Tiger by the Tail

On Tuesday, March 24, President Obama held yet another prime-time news conference, which the major networks carried, preempting their most profitable shows. Perhaps the man hates capitalism. The networks think so – they had to move their hits shows around, and no one has many of those these days. They don’t like giving up advertising revenue. And in his eight years Bush only did this four times.


Obama has done two prime-time news conferences in his first sixty days. Having a president who feels he doesn’t need to explain anything to anybody, and when he does explain things comes off as a shallow thinker who speaks to the people as if they’re ignorant children, had its advantages. American Idol could run at its regular time, and no one wanted to hear Bush anyway – you always knew things were a whole lot more complicated than he understood, as he really couldn’t explain them, as it was clear he hadn’t thought much about them anyway. You were supposed to be impressed with his resolve and what he called his moral clarity – he certainly was impressed with both. He preened and those who loved him were heartened. Most everyone else shrugged – Cheney was running things anyway, and Cheney would do whatever damned well pleased him and we’d never know a thing about it. And no one messed with the prime-time shows.


Obama is a change. For one, people like him. His job approval rating is sixty-three percent, according to Gallup, and that’s been relatively stable – down from the sixty-eight percent when he took office, due to a loss of support among Republicans, but no one else. You could look it up. And then too, he’s pleasant and coherent and on top of every issue – even if you don’t agree with his position he’ll explain how he arrived at it, what alternatives he considered, what his opponents suggested, and what he thought of what they said, and why, and which part of their ideas he used and which he didn’t. He actually tells you how he thought things through – which is either deadly dull, as he tends to run on, or reassuring, as at least someone is thinking things through. And it’s not insulting – he asks you to follow along, simply assuming you can deal with complex and difficult concepts, and decide what you think. It’s almost Socratic. But, of course, it’s not American Idol.


So he had his news conference:


President Barack Obama claimed early progress Tuesday night in his aggressive campaign to lead the nation out of economic chaos and declared that despite obstacles ahead, “we’re moving in the right direction.” At the second prime-time news conference of his presidency, Obama also toned down his criticism of bonuses to executives at bailed-out AIG, and shot back at Republican critics of his budget.


In office for 64 tumultuous days, Obama cast his budget – now under review in Congress – as essential if the economy is to recover. The tax and spending plan “is inseparable from this recovery because it is what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity,” he said.


It sounds dull, but it wasn’t – because you could see him walking a very fine line. The nation is frightened at what is happening as the economy collapses, and furious about what they’ve learned about what happened to some of hundreds of billions of dollars thrown at the major banks and AIG and the non-bank investment houses – the mostly unregulated shadow banking system. The multi-million dollar bonuses for the guys in the unit that sank AIG, the ten million slated for executives offices at Citicorp, new corporate jets and fancy hangers here and there – it all fuels the rage. Obama has to acknowledge the rage, but lead us through the real problems, not the secondary issues. He has a tiger by the tail – rage may be wholly justified, it’s just not terribly useful these days.


This takes some getting used to. Bush led by reaction to attack – not just to 9/11 but to any insult or slight. He appealed to our sense of outrage – that’s how you mobilized the country and got things done.


Obama goes the other way – acknowledge the rage, then let everyone settle down so we can step back and think about what’s the best thing to do next.


This will take some getting used to. Listen to Limbaugh or O’Reilly or Hannity or Beck – or Keith Olbermann – and you’ll see we’ve come to think of outrage as the default response to any issue that comes up, and stepping back and thinking things through as cowardly. We all want to be heroes. See Glenn Beck shouting through his tears – “Believe in something! Even if it’s wrong! Believe in it!”


That’s very odd, but it sums up the zeitgeist of the last eight years well enough.


Now things are different:


Pressed on why he seemed to delay before condemning the AIG bonuses, Obama said, “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”


That never stopped Bush, or anyone working for Roger Ailes at Fox News. And then there was this:


Obama has been vocal in his unhappiness over the $165 million in retention bonuses paid to executives at AIG, although his favorable reference to business men and women seeking profits was a new twist.


“Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over,” he said.


“At the same time, the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more,” he said.


Some on the left won’t like that – but there he goes again, being all logical. As he was here:


Obama said he did not feel the government should call on Americans to make sacrifices beyond those imposed by the recession and credit crisis. “Folks are sacrificing left and right … across the board, people are making adjustments large and small,” he said.


NBC’s Chuck Todd asked President Obama why he isn’t asking people to “sacrifice” more amidst the recession, and John Amato was amazed:


Chuck Todd thinks Obama is Bush and needs to ask the American people to sacrifice. Obama tells him what is so freaking obvious. They have sacrificed already. Bush told us to just buy something like a lamebrain when the country needed some leadership and he offered none.


Yeah, yeah – but Matthew Yglesias is more measured:


The standard progressive answer to this starts by observing that the hundreds of thousands of people who are losing their jobs each week are, presumably, sacrificing. I take it that their spouses and kids are also sacrificing. And though they don’t count in the job loss tallies, I also spare some thoughts for the young people leaving school and coming into the workforce at a time when nobody’s hiring anyone. This all seems like a lot of sacrifice.


But he sees a more fundamental misconception:


A lot of people in the press seem obsessed with the idea that it would be noble for politicians to ask people to sacrifice. But in general, the whole idea in public policy is to make things better, not worse, so the logic here is a bit hard to understand. … Alternatively, underlying this is the idea that if some of us sacrificed that would make things better for other people.


This is true in a certain narrow sense. If Vikram Pandit sacrificed some of the money he has and mailed it to some unemployed former manufacturing workers in the rust belt, they’d be in somewhat better shape. But if Americans were to collectively sacrifice – everyone agree to eat only potatoes on Wednesdays or something – that wouldn’t help anyone except the potato farmers. Consumption in a market economically is almost always a positive-sum exchange; economic growth, and therefore prosperity, requires more economic activity, not more sacrifice. If the big national problem were a giant war, things might be different – we could all conserve gasoline and save it to fuel the tanks. But it’s hard to see how sacrifice could solve the problem of rapidly rising unemployment.


Well, Chuck Todd seems stuck in the past eight years. He seems to see his task as NBC’s chief White House correspondent as carefully judging who is better at posturing, then telling us if they’ve successfully sold that pose to the American people. He rates the salesman, and the sales pitch, and reports on units sold – almost as if the product doesn’t really matter that much. Who won or lost on the policy issue, or won the day’s news-cycle, is what he reports. It’s fascinating in its way. But now it seems beside the point. Will things get better? Will things get worse? That’s not his beat, perhaps. Some obviously thought Todd’s question was lazy and stupid. Todd thought it was tough and incisive – he had trapped Obama. It all depends on how you look at things.


Josh Marshall saw it this way:


One thing that was clear from tonight’s press conference was why the White House keeps wanting to get Obama out in front of the cameras and on TV. Obama has a ready and mainly unflappable command of the issues confronting the country, which I think people find reassuring in itself. In a climate of crisis such as this, I don’t think most people’s focus is ideological. They’re looking for competence and command, a sense that someone is sailing the ship, at helm with a clear sense of where they’re going.


There was nothing particularly soaring about the answers or the exchanges. But it’s not that kind of a setting. What Obama did manage were a few of those ‘gimme a break’ zingers that end an exchange on his terms.


But Marshall thought something was missing:


What did strike me was that there was not a single question on what I think is the question of the day: the Geithner bank rescue plan. I take it that that means that most of the reporters think that issue is largely behind us now, unless and until the market or any clear economic realities say otherwise. For better or worse.


Still overall, it was mission accomplished:


The point of the exercise for the White House seemed summed up in Obama’s clearly heavily-thought-out conclusion, the gist of which was: We just got here. The country’s a huge mess. It’s going to take a long time to dig our way out.


Not a bad point.


But there’s still, before any of that digging out can be done, the tiger by the tail problem. Newsweek had just come out with a cover package on the benefits and dangers of “populist rage.” There was the introduction – the historical tour of populism, which began in the late 19th century as citizens from small towns and mining centers targeted “economic tycoons who betrayed the public.” Yep, robber-barons are bad and hard-working laborers good – it’s tradition. Robert J. Samuelson here praises the adaptability of American capitalism – we can work all these things out – but warns that populist outrage could “veer into a vindictive retribution.” No one wants that. And Joel Kotkin here claims that populism can raise powerful support for reform – it’s a good thing. The Obama administration hasn’t used it enough against Wall Street. Eliot Spitzer says we should accept basic market realities and restore “logic, not anger” to any debate about all this. In short, people are mad, and the thoughtful, pragmatic and careful Obama will have to deal with that.


And underneath it all, things may be even uglier:


Tammy Bruce, guest host for Laura Ingram’s radio show, had some harsh words for First Lady Michelle Obama.


Discussing the first lady’s visit to a Washington D.C. classroom last week, Bruce incredulously recalled Obama’s story about wanting to get A’s in school and called out her use of a “weird, fake accent.”


“That’s what he’s married to,” Bruce said. “…You know what we’ve got? We’ve got trash in the White House. Trash is a thing that is colorblind; it can cross all eco-socionomic categories. You can work on Wall Street, or you can work at the Wal-Mart. Trash, are people who use other people to get things, who patronize others, who consider you bitter and clingy…”


Steve Benen comments:


It occurs to me the right has forgotten the virtues of pacing itself. President Obama has been in office for a grand total of two months. In that time, prominent right-wing voices have effectively gone through all of the standard attacks. In the midst of Bruce’s “trash” talk we’ve also heard plenty of talk about the president and communism, socialism, fascism, and Hitler.


If these unhinged folks are using their favorite attacks in early 2009, what are they going to be left with in, say, 2010? If they want to keep their hatred fresh and interesting, they’re going to have to hold onto some of their favorite rhetorical rage for the future.


What started all this was what Michelle Obama said that set off Tammy Bruce:


As a kid growing up on the south side of Chicago, Michelle Obama remembers being ridiculed for trying to be educated and get good grades.


“I wanted an ‘A.’ I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be the person who had the right answer. And I didn’t care if it was cool – ’cause I remember there were kids around my neighborhood who would say ‘ooh – you talk funny. You talk — like a white girl.’ I heard that growing up my whole life.”


Adam Serwer explains:


So Obama was telling children – black children in particular, to pursue scholarly excellence even in the face of ridicule for talking “like a white girl.” It’s hard to see what’s offensive about this advice. Except when you consider that Bruce previously suggested Bill Cosby caused his son’s death by giving him access to an expensive car and that civil-rights luminaries Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks had “pushed us into the maze of Thought Police totalitarianism that we face today.”


You start to get the impression that Bruce’s hostility toward Michelle Obama really isn’t personal at all. She just has a problem with black people, particularly black people who deign to rise above their station. Bruce’s words are just a clumsy attempt to put Michelle Obama back in her place.


Good luck with that, Tammy.


And other black folks are just confused. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it nicely:


Are we all white trash now? Or are we all niggers? Don’t know. But the day of figuring out this black-white shit is coming. Hate, however, is eternal.


Joe Klein suggests all this sort of thing is just stupid:


If you want to be angry about something, get pissed at a media culture that goes berserk about bonuses one week and forgets all about them the next. And be worried, quite worried, about a society for whom anger is a form of entertainment.


Well, that’s the real problem, the tiger’s tail in question. Holding a press conference in such an environment, and bumping hit shows off the air, was a risk. Either Obama doesn’t know us very well, or he expects better of us.


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 Anger as a Form of Entertainment, Obama as the Grown-Up, Obama Calm and Steady, Obama Press Conference, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama: What Works, Sacrifice, Tammy Bruce on Michelle Obama. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tiger by the Tail

  1. Pingback: Obama’s Limitations « Just Above Sunset

  2. Pingback: Market Fetishists and Moral Hazard « Just Above Sunset

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