When the Music Stops

Retirement’s fine, particularly if, when the music stops, you find yourself in Hollywood. That was pure chance, but there’s much to be said for palm trees and sunshine and silliness, and it’s a short drive down to Venice Beach and not that much farther out to Malibu. Laurel Canyon is one block over too – although that Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne crowd is long gone. Still there is a lot to document – which explains the photography site – and there are these columns six nights a week. There’s something delicious about no longer having to manage a large crew of programmers and systems analysts, and those insufferable business analysts, trying to get some major system to hum along and fix everything anyone can think of. Complex large-scale systems are boring. They’re supposed to be, if they work right, and yes, systems management really is like herding cats – so enough of that. Now there’s time to sit back and watch what’s happening in the real world, where the questions are what we tell each other to do, how we pay for it, whether it’s war or not this week, and whether we can ever get the economy to work again, for everyone, at least a little bit. That’s worth investigating. There wasn’t time for that before. Now there is, although the government and the economy do seem broken beyond all repair and the mutually exclusive arguments about what our culture should tolerate, and what it should not, go one forever. Slip out of the working world, where getting and keeping and reaching the top consume all your time, and it becomes clear the nation is still a work in progress, and things have been going badly. Maybe it’s a systems failure, but that presupposes one master system. Our two political parties can’t even agree on what the government is supposed to do – do the greatest good for the greatest number, efficiently, or just get out of the damned way. It’s hard to agree on how to fix the system when no one can agree on the basic system requirements.

That begs a question. Why did Obama want the job as chief executive officer of this operation in the first place? He seems to have thought that his formidable intelligence and his graciousness and suburb listening skills, and his openness to counterargument and seeming ability to forge agreements where no one is too unhappy, would be just the thing to help the country recover from the disastrous Bush years. He did keep saying it wouldn’t be easy. He didn’t seem to realize it would be impossible, although he seems to realize it now, even if he cannot say that. He has to say bipartisanship is possible – we can work things out – while the Republicans agreed, a week before he first took office, they’d oppose anything he proposed, even if it made sense, even if they had proposed the very same thing before, just to make him look bad. They never wavered. Their angry and resentful and existentially frightened constituents demanded no less. Mitch McConnell said his party had only one objective – to make Obama a one-term president.

This wasn’t exactly spite, or racism, even if it seemed so. It was opportunism. They thought they could ride that resentment and anger and fear back to power, except Obama was elected to a second term – and it wasn’t even close. Obama was the guy who wanted to get some things done, to get some things fixed, and the Republicans had positioned themselves as the guys who wanted to make Obama look like a jerk, no matter what Obama proposed. People noticed. These guys had no ideas, no real policies other than the left-over Bush stuff, and no real interest in running the country one way or the other. They held onto the House. That was about it. People voted for something, however incomplete, over nothing.

That didn’t make things any easier for Obama. The House is still controlled by the Republicans, who also have forty votes in the Senate, enough to block any legislation from coming to the floor for a vote, where they’d lose – all they need to do is say let’s keep talking. You need sixty votes to say no, we’ve talked enough, let’s vote. The Democrats don’t’ have sixty votes, so nothing gets done in the Senate. Obama is stymied. He said it wouldn’t be easy. He didn’t know the half of it.

That made for an interesting press conference, the one that marked one hundred days into the new term, because there were questions like this:

Mr. President, you are a hundred days into your second term. On the gun bill, you put, it seems, everything into it to try to get it passed. Obviously, it didn’t. Congress has ignored your efforts to try to get them to undo these sequester cuts. There was even a bill that you threatened to veto that got 92 Democrats in the House voting yes. So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?

Obama muttered something about how the Republicans have the option of cooperating with him to avert the sequester cuts, and added this:

You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected – members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people. So if, in fact, they are seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety, then they shouldn’t just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that; they should be thinking about what’s going to happen five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now. The only way to do that is for them to engage with me on coming up with a broader deal. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do is to continue to talk to them about are there ways for us to fix this.

Jamelle Bouie sees something odd going on here:

Much of Washington is in the grips of what several observers call the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.” For those unfamiliar with the comics, the Green Lanterns are a galaxy-spanning corps of space police. Each Lantern is given a power ring that emits a green energy. With it, Lanterns can do anything – the only limit is their will.

Likewise, pundits and journalists from across the spectrum seem to understand the president as a singular figure whose power flows from his willingness to “get things done.” If Obama can’t get legislation through Congress, for example, it’s because he hasn’t been willing to pressure, cajole and influence. What this ignores is that Obama can’t actually force individual lawmakers to do anything – after all, they come to Congress with their own interests and priorities.

In other words, congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountability for their actions. It’s not on Obama that Republicans refused to expand background checks. To treat it as if it were obscures the realities of policymaking and helps Republicans evade responsibility for their choices.

Obama saw the limits here:

First, he noted the extent to which Republicans are unwilling to play ball. On sequestration, for example, the GOP has adopted two, mutually exclusive positions: That it isn’t a big deal, and that it’s causing terrible pain to ordinary Americans. As Obama points out, this allows Republicans to reject any effort at replacing the sequester – citing their opposition to new revenues or higher taxes – and it gives them a hammer with which to hit the administration. He didn’t say it, but he was clearly exasperated – how, exactly, is he supposed to deal with this behavior?

Actually Obama has an idea, or still clings to hope, as Obama did say this:

They’re worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.

Ed Kilgore looks at it this way:

I know a lot of progressives are under the impression that Obama is entirely naive about the nature of the contemporary Republican Party and/or shares too many of their ideological tenets. I don’t agree. But there is a problem in that the president professes to believe there’s something tangible he can do about Republican obstructionism. Last year he suggested that his own re-election might “break the fever.” That clearly didn’t happen. Now he’s talking about working to create a “permission structure” that allows Republicans to work with him without fear of “the base” or of primaries.

Good luck with that, Mr. President. I suppose “permission structure” means assembling enough conservative support, and/or framing legislation so that it addresses the concerns of “the base” (e.g., border enforcement on immigration) in a way that makes bipartisanship possible. But as we saw in the supreme example of the Affordable Care Act, even adopting conservative policy prescriptions right out of the Heritage Foundation playbook, as implemented by the man who would become the next GOP presidential nomination, didn’t prevent them from being demonized as representing the imposition of an alien “European-style” “government takeover of health care” aimed at totalitarianism and the slaughter of old people.

Kilgore would go the other way:

Perhaps the White House’s new emphasis on letting bipartisan “gangs” in Congress take the lead on the tough issues is what he means by “permission structures.” It hasn’t worked on fiscal issues so far and didn’t work on gun regulation. Maybe with immigration the third time will be the charm. But you don’t have to be one of those folk who expect Obama to magically impose his will via fiery speeches and tough-guy talk to wonder if a different strategy is in order. I’d recommend about four straight speeches about filibuster reform, followed by four straight speeches on what the sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act will actually mean for actual people. At a minimum, a Plan B to deploy if his umpteenth effort at bipartisanship fails is in order. Otherwise, there’s little reason to think anything will much change before 2017 at the soonest.

Kevin Drum wonders about that:

I’m sympathetic, because I agree. I don’t think that Republicans have declined to make a budget deal because Obama didn’t schmooze them enough, or because they didn’t understand what he was offering, or because Democrats haven’t framed their compromise proposals quite right. Republicans have declined to make a deal because they don’t like any of the deals Obama is willing to make. Full stop.

Unfortunately, I think Ed falls into the same trap, when he suggests that Obama’s dinners with senators have gone quite far enough… The problem is that this almost certainly won’t work either. Obama made a full-court speechifying press on gun legislation, for example, and it had no effect at all. It wasn’t enough to pass even the watered-down Manchin-Toomey amendment, a bill that threw in so many goodies for gun owners that it might actually have been a net negative for gun control.

All of which gets us to the guts of the problem: most likely, nothing is going to work. But if you’re the president, you can’t say that. You can’t even act like it. You have to go out day after day after day insisting that progress is possible and deals can be made. This gets you lots of flak from fellow lefties who think it displays terminal naiveté, but what choice do you have?

So there’s this assessment:

Obama pretty obviously understands everything that his lefty critics understand – he’s not an idiot, and this is hardly rocket science, after all – but he also understands one other thing: he can’t admit it. I imagine it’s frustrating as hell. But like it or not, presidents have to keep their chin up in public and keep trying to make things happen, even if they know perfectly well that success is unlikely. Welcome to hell.

The system is broken, although the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank still believes in the Green Lantern:

It’s never a good sign for a president when he feels compelled to assure the public he still has a pulse. …

Back in 1995, Bill Clinton assured Americans that he was still relevant; this may be the first time a president asserted that he was still alive.

One hundred days into his second term, Obama has already lost control of the agenda, if he ever had control in the first place. He ricocheted through his news conference, as he has through his presidency recently, between issues and crises not of his choice.

He was asked about unrest in Syria, the September attack on American officials in Libya, the bombing in Boston, troubles implementing his health-care law and difficulty closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Milbank wants a hero here:

Obama is correct about the dysfunction, and the difficulty of passing even uncontroversial bills. But his stance was frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any “permission structure.” Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.

In response to questions from Fox News’s Ed Henry, Obama offered some noncommittal thoughts on how he would respond to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons (he would “rethink the range of options”).

Obama later told CBS’s Bill Plante that he had to keep the Guantanamo prison open because “Congress determined that they would not let us close it.”

Milbank goes on and on, but it comes down to this:

Open-mindedness is nice. But lively leadership is the way to resuscitate a moribund presidency.

Lively leadership must be a cool thing, but what good would it do here? Even Ron Fournier at the National Journal knows that:

As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, a president’s powers to fix problems are limited. That is certainly the case on an issue such as Syria, where Obama has no good options, and doing nothing in response to evidence of genocide is probably his worst alternative.

“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use,” Obama said in response to a reporter’s question, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”

He can’t turn back time to stop the Boston Marathon bombings, or even to be sure that federal investigators did all they could to prevent the attack. “This is hard stuff,” Obama said. And he’s right.

Fournier simply wishes Obama would lie more about reality:

The president risks losing the public’s faith when he waves the white flag too often, especially on problems that can be fixed. Blaming the GOP and larger structural problems don’t help the country, much less his legacy.

Fournier doesn’t mention what can be fixed, and of all the things that can’t be fixed, the most worrisome is Syria:

President Barack Obama declined to outline a specific forward path for the United States in the escalating Syrian conflict during a press conference Tuesday, despite confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in the region.

“When I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” Obama said, adding that as information became more clear about how the weapons were used he is prepared to put more military options on the table.

But not now – he wants to know what’s what. He’s not George Bush, and that’s a good thing. Yes, we’ll do the right thing, but we won’t do anything stupid:

Obama did take the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to dealing with Syria, despite his refusal to outline a concrete game plan.

“So there are a whole host of steps that we’ve been taking precisely, because even separate from the chemical weapons issue, what’s happening in Syria is a blemish on the international community generally and we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect the Syrian people,” he said.

Yeah, well, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in a joint statement, say just do the right thing now:

There are many options at our disposal, including military options short of boots on the ground in Syria that can make a positive impact on this crisis, which is destabilizing the region.

Kevin Drum calls them out on that:

I have one question for McCain and Graham about this: what if these “options” don’t work? What’s next? Have they given this even a moment’s thought?

I know this is hardly a novel insight, but the crisis in Syria has really rubbed my nose in just how capriciously conservatives have come to treat war. They no longer even consider it an especially difficult decision to make, let alone a last resort. It’s just a routine extension of foreign policy.

The chances that an American intervention could have a positive outcome in Syria strike me as close to zero. Nevertheless, the war crowd is raring to dive in anyway. They have no idea what we should do; no idea what the outcome might be; and most importantly, seemingly no idea of how many ways the entire operation could go wrong. All they know is that there’s a bad guy somewhere in the vicinity of Israel, so we ought to go in and kick his ass.

The Syrian mess was discussed previously – there’s no secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad any longer. Others have taken up the cause and elbowed them out. Of course there never was a secular opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraq either, just the Shiite majority, who wanted to get rid of that Sunni bastard. Iraq was never going to be a secular Jeffersonian democracy, with a Wal-Mart in every town and a Starbucks on every corner, supporting America, and Israel too. What were we thinking?

Perhaps Obama should not have spoken about that red line over and over again, but some things do violate international law and every code of decency and security, and need to be noted, and something needs to be done – unless we’re being jerked around by the rebels who want our support, before they turn on us, sneering at our foolishness. It’s happened to us before. Obama must know this. Nothing is easy.

Drum just finds it all astonishing:

I’m no isolationist, and I’m no pacifist. But at the very least I think war should be treated as a deadly serious matter. When did it become such a casual thing?

That started with that Project for the New American Century crowd, but that’s another story. Obama basically said he wasn’t George Bush, who was always saying it’s all very simple really, because he couldn’t grasp how anything couldn’t be quite simple really – he listened to his gut. His gut told him to go in and kick some ass. Obama uses his brain, which John McCain and Lindsey Graham and every neoconservative still around thinks shames America. That was bad enough, and then Obama also said that not only wasn’t he George Bush, he wasn’t the Green Lantern either. Yeah, the Green Lantern can do anything – the only limit is his will. That’s a comic book that was recently turned into a ludicrously bad movie – originally planned as a Jack Black comedy, by the way. Even Warner Brothers didn’t see how anyone could take the whole thing seriously. They didn’t. This might be the land of palm trees and sunshine and silliness out here, but there are limits.

Ah, but it’s a good place to watch someone else trying to herd cats. Retired systems managers can relate to Obama’s situation, and he was only telling the truth. Did you want him to say it’s all very simple really, and here’s what we’re going to do, and everyone will agree with me or else? Yeah, tell that to a herd of cats. Damn. It’s good to be retired.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Broken Government, Limits of American Power, Limits of Presidential Power, Republican Obstructionism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When the Music Stops

  1. Rick says:

    Kevin Drum:

    “I don’t think that Republicans have declined to make a budget deal because Obama didn’t schmooze them enough, or because they didn’t understand what he was offering, or because Democrats haven’t framed their compromise proposals quite right. Republicans have declined to make a deal because they don’t like any of the deals Obama is willing to make. Full stop.”

    I agree with the first part, but no, that second part is wrong.

    It’s not about the “deals” at all, it’s about Obama. Republicans have declined to make a deal because they don’t like Obama. Full stop. Lacking core beliefs on what to like and what to dislike, they settle on disliking Obama. Instead of having to actually think about anything, they know the easy answer to any question on what to do is to just block anything Obama wants to do.

    Drum again:

    “This gets you lots of flak from fellow lefties who think it displays terminal naiveté, but what choice do you have?”

    There are actually at least two choices.

    One is to just keep on keeping on, based on the assumption that, as unlikely as it is that he can make “deals” with the Republicans, it’s the only choice with even a slight opportunity of success. Or there’s the other idea: Pull out the dynamite and try blasting your way through. Forget Republican support and just go after votes from Democrats on every issue, begging and pleading and, if needed, shaming them into voting the right way. After all, what does he have to lose?

    And one thing he can be talking to the Democrats about — Harry Reid in particular — is that in 2015, they have to fix the Senate (e.g., the filibuster) in such a way that it no longer operates on a principle of Minority Rule, so the country can start working again the way it’s supposed to.

    And as much as I cringe whenever I hear fellow-lefties blame all Obama’s opposition on racism, I’m tempted to sometimes wonder (after having recently seen “42”, that movie about Jackie Robinson) how much of Obama’s not being able to get people to work with him to get things done might be due to white folks, maybe even some on his own team, trying to tell him they don’t think a black guy should really be running a white-man’s country.

    Rick

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