Okay, like running out the cannon on an eighteenth century ship of the line as you are going into battle, let’s run out the clichés – Americans are not introspective. We don’t agonize over decisions – we just decide, and do it, whatever it is. And we don’t do regret. Regret is pointless. What’s done is done.
We are not like other people. And we have our way of asserting that – catch phrases to shut up those weak and feckless people who think too much. You know, all the variations on “Just Do It” and “Money Talks, Bullshit Walks” and the bumper sticker you see now and then, “Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up, and Hold On.” And of course there’s that once-quite-popular quote from Marge Simpson – “We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it.” The only French song we ever halfway liked was this one (although the piano player here looks a bit worried). We do things, and we regret nothing.
Of course this is why George Bush was president for eight years. He tapped into how we like to think of ourselves, and he played us like a fiddle. Add Dick Cheney and Bill O’Reilly to the mix, mocking those who had any doubts at all about war or torture or warrantless wiretapping, and you have the perfect marriage of national pride, or insecurity, to leadership that reinforces it, feeds on it, and reinforces it again. None of this was planned of course, and all of it was inevitable. We are who we are.
For the introspective, it was a lonely time. For everyone else, of course, it was a time of great comfort – we were doing something about those who attacked us, not just talking. It turned out that most of what we were doing was stunningly stupid and based on false information, or, more precisely, based on partial information that was manipulated to manipulate us, or on quite false information – but it didn’t matter. At least we were doing something. That made us proud.
And then it didn’t. John McCain – and Hillary Clinton too – ran as doers, not thinkers. But it seems we’d had enough of that. The quiet, thoughtful, superbly and deeply educated young fellow, Obama, won the election, saying things like we had to think about this or that before we did anything we might regret, and maybe it was time to listen more to all sorts of ideas, even if we didn’t like those ideas, before we decided what was best, as there was always more to learn. McCain and Clinton, and all his opponents, said he was weak, mocking his carefulness as dangerous timidity, and naiveté, but that didn’t work. It was almost as if Americans were turning French. No, we weren’t going to spend long afternoons at some sidewalk café discussing being and nothingness, or the true nature of existential despair, or language theory and consciousness – but we were going to think. Nike would just have to find a new slogan. Just Do It wasn’t cool anymore.
But this will take some getting used to. Take one minor news story from Tuesday, January 13, where something odd happened. Obama and his transition team had proposed a three thousand dollar tax credit for businesses, had made it a big deal in the campaign – employers get three grand for every new hire they make. The proposal came under serious criticism – it wouldn’t do that much good and cost too much for what little good it would do. It just sounded good, until you ran the numbers. And then, late Monday, the whole thing was scrapped:
Bowing to widespread Democratic skepticism, President-elect Barack Obama will drop his bid to include a business tax break he once touted in the economic stimulus bill now taking shape on Capitol Hill, aides said last night.
Obama suggested the $3,000-per-job credit last week as one of five individual and business tax incentives aimed at winning Republican support…. Opposition came from Democrats, who dismissed the $3,000 credit to employers for every job created or saved as ripe for abuse and difficult to administer. When no champion for the proposal came forward, the president-elect decided to sideline the incentive.
“We’ve always said we’re open to other ideas. This was never set in stone,” said a senior Obama adviser of the decision.
Steve Benen says this is actually good:
This plan wasn’t going to work – there was no way to know if the tax credit would go to businesses that were planning to hire new workers anyway, and there was nothing to stop an employer from firing an employee, quickly re-hiring him/her, and then seeking the money.
And he says that from a political perspective there are two ways of looking at this, “dependent on whether one is inclined to give the incoming president the benefit of the doubt.”
On the one hand, Obama is (cue scary music) a “flip-flopper” – he proposed the tax credit, talked about it during the campaign, but then abandoned the idea, just because it wasn’t any good. Whatever happened to sticking to pointless principles, practicality be damned?
And then there’s the flipside. Obama, before even taking office, has already come to realize that there’s no value in dogmatism, especially in clinging to ideas that don’t withstand scrutiny. The policy wasn’t going to work? Fine, they said, it’s gone.
Benen thinks there’s something to be said for this kind of flexibility in governing – “When Obama talks about being open to change and accepting good ideas from outside his own team, he seems to mean it.”
This is going to be hard to get used to. Bush always did what he said he was going to do, even if the facts changed, or other ideas came up. He was firm and decisive, and he kept his word – he told us that was real leadership. If he said he was going to do a swan dive off the high board tomorrow at noon, and someone drained the pool overnight, he’d still do the dive – or something like that. Maybe we all decided that thinking like that was crazy.
Obama was going to commit one hundred fifty billion dollars to that super-duper tax credit for businesses, and now he can do other things with the money. What’s the problem with that?
But there’s something more basic going on, as John Dickerson explains in Palimpsest President:
In his valedictory press conference Monday, George Bush talked about the emotional burden of the presidency, challenged the notion that the job can be isolating, and repeatedly mused about what he’ll do in retirement. These observations were remarkable not so much for their insight but for their mere existence. Like his father, Bush has steadfastly (and sometimes defiantly) resisted self-analysis – in private as well as in public. This may be the most fundamental difference between the 43rd and the 44th president: In Barack Obama, America will have a president who not merely allows for self-reflection. He revels in it.
That press conference was covered here in The Limitations of Self-Assessment and Dickerson argues that may be “the last flash of presidential anti-introspection for at least four years.”
And he says it was just odd:
Discussing the emotional weight of the office, which has been known to cause presidents to become self-reflective, Bush quickly dismissed such moments as wallows in self-pity. “I believe this – the phrase ‘burdens of the office’ is overstated. You know, it’s kind of like, why me?” he said, taking on a whiny voice and hunching over. “Oh, the burdens, you know, ‘Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?’ It’s just – it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity.” (Which makes me wonder what Bush thinks of Lincoln, a president he has been reading a lot about lately and one who suffered nearly crippling bouts of depression.)
Obama is so far the other way it’s stunning, as he’s not only a writer, but of a particular subset of writers:
He’s an inveterate memoirist whose self-reflection is not merely an exercise in self-love (as all memoir-writing is, in part) but an act of personal definition. It’s how he has come to know himself and create himself, writing and rewriting his history as he lives it. He is our first palimpsest president since Theodore Roosevelt.
Dickerson is referring to this – Teddy’s best-selling ruminations on being a Rough Rider, and all sorts of things. Roosevelt seemed to like to look back and think things through and… muse about what it all means, of all things. Dickerson says that’s like Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father:
Obama describes growing up in several worlds but feeling part of none of them. “I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there,” he writes, a line that could be on every page. Through the book, we see him try on personas and discard them, retaining some elements of each as he builds his new self.
Bush, by contrast, still has much of the Midland, Texas, identity of his boyhood, which he has jealously guarded all his life. In his final press conference, it was natural that Bush would refer to the opinion of his Midland friends.
Dickerson also cites a 1996 interview discovered this week by ABC News, where Obama discussed himself and his marriage – “I think that in a certain way, I’ve tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends or ideas.”
And then Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, came along, where, Dickerson says, Obama “regularly plumbs his own feelings to define the contours of his new self.”
It is this practice, perhaps, that helped him form a quick empathy with Bush. “I find the president and those who surround him pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrong headed I might consider their policies to be … I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share.”
Obama not only shares the same values as Bush; he shares a lot of the same traits. Still married to his first wife, he is the devoted father of two girls. He loves sports, is rigorous about his exercise routine, and has struggled with addiction (though clearly not at the same level). Like Bush, Obama talks easily and openly about how Jesus Christ fundamentally changed the direction of his life and how Christianity ultimately gave him that sense of belonging that had been absent for so long.
So they are alike, and vastly different. Here is Obama talking easily and openly about religion:
I am a Christian. So, I have a deep faith. So I draw from the Christian faith.
On the other hand, I was born in Hawaii where obviously there are a lot of Eastern influences. I lived in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, between the ages of six and 10. My father was from Kenya, and although he was probably most accurately labeled an agnostic, his father was Muslim. And I’d say, probably, intellectually I’ve drawn as much from Judaism as any other faith. …
So, I’m rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there’s an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.
And so, part of my project in life was probably to spend the first 40 years of my life figuring out what I did believe – I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.
He’s still working it out? At forty, George found God, stopped drinking, and never had another doubt – although the order of those things is unclear. And from Obama we get this:
I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.
I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.
I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
Well, he’ll never win the evangelical vote now. They don’t believe that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt. All their doubt about anything (but Darwin) is long gone, and for them, politic action is God’s work, while Obama says he’s “suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.” Values should inform public policy, not theology:
I think it’s perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.
A standard line in my stump speech during this campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected. That if there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my own child. If there’s a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that’s struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent. And if there’s an Arab American family that’s being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same.
But he prefers secular terms:
I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate. I think there is this tendency that I don’t think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them.
I think Gandhi is a great example of a profoundly spiritual man who acted and risked everything on behalf of those values but never slipped into intolerance or dogma. He seemed to always maintain an air of doubt about him.
I think Dr. King, and Lincoln. Those three are good examples for me of people who applied their faith to a larger canvas without allowing that faith to metastasize into something that is hurtful.
Wait, wait, wait… He wants to maintain an air of doubt about him? This will be a change – along with his being a writer, who can also speak in coherent and complete, and grammatically correct sentences.
Dickerson is seeing where that leads:
Obama’s penchant for writing and rewriting his story as he’s living it has echoes in the policy world as well. Each new president is a work in progress as his policy is matched up to his rhetoric. But Obama seems particularly unpredictable. Pragmatic is becoming the word of his presidency the way change and hope were the words of his campaign. He’ll trade away provisions like the $3,000 business tax credit that was once the heart of his stimulus package if the moment calls for it. The left and the right don’t quite know what to make of him. He is, as John Heilemann wrote in New York magazine, a party of one.
But Dickerson thinks we might be ready for that:
Obama has been reading up on FDR’s presidency, which included lots of experimentation and embracing and discarding of entire ideologies. “I experimented with gold and that was a flop,” Roosevelt laughed in a conversation with senators about monetary policy. “Why shouldn’t I experiment a little with silver?” The current crises may allow President Obama to try out ideas and approaches with the same mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm as he tried on identities as a young man.
And this will help Obama, or not:
It may make him more empathetic; since he recognizes the personal roots of his own style of politics, he may be more likely to see others’ motivations as well. Bush was a firm believer in his ability to size up someone else’s political price, too – but the difference is that while Bush thought he knew what they wanted, Obama thinks he knows what they need.
The danger for politicians who practice excessive pragmatism is that it’s hard to know where they stand. Their ability to persuade diminishes as everyone waits for them to change their minds. Just as Obama’s flexibility is praised in the wake of Bush’s lack of the same, it will almost certainly be criticized. We won’t know whether that criticism is justified until Obama actually starts performing in office.
And there is Marge Simpson to consider:
The other rap against thoughtful politicians is that it dooms them to inaction. This would seem to be a proposition no longer worth debating in Obama’s case. Still, for those who don’t see his election at 47 – against considerable odds -to be evidence that he can take action when he needs to, the speed of transition operation should offer sufficient proof that he can make decisions in a snappy fashion.
But this from Dickerson is the key here:
The question with George Bush was often, is there anything more complex going on behind that facade? In a lot of ways, it turns out, there wasn’t. What you saw – such as Monday’s press conference – was pretty close to the complete picture. With Obama, the question is, How much of his true thinking is he actually sharing with us?
The next four years may be a wild ride.
Note Howard Fineman on Hardball January 12 – “George Bush has never accepted the proposition that the world is complicated.”
Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly three years earlier:
I’ve long viewed George Bush as a temperamental conservative, the kind of guy you meet in a bar who slams down his drink and asks belligerently, “You know what this country needs?” – and then proceeds to tell you.
Kevin Drum January 13:
I think we’re both saying about the same thing. But I was more colorful! In any case, I think this is about the closest I’ve ever come to describing Bush’s essential character. Just thought I’d share.
And the same day, the Pool report:
The PEOTUS [President-Elect of The United States] departed Hay-Adams at 6:17 p.m. and at arrived at 6:34 p.m. at No. 9 Grafton St., Chevy Chase (right off the circle). Thanks to the good work of Hans Nichols (of Bloomberg and “Daily Show” fame), Montgomery County property tax records showed this is the home of conservative columnist George Will (valued at $1.9 million, according to the 2008 levy).
We’re still awaiting confirmation that this is indeed Will’s house from the transition, but your pool is satisfied with the documentation.
Your pool has been told it’s a dinner party.
And, thanks to an enterprising photographer, a shot through a window showed op-ed stalwarts William Kristol and David Brooks are also part of this unlikely gathering of tight, right suits.
Transition mouthpiece Tommy Vietor was also spied inside the manse.
This is for real, folks. The bloggers are going to love this one.
The blogger of all bloggers, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (Kos) says dream on:
First of all, photographers taking photos through the window at a dinner party is just creepy. Second of all, we’re really supposed to be outraged about this or something? Why wouldn’t he talk to conservative writers? It’s not as if he shied away from the other side during the campaign, even going on Bill O’Reilly to get yelled at by that old gasbag. Let him try to work his charm with that crowd. There’s little downside.
Nah, there’s no outrage or anger. What I feel is more like pity.
Could you imagine wasting a perfectly good evening with that company?
But that’s not the point either. Obama probably wants to hear what they think. It’s a new world.