negotiation:" the health care muddle was no accident but how this non-leaders lets others lead.
Mr. President, if you capitulate in advance, you surrender, game over, and your political capital evaporates. If you cave to "hostage takers," your own most revealing image, that's appeasement, whatever noble-sounding nonsense follow. No wonder Obama looks haggard, disengaged, and irritated with the dirty business of politics. Getting gored hurts and leaves a scar.
Governing, "More Than Passing Bills"
As Elizabeth Drew writes this month in the NY Review of Books , "The President seems to be shrinking and becoming more ineffectual before our eyes. Even his standing in the world seems to be eroding." Once at the White House, she explains, "Obama and his campaign team (virtually all of his top assistants) seemed to live in a hermetically sealed box--cut off from and not interested in what was going on outside, or what experienced people who tried to help them had to say." Apparently, two years in it, this smart guy has yet to "understand the role of the president as leader. A friend of the Obama administration said to me, "Their definition of governing is passing bills.'"
Obama's "lost supremacy" becomes paramount because of what's at stake, his shortfalls magnified by how much desperately needs to be done. Columnist E.J. Dionne sharpens the context yet also the tragedy -- re-emerging again is our worst dread, the prospect of long-term American decline. "Consider the emphasis in [Obama's] posters on "Hope' and his "Change We Can Believe In' slogan. Whether by design or luck, the words "hope' and "believe' were precise responses to a spiritual crisis that the fears of lost supremacy engendered and explain the almost religious overtones of the Obama crusade." Thus, the incredibly shrinking presidency is dramatized by what's needed, though also more inevitable the longer it continues.
To understand how Obama boxed himself into decreasing circles, let's return to the sparkling Vidal only a year ago. After his initial, uncharacteristic optimism, having now witnessed this administration at work Vidal has relegated himself to despair : "[Obama's] incompetent. He will be defeated for re-election. It's a pity because he's the first intellectual president we've had in many years, but he can't hack it. He's not up to it. He's overwhelmed."
"He wants to be liked by everybody, and he thought all he had to do was talk reason," Vidal continued. "But remember, the Republican Party is not a political party. It's a mindset, like Hitler Youth. It's full of hatred. You're not going to get them aboard. Don't even try. The only way to handle them is to terrify them. He's too delicate for that."