Count Your Blessings

Count your blessings? There is that sappy old Irving Berlin song from the 1954 movie “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby singing to Rosemary Clooney something about counting your blessings instead of sheep. It seems when you’re worried and just can’t sleep, well, that’ll fix things. There’s no point in dwelling on the negative, and morally ambiguous sheep just won’t do. Don’t count ’em. Count the good stuff. You’ll sleep like a baby.

And Irving Berlin – the man who also gave us “God Bless America” – may have been a wise man. He lived to be a hundred and one after all, and slipped away quietly in his sleep in his five-story townhouse at 17 Beekman Place – now the Permanent Mission of Luxembourg to the United Nations, just down the street. Walk by sometime – a quiet tree-lined street by the East River, with the stately old buildings from the late twenties, but in mid-Manhattan, sort of the center of everything. It’ll make you feel good. Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley live just down the street (his middle name is Beekman). And Kurt Vonnegut lived a block or two to the west. Life is good.

But some things are easier said than done, especially when it comes to counting your blessings. What’s wrong bothers you and what’s right doesn’t. You pay attention to the tooth that aches, not the others that don’t. We’re built that way. Paying attention to warning signs assures we survive. What’s working just fine is fine – no need to think about it.

And those to the left of center – liberals, progressives, or whatever they’re calling themselves these days – are normal people. No, really – don’t believe Palin and Beck and Malkin and Limbaugh. They worry and fret, just like everyone else. They don’t count their blessings. No one does.

But in Slate, Bruce Reed channels his inner Irving Berlin and offers an item on why Obama supporters ought to count their blessings.

Of course Reed covers the tooth that aches, which is his list of what seems to be going badly. He notes that two Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee had at Treasury Secretary Geithner – demanding his resignation after the same demand that Democratic congressman Peter DeFazio had made the day before. They got to say, see, even Democrats hate you, Tim. And he notes that the Congressional Black Caucus “temporarily tabled one of the administration’s top priorities, financial regulatory reform, to demand action on another top priority, jobs.” They turned on Obama, if you want to see it that way. And there was the environment activist accusing Obama of fibbing and spinning on climate change and someone else pointing out Obama’s “troubling similarities” to Hoover and Maureen Dowd penning column about how Obama should be more like Sarah Palin. And these are the people who like him. They’re certainly not counting their blessings.

And the polls were dropping, with Obama’s approval rating dropping below the fifty percent level for a moment. For those left of center this was all worrisome. And Reed said that led to a whole lot of whining:

One Huffington Post commentator urged sacking Geithner for being “Obama’s Rumsfeld.” Arianna herself just accused Geithner and Larry Summers of turning unemployment into “Obama’s Katrina.” In a Daily Beast post called “Amateur Hour at the White House,” Les Gelb insisted that Obama’s Asian trip was such a failure that the president should shake up his national security team and “take responsibility himself, as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.”

Reed is just glad Obama hasn’t taken the bait:

In October, he joked about his supporters’ impatience: “Why haven’t you solved world hunger yet? It’s been nine months.” Like clockwork, a few days later, activists and members of Congress complained that the administration was moving too slowly on world hunger.

One wonders what happened to accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative, and not messing with Mister In-Between (old folks know that old song too). Reed thinks Obama supporters could use a bit more of that:

By any objective measure, Obama has had a successful first year. He inherited an economy on the brink of depression; 10 months later, the economy is recovering, even if the job market is lagging. His economic plan has helped avert a series of disasters – from the automobile, housing, and financial industries going out of business to state and local government going into default. He has signed new laws on national service, equal pay, hate crimes, and many other overdue concerns; made real strides on energy; and launched a quiet revolution in education.

Not least, Obama’s top legislative priority, health reform, is now almost close enough to smell the Rose Garden. After six presidents have tried, health reform may be just six weeks away from finally happening.

As they say in mid-Manhattan, that ain’t chopped liver. And Reed thinks the new year will be better:

With the centerpiece of his 2009 agenda near completion, he can spend December preparing a plan to accelerate job growth and innovation and address the kitchen-table concerns of the struggling middle class in 2010 and beyond. Our national to-do list may be daunting and long, but that’s what Obama meant by a new era of responsibility: more work, less whining.

Reed says historical comparisons should remind lefties of how much better off we are than we were not so long ago, in the Bush years, or other years:

Obama’s first year – unlike JFK’s – brought no foreign policy crises. His swift passage of the stimulus bill showed he was no Hoover. His deliberation over Afghanistan makes clear there will be no Rumsfeld. And every day of the Obama presidency, we can be thankful that on one point, at least, Maureen Dowd is right: He’s no Sarah Palin.

Of course Bruce Reed is a professional optimist. He was President Clinton’s domestic policy adviser and is now CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council. And he’s co-author, with Rahm Emanuel, of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America. What would you expect?

But that doesn’t make him wrong. That’s what those old songs were about.

For a more nuanced form of optimism, if that’s what you as a heard-nosed realist wants, see Andrew Sullivan:

He’s taking the usual slew of tactical hits as his opponents try every single line of attack and pound every day, squeezing every ounce of agitprop from the news cycle. His numbers are gliding downward (although not by much), his foreign policy gains are structural and have as yet no tangible results, a critical Mid-East ally, Israel, is doing all it can to destroy his credibility with the Muslim world, his health insurance reform is still not passed, the debt is simply staggering (and the GOP’s willingness to blame it all on him is as shameless as it can be convincing to those who know nothing and think less), etc…

And yet I remain absurdly confident that he is on the right path.

That’s because Sullivan likes the long game:

I think Obama’s handling of the economic crisis has been about as good as it reasonably gets; I think his handling of Iran is equally adroit; I find his relentless emphasis on reality in Afghanistan a good sign; I suspect the only way to get health insurance reform is the way he has attempted; I think the stimulus was necessary and sufficient; and I think unemployment will be coming down when he runs for re-election. On those issues I differ with him on – accountability for war crimes and civil rights – I can see the cool and cunning logic of his moves so far. The depth and complexity of the problems he faces remain immense. Perhaps he will prove incapable of surmounting them. But his persistence matters here. And we are not yet a year in.

But here is what Sullivan says is the real key:

He is strategy; his opponents are tacticians. And in my view, their tactics are consigning them to a longer political death than if they had taken a more constructive course.

You want an example? Sarah Palin is now accusing president Obama of not acknowledging the sacrifices of the troops:

There’s been a lack of acknowledgement by our president in understanding what it is that the American military provides in terms of, obviously, the safety, the security of our country. I want him to acknowledge the sacrifices that these individual men and women – our sons, our daughters, our moms, our dads, our brothers and sisters – are providing this country to keep us safe.

Sullivan is not impressed:

One imagines that, to take just two recent examples, she did not hear the president’s Fort Hood speech or know of his recent trip to Dover. But of course, the reality is not what matters. What matters is attacking the president of the United States as a traitor to his own soldiers. And what is in the interest of those soldiers? More war, of course. And no presidential analysis of strategy – just being “tough” and adopting maximalist interventionism.

No, she didn’t read Obama’s Fort Hood Speech – but Palin is who she is.

David Frum explains:

I was interviewed on PBS last week about Palin’s book release. I said that Palin had an especially serious problem with women voters. This is just fact, again recorded in every survey… And yet this attested statistical fact is shrugged off with comments like, “when I saw her campaign in New Hampshire, I was surrounded by moms with strollers.” …

Sarah’s constituency is a relatively small cohort of conservative men. I offended a lot of these people last week by suggesting that there was some sexual dynamic at work in the enthusiasm for the politician whom Rush Limbaugh used to describe as “Governor Babe.” So let’s put it this way: Whatever impulse it is that so excites Palin supporters, it is not shared by their wives.

One of Sullivan’s readers adds this:

It’s very simple why women don’t like her as much as men. Women saw through Sarah Palin and we saw through her quickly. Men are literal and are more likely to say what they mean and mean what they say. Women are more nuanced and better able to persuade and manipulate others with their words. So it’s quite natural for us to be able to look below the surface of another woman’s words and grasp the intentions behind them.

Sarah Palin is the peppy cheerleader in high school all the boys thought was so sweet but the girls knew was really a vicious shrew. She’s the new girl in the office who wears tight shirts and three-inch heels, is super-friendly to her male superiors, ignores the other women, and gets promoted sooner than her more capable and hard working peers. She’s the outgoing PTA mom all of the other women are scared to cross because they will find themselves put on the worst committees. Only a woman knows how to give another woman a sweet smile and at the same time cut her down to size with an artfully crafted “compliment” without male observers having a clue about what just happened. It’s like a dog whistle.

And we all know how things worked out, as they had to work out:

After her convention speech that so many pundits raved about, I talked to a few of my Republican girlfriends and they all disliked her immediately, telling me things like, “she’s mean”, “who does she think she is putting Obama down like that” and “I just don’t like her.” And these were women who, all except one, ended up voting for McCain anyway, although much less enthusiastically than they would have before his VP pick. The one who switched her vote to Obama did so solely because of Sarah Palin. It wasn’t really the attack lines the McCain camp gave her to deliver that had turned my friends off. It was the relish with which she delivered them.

But Palin does have her appeal, even if it is somewhat limited:

The Republican women I know who love Palin are a great deal like her – simplistic thinkers who are always feeling victimized themselves. I have a feeling that if the McCain camp had spent more than a weekend checking Palin out, a woman on his staff (my money would be on Nicole Wallace) would have figured out what kind of person she was and none of us would know her name right now.

But those on the left should count their blessings now. Women know.

And then there’s Glenn Beck and his Hundred Year Plan – we will hold conventions and lead America in a new Revolution and all that, choosing who should run for office and who should not. Conor Friedersdorf considers that:

Remember when Glenn Beck accused President Obama of winning followers like a totalitarian demagogue, warned against the nefarious tendencies of community organizers, and was himself defended against critics by Jonah Goldberg, who called Beck “a libertarian populist?” Now the cable television host is touting a “radical,” details-to-be-announced mass movement that promises to save the United States. Its name:”The Plan.”

It includes a series of adult education seminars where citizens will be taught political activism, self-reliance, and the dread community organizing. The often tearful Fox News personality also promises a book that will include more specifics.

“We need to start thinking like the Chinese,” Mr. Beck said at a recent rally. “I’m developing a 100 year plan for America.”

Yep, it will be a Great Leap Forward, without the Mao. Or Stalinist central planning, without Uncle Joe – just Glenn – and Friedersdorf notes that making some on the right uncomfortable:

At long last, prudent conservatives and libertarians are growing uncomfortable with Mr. Beck’s rhetoric. I hope Mr. Goldberg is among them, as there isn’t anyone better to write a National Review take-down of The Plan, titled Libertarian Fascism: How Glenn Beck Got Cover from the Right until It Was Too Late to Stop Him. It wouldn’t require much work. Large excerpts could be copied and pasted from the paperback version of Liberal Fascism, Mr. Goldberg’s recent bestseller.

And Sullivan says that reminds him of Charles Murray saying this:

Beck uses tactics that include tiny snippets of film as proof of a person’s worldview, guilt by association, insinuation, and occasionally outright goofs like the fake quote. To put it another way, I as a viewer have no way to judge whether Beck is right. I have to trust that the snippets are not taken out of context, that the dubious association between A and B actually has evidence to support it, and that his numbers are accurate. It is impossible to have that trust.

And then Sullivan adds this:

No wonder Palin feels a kindred spirit. The two of them represent the degenerate expression of clichés that used to be ideas (and ideas worth retaining and adjusting to new circumstances). But the vessel for rethinking will not come from proud ignoramuses and populist Elmer Gantry’s. It will not come from reiterating propaganda but from confronting unpleasant facts about conservatism’s recent catastrophic failures and mistakes.

They’re not thinking; they’re emoting. They’re not engaged in reforming conservatism; they’re engaged in escapist denialism about real problems.

They are a sign of profound cultural sickness, not resurgent political and civic health.

And that may be a blessing to Obama supporters. You got those two, and Lou Dobbs probably running for president – and Obama being cool and reasonable.

As for Dobbs, see the humorist Andy Borowitz:

Former CNN host Lou Dobbs said today that he was seriously considering running for president after being urged to do so by an imaginary friend.

In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Dobbs said that he had not thought about seeking public office until his fictitious playmate, Moo, pleaded with him to consider it.

When asked what might make him attempt a bid, Mr. Dobbs demurred and said, “Let me put Moo on the line.”

In the forty-five-minute interview that followed, Mr. Dobbs’ imaginary friend Moo said, “Speaking as one of his imaginary supporters, I believe that Lou is uniquely qualified to tackle the imaginary problems facing this country.”

Yep, liberals, progressives, or whatever you’re calling yourselves these days, count your blessings. You’ve got the emotional folks who say character counts, and fervor, and nothing else – like intelligence, expertise, curiosity, patience and knowledge. As Matthew Yglesias wrote back in 2004, that’s why Bush was elected after the wild and wooly Clinton, basically on a faulty assumption:

For the president to lead an exemplary personal life is surely superior to the alternative. But within obvious limits – no one would want an alcoholic president, for example – it doesn’t really matter. Clinton’s indiscretions caused his family pain and produced awkward moments for the parents of some young children. But Bush’s bungling has gotten people killed in Iraq, saddled the nation with enormous debts, and created long-term security problems with which the country has not yet begun to grapple.

That the country should be secured against terrorist attacks, that deadly weapons should be kept out of the hands of our enemies, or that it would be good for a wide slice of the world to enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy are hardly controversial propositions. But these things are easier said than done. Even a person of goodwill is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Yet succeed we must. And if we are to do so, the question of intelligence must be put back on the table. The issue is not “cleverness” – some kind of parlor trick or showy mastery of trivia – but a basic ability to make sense of a complicated, fast-changing world and decide how to confront it. Any leader will depend on the work of his subordinates, but counting on advisers to do the president’s heavy lifting for him simply will not do. Unless the chief executive can understand what people are telling him and follow the complicated arguments they may need to make, he will find himself paralyzed at every point of disagreement, or he will adopt the views of the slickest salesman rather than the one who has gotten things right.

The price to be paid for such errors is a high one – it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Already we’ve paid too much, and the problems confronting the country are growing harder with time. Unless the media, the electorate, and the political culture at large can shift their focus off of trivia and on to things that actually matter, it’s a price we may pay again and again.

But then Americans generally don’t make the same mistake twice. Sometimes we’re goofy, but we’re not stupid. So count your blessings, like the song says.

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.
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