Barack Obama looks like he's a real mover and shaker. Closer examination reveals something very different.
Hey, did you notice that Barack Obama completed his first hundred days in the White House last week?
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 bitch-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.
To get a sense of the true explanation for the apparent leaps in forward motion Obama seems to represent, imagine if he had come into office on the heels of, not eight years of regressive insanity, but instead eight years of Milquetoast moderation of the sort that Bill Clinton perfected to such a high degree. You know. The kinda thing where you inch a little forward on social issues, jump a lot backward on economic issues, throw around some cheap-but-plausible-sounding-to-the-narcoleptic ringing phrases that have zero content, go to the mat for important stuff like the V-Chip and school uniforms, and basically stand for nothing whatsoever but your own personal joy ride in the White House. That stuff. Imagine how small would Obama’s forward motion seem if he came from a starting point that took the Bush years of regression out of the equation.
If that Clinton style sounds harrowingly familiar, it’s because it is. My sense is that Obama is a lot like a Clinton, though he can be – and is – mistaken for an FDR for the reasons given above. There is in fact a difference between Barack and Bill, I’m pretty sure, but not necessarily such a significant one. Where I think Clinton was in it exclusively for Clinton, as only a quintessential Baby Boomer could fully be, and thus given to precise calculations of exquisitely refined political safety at every turn, I think Obama is more public-spirited. But, crucially, the nothing-burger tendencies he shares with Clinton seem nevertheless fully present. I suspect they are driven by his “can’t we all just get along” personality, as opposed to Bill’s manic attention-craving disorder, but so what? They still amount to a lot of nothing, delivered way too late.
Whatever the motivation, what I think is hard to deny is that, while Obama appears to be a real go-getter, he is in fact a mere incrementalist in a time of real crisis. Despite the fact that George W. Bush’s disastrous and regressive presidency can make Obama look bold and progressive in contrast, he is in fact hurling Band-Aid after Band-Aid at national hemorrhage after gaping wound. And that’s just his best stuff. As soon as you get to what really matters to the predatory regressive right – the money, of course – Obama is almost indistinguishable from George “Enron” Bush, or Dick “This is our due” Cheney.
Discussing Obama’s three choices so far of sitting judges for appeals court nominations, law professor Tracey George might just as well have been commenting on his entire presidency in saying, “He could not have been more cautious”.
I’d have a problem with that under normal circumstances. There is always plenty of work to be done in this very imperfect world, and the last thing we need is another Clinton who wasted eight years of a presidency avoiding risk at all costs and accomplishing nothing. I’d also obviously have a problem with that under ‘normal’ post-Bush circumstances, where so much wreckage so desperately needs to be undone. But I really object to this embarrassingly centrist, ultra-cautious pussyfooting when there are so many critical conditions in crisis mode, screaming out for attention.
I cannot believe I live in a world massively threatened by environmental catastrophe, and my government is barely even talking about half-measures, let alone moving heaven and earth with fierce urgency to save the planet. And the oil guys aren’t even in the White House anymore.
I cannot believe I live in a world where the economy is imploding and the guy in charge of the country where the recession is rooted has hired agents of the very criminal crowd responsible for the problem to produce a solution, and that, shockingly, the ‘solution’ once again benefits wealthy elites while doing little for the rest of us.
I cannot believe that I live in a country with a crumbling healthcare system, and the solution being offered by the “change” candidate-now-president – to the extent we will see one at all – will forego the obvious model of universal coverage adopted by all other developed countries in the world, and will instead slap Scotch Tape on the train wreck of the existing for-profit healthcare disaster, in an attempt to hold it together a little longer.
I cannot believe that I live in a world where the Taliban is within spitting distance of capturing nuclear-armed Pakistan, and my government can’t even get serious enough about peace in the Middle East to show some real security guarantee carrots and foreign aid sticks to its client state in the region, forcing it to end an illegal and deeply antagonizing annexation masquerading as a forty year occupation.
I cannot believe I live in a country where individuals who knowingly broke the law and ruined the national reputation by torturing are exposed by the president, only for him to then turn around and deploy magical powers which supposedly allow him to exonerate them in advance.
This is Obama’s America? This is Obama’s America.
Historians and pundits have long debated whether history makes the leader, or the leader makes history. Bill Clinton obviously believed the former. As if to prove what we already knew – that he was possibly the most narcissistic human on the planet – he lamented shortly after his presidency ended that he hadn’t been ‘lucky’ enough to have a major crisis on his watch, so that he could go down in the books as one of the greats, like Lincoln or Roosevelt. Amazing. Only someone so completely absorbed with himself could be so astonishingly lacking in concern for the mass victims of such a legacy-enhancing catastrophe as Clinton craved for his own benefit.
Meanwhile, he never seemed to understand that he had the capacity to lead, to legislate, to act, and to make history, himself, and that playing it safe and selling out the American public in the welfare bill or the Defense of Marriage Act or NAFTA or WTO treaties was not the way to do that. Clinton got himself elected, then re-elected, but he never actually did anything with his presidency, because he viewed the two objectives as mutually-exclusive. Maybe he was right, albeit once he won his second term he certainly had nothing left to lose (and he sure never cared about the fate of his party). Regardless, if that’s your approach, you sure don’t get to bitch about being ripped off by history because the 300 million people of your country were relatively safe and prosperous during your watch. Great leaders take great risks for great purposes. Small presidents watch out for themselves and work tirelessly to fulfill their own personal aspirations.
For a year now I’ve wondered what Obama would turn out to be – a Bill Clinton or an FDR. I think we have a pretty good answer at this point. Indeed, ironically, Obama now seems to be out-Clintoning Clinton. He not only has the very national crisis that Wild Bill craved, he’s got about six of them. But always the response seems to be incredibly tepid and conventional and, well, conservative – as the above examples show.
Even when it’s a slam-dunk policy choice, he is still the Cautious Kid to a fault. This week he made a big announcement about how he will be shutting down the rip-offs of the American treasury (and therefore of the American taxpayers, who have to make-up the difference) by closing loopholes that allow US corporate pirates to off-shore their profits and thus protect them from taxation. Pretty safe bet, right? I mean, who besides kleptocrats and conservatives (and what’s the difference, after all?) could oppose that? And yet it turns out that, on closer inspection, Obama left out of the plan a technique known as ‘transfer pricing’, the tax-avoidance tactic that actually accounts for most of the scamming.
This is classic Barackoism: Let’s move real slow. Let’s not offend anyone. Let’s find the most half-way possible measure, and then cut it in half again, just to be sure. Maybe we can bring the Republicans along, even though we don’t need to. Is Wall Street okay with this?
Even in crisis, he’s all incremental, all the time.
It is true, of course, that a bold leader risks getting in serious trouble if he or she gets too far out ahead of the public. I don’t think that’s such a great problem here, as the public is really in the mood for – what did he call it, during the campaign? – oh yeah, “change”.
More importantly, even when that is not the case, presidents have a remedy for this conundrum. It’s called selling your policy. Sometimes you have to create the demand for the product you’re offering. Sometimes you have to educate people about problems and threats they’re not seeing, before you can get them to subscribe to your solution.
Obama has all the conditions necessary to be a bold and historic president. He came to office at a time of great and multiple crises. He promised change and the people gave him a mandate for precisely that purpose. The opposition is in complete disarray, and is rightly blamed by the public for the mess Obama has inherited. People are frightened and hurting, and looking for relief. And, for the first time in a long time, they’re overtly looking to government for that relief.
To be honest, he really doesn’t have to market bold changes on the environment or healthcare or foreign policy in order to win the support of the public, but he could surely increase that support significantly if he did. Ironically, it seems to me that this president, who has the most effective potential bully pulpit skills in a generation if not a century, has been largely AWOL from the stage. He is much more popular with the public than his policies are, and that’s because he really doesn’t advocate for his policies much.
The biggest irony, however, is that the fate of his presidency is tied to the fate of those policies. If half-measures produce half-solutiuons or non-solutions, it’s Barack Obama himself who will be punished by voters. I mean, how hard is it to imagine that by 2012 not much has changed in America besides the size of the national debt? The economy is still anemic, the military is still stuck in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestine conflict is still stagnated, there is no national healthcare system, nothing has been done about global warming, etc., etc.? Does that seem so completely implausible at the rate this administration is going? Indeed, does it even seem improbable?
And what would be the outcome of such a scenario? Most likely it would be a presidential election pitting a vicious Republican candidate against a mealy-mouthed incumbent self-saddled with a lousy performance record to defend before a dissatisfied electorate. Even if Obama only cares about winning re-election for himself, he should really consider turning his boldness quotient up to eleven (or at least three, for chrissakes), before it’s too late.
Because, I take it back, after all. The biggest irony may just be this: That Barack Obama’s instinct for the capillary could be the one thing that has the capability of reaching deep down into the toilet bowl, down through the pipes and into the sewer system, and dragging the shit-encrusted Republican Party back to the surface, miraculously offering it a magical elixir of renewed viability despite its own immensely successful attempt at party suicide.
And, come to thing of it, given where the GOP is today, an accomplishment that huge would represent a historic and monumental achievement for this or any other presidency, after all.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (email@example.com
), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is www.regressiveantidote.net