Three Republicans in the cabinet? Judd Frickin’ Gregg, in exchange for a new Republican senator appointed by the Democratic Governor of New Hampshire? A raft of Clintonite retreads (including an actual Clinton) coming direct from their Wall Street finishing schools? Tom Daschle (even without tax-cheat problems)? A bunch of nobodies known for the safest of white-bread politics, if they’re known for anything at all?
And in the midst of that ugly collection, a single liberal – Hilda Solis – now probably about to get thrown under the bus for some absurdly minor tax infraction. Of her husband’s. if she goes down, it will be Clinton Redux for sure, and Solis will be the equivalent of Joycelyn Elders, who got fired by the philanderer-in-chief for talking about masturbation as an alternative to sex for young people. Apart from being the mother of all walking metaphors for the entirety of Bubba’s wasted eight years, that episode showed once and for all that the regressive right’s teenage-level obsession with sexuality is fundamentally not about blocking unbiblical sex, or unsafe sex, but rather, all sex.
Meanwhile, speaking of getting screwed, progressives who believed Obama might be the second coming of Bobby Kennedy are rapidly being disabused of their fantasies.
While I didn’t make the Pollyannaish mistake of believing that Obama’s frustratingly oblique politics on the campaign trail would turn out to match my own, it does look like (though it is very early still – the guy hasn’t even completed his first month in office yet) I misjudged him on the question of competence.
Obama ran a near letter-perfect campaign for president. Doing so allowed him – a young, inexperienced black man, no less – to defeat two of the biggest names in the pantheon of American politics, both of whom had major political machines backing them, and at least one of whom seemed all but inevitable as the campaign began. By all appearances, Obama was successful because he was smart, his campaign was highly disciplined, and he had learned well the lessons of contemporary American politics. He therefore not only came out of nowhere to win a very improbable victory, but he did so with an astonishing near-complete absence of mistakes over the course of a two-year campaign.
What we’ve seen instead is nearly a textbook case in how not to be that sort of dominant political force. Though they are not by any means irreparable, and though he has very recently improved his game, Obama has already made giant mistakes. And, not least among these are included what he hasn’t done, in addition to what he has and gotten wrong.
And I’m not talking about the Daschle or Geithner nonsense, either. Those were dumb moves, though to the extent those guys hid their tax scams from the Obama vetting team, he can’t entirely be blamed for these nevertheless somewhat disabling co*k-ups. Much more disconcerting with respect to those appointments is just how small these figures are, and what records of nothingburgerness they bring to the table. Worse still is to hear them described as the indispensable choices for these positions.
That’s absurd. I pay pretty close attention to American politics, and I had never even heard of Geithner before his nomination. I’m sure the guy is bright, but his record is scant and, it would seem, principally one of massive and recent screw-up on the very issue he’s now helming. In any case, what is really needed in the job right now is a heavyweight to sell some big ideas. Just watching Geithner in action, I can’t help but think that he is the sheer antithesis of gravitas. You know that famous photo of Lyndon Johnson towering over a member of Congress two-thirds his size, completely in the guy’s face, selling his legislation? That’s what we need in a Treasury Secretary right now. And that’s actually what we got. Unfortunately, though, Geithner is the other guy in the picture.
Daschle, of course, I knew quite well. Except that what I knew him for was as the capitol’s king of capitulation. Time after time, he led the Democratic Party toward the battlefield to war against the horrifically destructive agenda of George W. Bush, only to stop off at Starbucks instead, for a nice warm latte. This was the guy the Obama people were saying was crucial to navigate a complicated healthcare plan through the rocky shoals of Washington politics. But dang if I can remember a single piece of legislation for which he did that in all his time as minority and majority leader in the Senate. I remember, well, however, the many times he got rolled by the Rove machine. And the many times where he held a nice press conference to express his regrets, always failing – much like his brother Barack – ever to raise the temperature in the room more than two-tenths of a degree. In the end, this guy couldn’t even keep his own seat, despite being in the ultimate position to bring home the goodies for his constituents in South Dakota.
Impressive, eh? But Obama’s seeming obsession with mediocrity in his team members is not even what I’m talking about when I point to the failures – now growing egregious – of his first weeks in office, and indeed of the period prior to that as well. I’m talking about something much bigger. Obama has made two fundamental, core, mistakes in his new presidency. Of course, mistakes are to be expected. He and his team are new to the job, the work is hard under normal circumstances, and these are not normal circumstances. The regressive scorched earth national suicide machine has been enormously effective these last three decades, and the new president comes to office with crises on every front.
Of course, sometimes – if not most times – such crises can be beneficial to a president and expedient in assisting his agenda, if handled properly. If. And this is where these mistakes are really especially disconcerting. Because they are so fundamental, so obvious, and so foreseeable. Rather than the crack team of disciplined operatives successfully serving a centrist agenda I more or less expected, it’s now looking more like a collection of amateurs fumbling Caspar Milquetoast’s weekly to-do list.
Obama’s first mistake has been to be (until just recently) completely AWOL in managing the agenda of American politics. This is huge, and it is especially egregious considering how much power he has in this respect if he would only employ it. He has a compliant Congress controlled by his own party. He has the enormous good will of a well-liked and respected president following behind the endless depredations of a hated predatory moron. He has the completely unmatched soapbox of the American presidency’s bully pulpit.
And what has done with all this? Well, funny you should ask. Indeed, in this case, it’s easier to see the full magnitude of this failure by focusing on what he hasn’t done, rather than what he has. Did Obama, as president-elect, craft an economic stimulus bill that was smart, bold and likely to work, both politically and policy-wise? No. Did he take such a bill to members of Congress and tell them that this is what he wanted, with little or no change, and that he was prepared to fight them if they messed with it? No. Did he go out on the road and rally public opinion (and pressure on Congress) in support of his initiative? No. Did he forcefully outline his plans and demands, and the reason why they are necessary, in his inaugural address, while he had the ears of an entire planet? Gimme a break – no, not in that seriously anemic speech. Has he called Congress into joint session for a state of the union speech or at least a special address to the nation, as presidents do when something big is on the horizon? No. Has he even held a televised, prime-time, White House address to pitch his program to the American people, and urge them to lean on Congress to get this done and get it done right?