|Signet Classic book cover.|
Watching Barack Obama last Wednesday evening, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Corleone’s desperate words in Godfather III, “Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in”. The president looked both strained and tired as he spoke to the nation. It was a speech he hoped would never be necessary, a return to Iraq albeit with “no boots on the ground”. It seems that this epic sectarian civil war, one in which we really have no direct interest, just won’t let us go. And it’s clear to me, the players want it that way. Why else would the medieval ISIS barbarians have beheaded two American journalists? We’re a good distraction, easily distracted.
While not wanting a monarchy, the Founders saw no reason to term limit presidents. And of course their judgment not to set bounds was vindicated by Washington’s precedent setting decision to serve only two. Others followed suit until FDR reached for three and then four — the last when he was essentially dying. That did it. The twenty-second amendment, ratified in 1951, turned Washington’s voluntary gesture into a mandate. I don’t know why the country’s father thought eight years enough; he might just as well have extended his tenure to twelve. But looking at a graying Obama and thinking about his sagging popularity, it occurred to me that we Americans seem to tire of our presidents as they reach the midpoint of the final term. We certainly tired of George W. Bush. Perhaps Washington was on to something.
As our fatigue sets in, we latch on to some act or some image that justifies and reinforces our “un-Hail to the Chief”. For Bush it was the photo of him looking down from Air Force 1 at the devastation of Katrina and for Obama his run to the golf course immediately after decrying the beheading of James Foley. Those images, or what we read into them, remain fixed. Thanks to modern media and the Internet, they are reinforced by repetition long after the fact. Are they fair? Well to the degree that they might reveal something in a president’s character and how he really feels about events or us, they may well be. We view them, accurately or not, as a “window into the man’s soul”.
Obama’s low approval ratings may tell us something about ourselves as a nation, individually and collectively. He was brought into office as an unabashed dove, at least to the degree that someone who carries the title of commander-in-chief can ever be. Americans, regardless of party, were war weary and if we considered the Bush wars with any objectivity, dubious about any meaningful return on an extraordinary investment. So while Obama won the election with a relatively narrow margin, his approval ratings in early 2009 were 64%, with only 16% disapproval. Most of us had high hopes, even many of those who didn’t vote for him. He was taking us where we wanted to go. Sure the usual suspects — many of them neocon architects of the Iraq war — along with some in the media groused about his taking too much time considering options before escalating hostilities in Afghanistan. But most of us, even those who opposed the troop buildup, felt better not having a shoot-from-the-hip, trigger happy chief executive.
That said, and despite a majority of Americans continuing to oppose boots on the ground in the Near East (or anywhere else), it’s clear that most are not doves. They aren’t against war, only against wars that involve us soiling, or more accurately bloodying, our hands. As I suggested in earlier posts and my book, Transcenders, “… there is little doubt the former Defense Secretary [Donald Rumsfeld] read the American psyche accurately. He understood the public vastly prefers the mechanized (video game-like) images of shock and awe and unmanned lethal drones, to body bags coming home.” Obama may be a dove, or a very reluctant warrior, but he deployed many more “antiseptic” drones into war’s theaters than his predecessor. As to the public, what bothers them about Obama is not so much his reluctance to reenter combat, but the fact that he isn’t sufficiently aggressive, that he doesn’t talk tough enough. That lack, they feel, communicates weakness. Americans do not want to be considered weak.
Presidential popularity (approval ratings) has as much, and I’d say ultimately more, to do with perception than with performance. We’re told time and again, don’t judge me by what I say, but by what I do. Nonsense. As any fact checker can tell you, our politics today is built on what is said, often what is inaccurately claimed or attributed, not on what actually is done. The ACA is a bust not because it isn’t working — it is — but because a perception of failure has been purposefully created and heavily marketed by its opponents. The same holds true, to some degree, with Obama’s leadership or lack thereof. He is especially harshly judged because we expected so much; more than any president could possibly deliver. So the let down is proportionally higher than it might normally be. The heady night in Chicago and the millions taking part in the first Inauguration, all those unrealistic hopes, now weigh heavily on the man. And on us.
We’re not doves. This is macho America. It’s not “an eye for an eye”, but a body for an eye. We take affronts personally. We value each human life, which is highly commendable. But in the scheme of things, not to mention in light of how many of us die on our streets each day from gunshot wounds, we often have no sense of proportion. The gruesome death of two Americans is horrific, but does that translate into our huge and powerful country being threatened? Yes, Dick Chaney, his replaced heart giving him a renewed measure of strength, would like us to believe so. Yes, he’s back with the same bag of tricks, the same campaign of misinformation and wolf crying. Have we learned nothing from the high cost in lives and treasure brought on my him and his fellow snake oil sales folk — from Condi’s fanciful mushroom cloud?
“Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more.” Not so fast, I say. We’ve been in these waters before and they are shark infested. We’ve been on this quest. Unfortunately, neither bombing nor boots on the ground is likely yield a victory in the true sense of that word. Our collective hearts may have been with the president during his painful speech, but our intellect should tell us to tread with great caution and to expect little in return, no material gain and certainly no love. Perhaps that’s the burden of being a super power, the need always to take a stand and flex our muscles. But it may also be another no-win Don Quixote venture. We’ve read this story, seen this movie, before.