Obama at Christmas

Of course this was inevitable:

Being irritable, grumpy and seeking social isolation are hallmarks of depression and may explain why the Grinch hated Christmas, a U.S. psychologist suggests.

Cynthia Bulik of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says the fictional children’s book character is likely depressed – explaining his disdain for the Who, his mistreatment of his dog Max and why he tried to stop Christmas from coming.

Okay, the Grinch was misunderstood. And one should be more understanding – clinical depression is a serious illness and those suffering from it are in real pain, and won’t snap out of it if you tell them to think positively. For them thinking positively has become impossible, and they know it, which is one more thing to be depressed about – you know what you should do, know you can’t manage it, so you must be a loser. Yes, you can talk about chemical imbalances, and yes, there are ways to adjust those neurological imbalances that sometimes work. Being doped up is better than being in pain, but not much. Or you can use the developmental model – resolve long-standing conflicts from youth and all that. Yep, that hardly ever works, but it is a cool idea. Everyone has issues with their mother. And there’s the cognitive-behavioral model – work with the internal dialog everyone uses to explain the world to themselves, doing what amounts to intense semantic analysis of the premises being used and working out alternatives that can be substituted, after much practice – which works wonders but is a long, hard slog, unless Charles Dickens has supplied you with those three handy Christmas ghosts with all the cool visual aids. The Grinch had none of this. No wonder he had issues.

But the good doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has it backwards. There’s clinical depression – and more power to her for cleverly raising awareness and all that – but there’s also situational depression. One is organic, when you’re messed up on your own, as it is self-generated, by brain chemistry or personal history or whatever. The other comes from the outside – a death in the family, divorce, loss of your job or whatever you’ve been using to define yourself to yourself, or illness, old age, or Christmas.

Yep, many find Christmas depressing, and the suicide rate does go up a bit at Christmas. The wide-spread despair has been well-documented – at the most wonderful time of the year. And these aren’t the clinically depressed, they’re those pummeled by the good cheer too much hype – this is going to be great, astonishing, the best Christmas ever, and you’ll get every gift you want and those you give will be just the right thing that light up the eyes of the wife and kids, or whomever. The expectations are impossible. The kid got just what he asked for, but what’s in his hand seems cheesy and smaller than he thought – it wasn’t like that on television. It somehow doesn’t seem fair. And the spouse gushes that this is just what she wanted, but you hear in her voice some hint that you blew it, and you make a mental note to carefully control your tone, and your own facial muscles when you open your gifts. Then the kids are fighting or pouting, and you sense their bad moods, and realize nothing would have satisfied them – nothing ever matches the hype. You might do your little talk about the spirit of the season, and yes, nothing is ever quite what you thought it would be, no matter what you heard and then expected, and it’s the thought that counts, and so on and so forth. And well-adjusted kids will get it – pretty close and pretty neat is fine, and advertizing is just advertising. Other kids realize that in their forties or fifties or whatever. And in the background you catch the sound of the old depressing Christmas songs – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (one day soon our troubles will be far away, even if we’re really bummed now and don’t see how that could be), and I’ll Be Home for Christmas (if only in my dreams), the infinitely sad song from World War II, when no one was getting home soon, and some not ever. And then you realize you’ll soon get the bills for all this.

All in all this one holiday seems to be constructed as a nationwide mania of high expectations that cannot ever really be met – so you either buy more stuff, and better stuff, the best stuff you can buy, to come as close a you can to some idealized Christmas that never could be, which helps the economy immensely, or you get really depressed, as nothing is what everyone says it should be, and agrees it should be, and pretends it is, while you just don’t see that at all and the others, most everyone, all seem delusional sentimental oddballs – or you ride it out. It’s not perfect. It never will be perfect. But nothing is – and good things are happening. Certain good is better than the impossible perfect, and that’s fine. You can have a fine time.

The liberal left should learn that lesson, as this year is the first Christmas with Obama in the White House, and they’re like that kid who got just what he wanted for Christmas, tore off the wrapping paper, opened the box, looked inside, then asked the same question as the disappointed kid. Is this it? Yes, it is – you got just what you said you wanted. Yeah, yeah – I said I wanted this, and this seems to be it. But is this it?

Yes it is, and in a series of Christmas week items, various folks are saying that you’ve been blinded by your impossible expectations. This is what you said you wanted. But this is also the real world. Your new GI Joe doesn’t have a real flamethrower. Did you really expect that?

The first item is from the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney here – the Obama White House and the progressive base are at odds, as the president seems to be pursuing his agenda, which is theirs too, by playing by the establishment’s rules, working through the existing power structure to get to the right place, while a whole lot of liberals want him to dismantle the existing power structure:

As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this [health care reform] battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

By contrast, [Howard] Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman who has long had strained relations with this administration, said the White House was slow to fight and quick to make concessions – particularly on creating a public insurance plan – and demanded that Democrats kill the Senate version of the health care bill.

That sentiment was echoed by liberal efforts that grew up around the Dean campaign, notably Daily Kos and MoveOn.org, which argued that Mr. Obama was not tough enough in staring down foes, be they insurance companies or Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut.

“He ran as someone who would fight against entrenched special interests on behalf of the little guy,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has emerged as one of Mr. Obama’s leading critics in recent days. “And what we learned in this debate is that he’s not willing to fight and exert pressure on entrenched special interests when it comes to big ideas.”

No flamethrower, you see – but Steve Benen argues that the White House might disagree:

The president butted heads with an entrenched special interest on health care (insurance companies), a different entrenched special interest on military procurement reform (powerful contractors), a different entrenched special interest on FDA regulation of tobacco products (Big Tobacco), and a different entrenched special interest on reforming student loan policies (private lenders).

But Benen agrees with the larger point:

Obama has not changed the political structure, he’s working within it. Accusations about “politics as usual” are not unfounded – the agenda and direction of the country changed considerably on Inauguration Day, but the rules of the game haven’t. President Obama’s MO, for the most part, seems to be built around choosing the issue, getting the best deal he thinks he can get, and then moving onto the next issue. The focus places an emphasis on problem solving, while leaving traditional power structures in place.

And like the disappointed kid at Christmas, maybe it is time to adjust expectations:

President Obama has unique gifts, but overturning the DC political establishment in 11 months probably isn’t a reasonable expectation. If/when health care reform becomes law it will change, at a rather fundamental level, the relationship between the government and the populace, which may in turn create opportunities for re-writing the rules of the game. It’s the kind of thing that will take time … and a genuine, determined commitment. Time will tell.

But Benen has a related question:

When FDR got Social Security through Congress, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases. Women and minorities were, for lack of a better word, screwed.

All of these dramatic flaws were the result of compromises Roosevelt felt like he had to make – some with uncooperative members of Congress, some with the institutional powers of the day – in order to achieve his goal.

I’m wondering, however, whether FDR was decried at the time by liberals as a sell-out unwilling to fight for a stronger Social Security bill against entrenched special interests. Were there progressive activists at the time who denounced Social Security as inadequate? Were there liberal lawmakers who voted with Republicans to kill it because it didn’t go far enough? Was there widespread talk that Democrats would suffer in the 1936 midterms because liberals were unsatisfied the compromises FDR accepted?

That may not matter now, but it’s something to investigate – maybe. But Benen points out that the institutional power structures that now exist in DC are not new, and in fact “they’ve evolved slowly over decades, and put up overwhelming resistance when challenged.” It would be useful to know what FDR did about that.

But even the New York Times’ second string conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, has no idea what to make of Obama:

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer. …

In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

Kevin Drum says that’s what those of the left need to understand:

I think the thing that surprises me is that anyone ever thought otherwise. Among low-information voters I understand the disconnect: they heard hopey-changiness, haven’t really gotten it, and are disappointed. But even some very high-information voters seem to be disappointed the same way, and it’s baffling. Obama’s entire career has been one of low-key, pragmatic leadership. He’s clearly a mainstream liberal, but during the Democratic primaries he was famously the least progressive (by a small margin) of the three major candidates on domestic issues. He did everything he could to avoid taking dangerously inflammatory stands on button social issues. His advisors during the campaign were nearly all members in good standing of the center left. His nickname was “No Drama Obama,” and his temperament was plainly cautious, sober, and businesslike.

So there’s no reason for screaming that he isn’t want you want him to be. You just had to pay attention:

This was all pretty obvious during the campaign, and everybody understood it perfectly well when Republicans went crazy and started tarring him a radical socialist and a bomb-throwing revolutionary. Remember how we mocked all that stuff? But I guess that, deep down, an awful lot of people were hoping that he was just play acting during the campaign, pretending to be a solid citizen while the real Obama was plotting to turn us into Sweden.

Personally, I wish Obama would articulate the liberal agenda more full-throatedly, and I wish he’d take a few more risks and push his own caucus a little harder. I’ve thought that ever since the 2008 campaign. But the fact that he hasn’t hardly comes as a surprise. He’s as liberal a president as we’ve had in 40 years, but he’s no starry-eyed idealist. Why would anyone ever have thought differently?

But as usual, Andrew Sullivan puts it best:

One impression from Obama’s interactions with the Republicans and Democrats in Congress: Obama clearly sees the presidency as a different institution than his immediate predecessor. This is a good thing, it seems to me. Bush had imbibed a monarchical sense of the office from his father and his godfather (Cheney). The monarch decided. If you were lucky, you’d get an explanation later, usually dolled up in propaganda. But the president had one accountability moment – the election of 2004 – and the rest of the time he saw the presidency as a form of power that should be used with total boldness and declarative clarity.

At times Bush’s indifference to the system around him bordered on a kind of political autism. And so one of the oddest aspects of Bush’s presidency was his tendency to declare things, as if merely saying them as president could make them so. The model was clear and dramatically intensified by wartime: the president pronounced; Congress anemically responded; the base rallied.

At the start, it felt like magic, but as reality slipped through the fast-eroding firewall of reckless spending and military misadventure, Bush’s authority disappeared all the more quickly – because his so-certain predictions were so obviously wrong. The Decider had no response to this. He just had to keep deciding and asserting, to less and less effect, that he was right all along. Hence the excruciating final months. Within a democratic system, we had replicated all the comedy and tragedy of cocooned authoritarianism.

We didn’t want that for Christmas again, and we got what we wanted, even if we fell for the hype. We got Obama, the opposite:

What the critics misread in his Inaugural was its classical structure. He was not running any more. He was presiding.

His job was not to rally vast crowds, but to set the scene for the broader constitutional tableau to come to life. Hence the obvious shock of some Republican Congressman at debating with a president who seemed interested in actual conversation, as opposed to pure politics. Last Tuesday, there were none of the bold declarative predictions of the Second Bush Inaugural – and none of the slightly creepy Decider idolatry. Yes, Obama set some very clear directional goals, but the key difference is what came next: a window of invitation. The invitation is to the other co-equal branches of government to play their part; and for the citizenry to play its. This is an understanding of the president as one node in a constitutional order – not a near-dictator outside and superior to other branches of government. It is a return to traditional constitutional order. And it is rooted in a traditional, small-c conservative understanding of the presidency.

Isn’t that what we wanted?

If Bush was about the presidency as power, Obama is about the presidency as authority. It’s fascinating to watch this deep difference in understanding slowly but unmistakably realize itself in public actions. Somewhere the Founders are smiling. The system is correcting itself after one of the most unbalanced periods in American history. But it took the self-restraint of one man to do it.

And even that conservative columnist Ross Douthat acknowledged that Obama will have had a pretty good first year:

Between the stimulus package, the pending health care bill and a new raft of financial regulations, Obama will soon be able to claim more major legislative accomplishments than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson.

Hey, it’s the thought that counts. And certain good is better than the impossible perfect, and that’s fine. You can have fine time. Kids eventually learn that at Christmas. Maybe some on the left need to learn that too.

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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1 Response to Obama at Christmas

  1. raymond mcinnis says:

    “Hey, it’s the thought that counts.” and, hey, one of the thoughts should include a little historical perspective. SS didn’t start out perfect, nor did fixing civil rights in the ’60s, or medicare, etc, etc

    “When FDR got Social Security through Congress, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases. Women and minorities were, for lack of a better word, screwed.

    All of these dramatic flaws were the result of compromises Roosevelt felt like he had to make – some with uncooperative members of Congress, some with the institutional powers of the day – in order to achieve his goal.”

    no, instead, getting obamacare “fixed” is something that will be achieved incrementally, like everything else. it’s just that getting this first legislation into law is the really big lift. everything afterwards is tweaking.

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