It seems so long ago but you might remember – in the last weeks of his presidency, George Bush (the second one) reverted to type. With the world’s economy collapsing around him and the two wars he started early in his first term getting nowhere, and without much sense of where “where” was or what it might be, as that had always been a bit unclear, and with the man he vowed to get dead or alive not gotten and quite alive and still mailing in the occasional audiotape to remind us all of that, George Bush got all sloppy maudlin and angrily defensive. Yeah, some said he was the worst president ever, but history would judge him later – just like with Truman. The man who seemed a useless goofball at the time will later be seen as heroically wonderful. It could happen. Time will tell, and in, say, a hundred years, historians will realize he was right about everything.
But it didn’t real matter. As he was fond of saying, by then we’ll all be dead anyway. “You can’t possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency – until I’m dead,” is what he told Robert Draper, his authorized biographer, in an interview for Dead Certain. The whole business was rather sad.
But pundits on the right took up that notion – sure some things just didn’t work out, but just wait, you’ll see, in a hundred years you’ll change your tune and realize what a brilliant president he was. But of course you’ll be dead. But if you’re not, you’ll see.
Of course Obama is different. Everyone who has said anything on Fox News has declared Obama’s presidency a failure – the Tea Bag movement proves it, as all of America, every man woman and child, has had enough. You hear it from Limbaugh too, and Palin. It’s more than Obama is not the legitimate president, born elsewhere and thus ineligible for the office, and a Muslim, and an atheist, and a socialist, and a fascist, and in league with the terrorists – it’s that history has already judged him. Everyone knows that. The drumbeat is incessant. He’s a total failure. With Bush you wait for some historian writing from the Mars Campus of Liberty University, as he gazes back on Earth, floating on the horizon sixty million miles away. With Obama you don’t wait – he’s failed. It’s just two different sets of rules. You got a problem with that?
But in his New Yorker blog, George Packer examines Obama’s declining popularity – rising troubles at home and abroad and quite a mess. The polls numbers don’t lie. But Packer says part of Obama’s problem really isn’t the drumbeat from his detractors, it’s the unrealistic expectations of many, many enthusiasts. And Packer adds an interesting observation:
The most disappointed people I meet are under thirty, the generation that made the Obama campaign a movement in its early primary months. They spent their entire adult lives under the worst President of our lifetime, they loved Obama because he was new and inspiring, and they felt that replacing the former with the latter would be a national deliverance. They weren’t wrong about that, but the ebbing of grassroots energy once the Obama campaign turned to governing suggests that some of his most enthusiastic backers saw the election as an end in itself.
The Obama movement was unlike other social movements because it began and ended with a person, not an issue. And it was unlike ordinary political coalitions because it didn’t have the organizational muscle of voting blocs. The difficulty in sustaining its intensity through the inevitable ups and downs of governing shows the vulnerability in this model of twenty-first-century, Internet-based politics.
Governing – what happens next – is a different kettle of fish, as Andrew Sullivan explains:
The decision for change – deep, real change – is always going to be a different thing than implementing change in a deeply sclerotic system at a moment of simultaneous and paralyzing global crises. The former is inevitably more energizing than the latter. I don’t think most under-thirties saw the election as an end in itself (although it was more cathartic than most). I do think they are depressed and frustrated at how maddeningly difficult real change is.
But to my mind, the difficulty of the change is not a reason to abandon it.
In some ways, it’s a sign that the proposed changes are real. If they weren’t real, there would not be such resistance.
So, if you want change, expect trouble. And if you see trouble, then change is happening:
For me, the critical areas for change were foreign policy, climate change, fiscal responsibility and torture. (Health insurance reform was not one of my top reasons for backing Obama.) In all of these areas, I can see a genuine effort at real change. And I think most Obama supporters see it too. The way Obama has handled Iran and Afghanistan could not be more different than the bravado and bullshit of his predecessor (especially before 2006). The Rove-Cheney mantra that “deficits don’t matter” has been finally retired, even by the Republicans. The US government is no longer denying the reality of human-made climate change and, while still a laggard, is no longer a huge obstacle to solving the problem. The United States no longer tortures prisoners and is slowly dismantling the regime that allowed such things at the behest of one unaccountable, all-powerful executive branch. The one-size-fits-all rubric of freedom-or-tyranny is no longer the guiding principle of foreign policy. And next year – in the real test – we will see if Obama is serious about long term fiscal reform.
And here’s the metaphor Sullivan uses:
This is an ocean liner that was boarded by a bunch of insurgents in a dinghy. You can’t captain the liner the way you did the dinghy. But if you wonder if the liner has changed direction, look at the apoplexy of the old regime. They’re not fools. And they know they’re losing.
And, by the way, they’re also not historians.
At salon.com, Joan Walsh sees it a bit differently:
I’m a little more patient with Obama because I never saw him as the great left hope, but I agree with liberal critics who want the president to deliver on Democratic ideals and focus on the many casualties of the economy. It’s funny but with a Democrat in the White House, Matt Drudge is trumpeting what liberals have always talked about as the “real” unemployment rate – the unemployed plus the underemployed and those who’ve given up finding work – and it’s over 17 percent. A third of all African-American men are jobless. Let’s welcome the right’s sudden focus on the casualties of the economy, and challenge them to come up with solutions. They won’t, but Obama can and should.
And she remains grateful Obama is in the White House:
I’m thankful Dick Cheney is flapping his gums as a private citizen, not the most powerful man in the world. I believe in Obama’s intelligence and decency. Like a lot of liberals, I believe he shares “our” values; I’ve just never been entirely sure he has either the political courage or savvy it takes to act on them, quite yet.
But she thinks the problem isn’t really Obama, but rather his supporters:
The real challenge is to show Obama and other shaky Democrats that there are political rewards for representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Too many politically conflicting interests got to say they elected Obama, and too many progressives jumped too soon to claim him as our own, without asking him to prove it. There’s a lot of work left to do to save this country.
And there are the other folks, like Glenn Beck on his right – in tribute to the memory of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. he plans his anti-Obama March on Washington next year, forty-seven years to the day after King’s march. The idea is to denounce the president, and to show that Beck is the spiritual and political heir to King, not Obama. It’s a bit odd. Maybe future historians will understand.
Rush Limbaugh may have crossed another line today in his anti-Obama rhetoric – openly joking (at least, we hope he’s joking) about a military coup.
Limbaugh noted that President Obama will be delivering his upcoming speech on Afghanistan, from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“My question is: Will they detain him?” said Limbaugh. “Hopefully.”
Those of us who were once English teachers of course cringed. Hopefully is an adverb. You don’t use it that way. You say you hope. And what he hopes is that the Army arrests the president and takes over the country, that they are historians of a sort, who realize what needs to be done – end civilian government and establish military rule, with perhaps Sarah Palin as a figurehead. Historically, when a country is in existential trouble, the military has had to step in and run things. That’s just the way it is. We helped Pinochet do that in Chile, when the people elected a socialist, so why can’t we do it ourselves? Limbaugh doesn’t mention Argentina of course. He only implies all that.
But Limbaugh can confuse you. In this audio clip Limbaugh complains about the “chickification” of the military that is “turning people soft” – there’s “no room for that on the battlefield.” They’re all turning into wimps, doing pacification and winning hearts and minds, and not killing people. But, perhaps, he also means to imply that they don’t have the balls to arrest Obama and take over the country. In short, they’re useless. That might be it.
Well, given his long and illustrious military career, and how he knows combat inside and out, first hand, and what with his extensive command experience… No, wait, Limbaugh’s birth date was ranked as 152 in the Vietnam War draft lottery. No one was drafted above 125. He was classified as “1-Y” (later reclassified “4-F”) – sometimes he says it was a football knee injury, or a cyst on his ass, or something. Like Cheney, he didn’t serve. Perhaps he’s not the best one to consult on military matters. Don’t tell the entire Republican Party, which fears his scorn. But maybe future historians will understand he was right, or not.
And there is also this audio clip – Glenn Beck and his radio listeners agree on proper treatment of detainees in US custody: “Shoot them in the head.” Well, he knows international law and what is – and what is not – a war crime. After all, there is his legal training.
No wait… another case where we will have to wait for history, not current domestic and international law, to judge this notion.
But he is an historian of sorts. Think of that scene in that old sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still (or the recent revised version) – the highly-advanced guy from outer space sees the formulae on the chalkboard of the world’s most brilliant scientist, sighs, and erases a bit of it and makes corrections, fixing things. And the world’s most brilliant scientist – Sam Jaffe or John Cleese – wanders in and is stunned and impressed and amazed. And then watch this video clip – Glenn Beck at the same sort of chalkboard, framed in the same way, sighing and doing the same thing in the same way, explaining three potential economic outcomes facing the Untied States of America under Obama – Recession, Depression, or Collapse:
The third one is Collapse. That’s ‘Get out of debt and save,’ plus, ‘Have a fruit cellar,’ plus – I like to call the “three G system” here for this – it’s, uh, God, Gold, and Guns.
Now personally, you might take God and put him as an umbrella over the whole thing. And then you got your gun and your gold down here too. But that’s your choice.
Chalk in one hand, eraser in the other, he draws arrows and makes circles, and does his sort of formulae – equals, doesn’t equal, G to the third power. Well, someone has to explain why the Obama presidency is a failed presidency. Actually, future historians might giggle. Film historians certainly will.
But there are more serious critics, depending on how you define serious, like the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, arguing that Obama has failed because Obama’s “moral clarity” has disappeared:
As president he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president’s overweening moralism – his insistence on seeing things as either black or white – has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated as if it’s a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He’ll find a good man there.
See Kevin Drum. Has Obama Fizzled? Drum thinks not:
Blah blah blah. Obama the famously supple and nuanced campaigner saw things in black and white? WTF? But apparently this has become a trend.
The implication seems to be – and I feel as though I’ve heard a variation on this question asked not infrequently of late – that Obama was such a dazzling, inspirational, transformational campaigner that it’s hard to fathom where this wonky, chilly, pathologically measured grind of a president came from.
What? Are we all suffering from short-term memory loss? … Yes, Obama has the juice to thrill the globe with his from-the-pulpit-esque speeches. (Which he still delivers when occasion calls.) But it’s not as though the guy has ever been known for his overwhelming warmth or charisma in the daily ebb and flow of things. He is as he has always presented himself to us.
Drum adds this:
Liberals are mad at Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan. The gay community thinks they’ve been betrayed because he hasn’t instantly repealing DADT. M. J. Rosenberg is unhappy because Obama has turned out to be a “conciliator,” not a fighter. Conservatives are apoplectic because the guy who billed himself as a moderate is trying to push through healthcare reform and a climate change bill.
But this is all kind of crazy. Obama said repeatedly that he planned to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. He made it as clear as any candidate could that he wanted to dial down the temperature on the culture wars and avoid big social issues early in his presidency. He spent an entire primary campaign selling himself as a post-partisan reach-across-the-aisle guy in contrast to the brawling Hillary Clinton. And healthcare reform and cap-and-trade were the main pillars of his presidential campaign.
Once you get elected, real life is messy, politics intrudes, and mistakes are made. Sure. And Obama has disappointed me in a bunch of respects. But nine times out of ten, when I actually think through the ways I’m disappointed, I find that things are actually going almost exactly the way I expected them too.
That disappoints me sometimes, but it’s not because Obama has turned out to be a fraud or a fizzle. It’s because he hasn’t.
And see Andrew Sullivan again:
Yes, Obama takes a liberal position on some issues. But he also takes what is, on any reasonable definition of the term, a conservative approach on other issues. He is, in short, a moderate.
And that, I suspect, is what really frightens the far-right – because a political realignment towards the center would be a far greater threat to them than a realignment which went all the way to the left.
After Reagan, the Democrats had to break down and nominate a fairly conservative candidate (Clinton) before they could win an election. After Obama, the Republicans won’t face nominating a liberal candidate, which would be unlikely any time soon. But they would face having to nominate a moderate candidate – which would mean taking the party out of the control of the would-be theocrats and giving it back to the center-right which controlled it pretty much from 1952-1992.
That scares them, of course.
But then there is another take on Obama’s failure, from Maureen Dowd – in her New York Times column she argues Obama is just too cool and dispassionate. He should, really, be more like the emotive and somewhat uncontrolled Sarah Palin, just with better ideas, or with ideas. That’s what Americans want – passion.
Of course Sullivan disagrees:
Dowd’s instincts about human character are foolish to bet against. She has essentially read every recent president correctly from the get-go as types. And she has always seen Obama as a bit of a cold fish, aloof, too unwilling to punch back, too arrogant to explain himself too much. MoDo worried about that in the campaign as the Clintons brought more raw human emotion to the trail and Obama often seemed to coast too cockily only to right himself, usually with some spell-binding speech or shrewd piece of campaign management. I generally trusted Obama’s instincts. In the campaign, MoDo was nearly right (Obama did let the Clintons get back off the mat a few too many times) but in the end, wrong (look who got elected). But in government?
Sullivan likes the cool, and oddly, sees Obama is tough as nails:
You see this in the almost clinical way Obama has assessed the politics of taking on the Bush administration’s interrogation, detention and rendition policies. The way in which both Greg Craig and Phil Carter have been dispatched for insisting that Obama live up to his campaign promises (no, I don’t believe the personal reasons line) is chilling in its raw political calculation. Ditto Obama’s disciplined refusal to fulfill his campaign pledges on civil rights any time soon. And his rhetorical restraint during the Green Revolution. The determination to figure out the very best and most detailed way forward in Afghanistan, even during a war in which allies are waiting and enemies are watching, and to take his time … well this is also a sign that we are dealing with one very, very cool character here. …
And in politics, I prefer cool to hot, other things being equal. In today’s populist, emotional climate, coolness is a virtue in getting things right. Especially when it has been rarely more important to get things right – from Afghanistan to climate change to health insurance reform.
But he does agree there’s a downside:
The paradox is: in today’s populist, emotional climate, coolness can be eclipsed in the political drama, and thereby rendered moot. In many ways, Palin is the extreme counter-example. She plays a short game of around ten minutes in duration. She deploys no substantive policy content and no interest whatever in actual government. But she channels pure emotion, identity and rage very effectively. As such, she is a political nightmare, someone whom most Americans would never entrust with actual responsibility (yes that means John McCain is the biggest cynic in Washington, but that’s another story). But she is a cultural phenomenon who thereby wields political power.
Will this kind of heat – however irrational, however impulsive – overwhelm the cool emanating from the White House in this period of discontent?
Isn’t that a question for future historian? We’ll find out after we’re dead.
But one of Sullivan’s readers does provide actual historical context:
Another viable comparison for Obama is with JFK, and not just for the obvious reasons of youth, attractiveness, charming young family, etc. I think a great reference for reviewing JFK’s performance in office is Robert Dallek’s book, “An Unfinished Life.” He showed that Kennedy had a great capacity for learning, for encouraging if not demanding honest and open debate and more than enough self-confidence to change his mind. Kennedy was also very pragmatic, which made him slow to act in areas such as civil rights. But once Kennedy moved, he moved with confidence and usually with an effective, coherent and convincing message.
But JFK had the same sort of warmth Obama actually has:
Kennedy found a way to show his humor, often self-deprecating, usually in press conferences. He also presented himself as a father in a way that made him human and attractive to Americans (who, of course, had no clue as to his marital, erm, practices).
I think Obama is much closer to achieving that level of warmth and personable nature than for which he’s given credit. I think his problem is that he can’t find a tool in the mass media that he can use as effectively as Kennedy used press conferences (or FDR used his fireside chats). Things are too diverse and there are too many other avenues through which your opponents can continue to criticize you. I think this will delay his success in “warming up the country” to him but it won’t eliminate it.
I believe in the end, the country will appreciate his seriousness, thoughtfulness and decision-making process.
But will that happen? People are angry and afraid, or some are. Does that mean Obama is a failure and Palin the real winner here?
Maybe, but see Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Palin’s base confuses “liberal fear” with some kind of populist power, by ignoring the fact that a lot of people, who want nothing to do with us pinkos, are afraid of Palin too. People misunderstand fear. It doesn’t always cause your foes to cower in a corner. Sometimes it causes them to beat the crap out of you with a bag of rusty nails.
And historians can do that too.
Is Obama a failure? We’ll see. And maybe we won’t have to wait until after we’re dead.