Sunday, June 13, 2010

Not what I signed up for.

A common, though perhaps not universal, experience of American
President’s is that they end up spending much if not all of their time on the
unexpected.  Roosevelt signed up to
right the economy and found himself engulfed by World War, an involvement that
probably contributed to his relatively early death.  Though he looked much older, he was only 63.  Eisenhower was the same age at the
start of his term; Reagan was 70. 
Jimmy Carter, who was elected to be the anti-Nixon, ended up imprisoned
along with our Embassy staff in Teheran. 
And George W. Bush who saw himself as the M.B.A. President who would
preside in a time of prosperity and surplus, found himself totally engulfed by
a war that was nowhere on his radar screen.  And forget the prosperity and surpluses.

So at this moment Barack Obama, the President of change with a mission
to improve our standing in the world and extend healthcare to everyone, finds
himself standing figuratively if not literally knee deep in oil on a once beautiful
Gulf beach.  Because of its
geographic proximity, the BP spill is compared by some to Katrina — Obama’s
Katrina.  But that’s not the
case.  In fact what’s going on down
there is far worse than Katrina and for the President perhaps potentially much
more toxic in part because it is occurring in his first term.  But the underlying difference is that
Katrina, which took many more lives and thus was in itself far more lethal, was
a one-day event.  Hurricanes are
horrific, but they have a definable and immediately perceptible end.  This is not to discount the enormity of
rebuilding what has been destroyed — ask the citizens of New Orleans — but
after it’s over those charged with the task are more or less in control.

The BP disaster has no definable end and neither those who caused the
spill nor the government are yet in control.  It’s easy to point fingers here, but it would appear that
what’s happening presents challenges way beyond anyone’s pay grade, something
that would be the case regardless of who sits in the White House.  That brings me to Obama’s dilemma.  FDR weathered both the Depression and
the War — the majority of Americans felt they had lost a close family member on
April 12, 1945 — because he was an instinctively visceral personality.  Bill Clinton may have “felt our pain”,
but FDR sat vigil by our bedside throughout the entire ordeal.  In that he was without peer.

Obama’s problem, and it pains me to say it, is that on the surface his personality is
more akin to Carter than to FDR. 
While he certainly has the rhetorical skills — perhaps as great or
greater than anyone who has held the office — he approaches problems with his
head more than his heart, or at least he is seen that way.  Like Carter, Obama has a razor sharp
analytic mind, a thinker in a country that is more characterized by its
often-irrational mood swings than by its objective reasoning.  Children that we are, Americans don’t
necessarily want to be bothered with complexity or, dare I say it, the
facts.  We want to be comforted and
assured that daddy has it all in hand. 
FDR had that ability and so did Ronald Reagan (though he never faced
anywhere near the problems that are on this President’s desk), Carter and to this point
Obama do not.

Having said all this, I’m not totally convinced that a Carter is
leading us.  I hope it’s a Jack
Kennedy.  Of course, what JFK would
have been is only conjecture — he did get us more deeply into Viet Nam — but
even at the time of his early death he had shown himself capable of personal
change, of learning from his mistakes. 
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his disastrous meeting with Khrushchev
in Europe, Kennedy was written off, his presidency consigned to its inevitable
ignoble end.  He was deemed to be
way over his head.  A few years
later of course came the Cuban Missile Crisis, which showed a very different
Kennedy, very much in control.    Those were harrowing days and he connected with us.  He didn’t have much time to show
us his stuff, but that ability to course correct is worth considering before
writing Obama off.  I still think
he’s up to it. Let’s hope so because the alternatives are too frightening to even


Monday, June 7, 2010

Business as unusual.

The current flap about the White House’s attempted intervention in two
primary races is, in the context of the way things work in Washington, just
that — a flap.  The fact is that
Presidents are also the political leaders of their party and, not
inconsequentially, reliant on majorities in Congress to get anything done.  There is little doubt in any of us,
including among the now sanctimonious critics, that what runs the gamut from
sweet or tough talk to holding out jobs has been done by most every President,
perhaps since Washington himself.  I
leave the details to historians.

If we want to blame anyone — or more accurately any thing — for this
state of affairs, we’d better start by remembering how politics works these

It is a truism that we’re getting the best government money can
buy.  That’s been the case for a
long time, and the “non-political” Supreme Court has just thrown more wood on
the fire to ensure an eternal flame. 
It’s ironic that the new take on reforming this system, reducing the
power of interest group money, is for candidates to eschew fund raising and
finance their own campaigns.  Mayor
Bloomberg of New York and former Senator/then Governor Corzine of New Jersey
spent record amounts of their own money on getting elected.  Consequently, both boasted independence.  Would-be Governor Meg Whitman and
Senator Carley Fiorina are using their big bucks — the first an eBay fortune,
the second a severance package rewarded for mismanagement at HP — to win their
offices.  The bottom line message
is that one can only get influence-free public service from millionaires and
billionaires.   If that isn’t yet another sign that the
rich are getting even richer and more powerful, the rest of us less well off
and weaker, I don’t know what is. 
By the way Blumenthal’s net worth has more than doubled since he took
office.  Joe Biden certainly has
some learning to do.

The second problem is that Washington and the nation have become so
deeply divided.   With the
ridiculous Senate rules in place, nothing can be done without sixty votes,
hence the deal with Arlen Specter. 
In exchange for switching parties, the selfless Pennsylvania Senator
exacted a promise from party leadership (including the White House) that he
would be supported in his reelection bid. 
With the high stakes of every vote really does count in the balance,
neither could afford to displease the old guy.  In the best light, they would not go back on their word.

This system is rotten to its golden core and the divisiveness is
killing us, perhaps one day will literally or effectively kill the nation.

It has been often said that Americans remain dreamers, still hope for
the possible, albeit improbable. 
When things really look bad, we hope that a savior will ride into town
on a big white horse and pluck us up out of the mud.  At times, perhaps most times, we invest more in this fantasy
than any human being can deliver. 
Whatever bold promises may be made in the heat of campaign, we magnify
them way beyond what was said and resolutely close our ears to even the
smallest caveat.  And so, we are
destined (to use a word whose general meaning I reject and rarely use) to be

That’s where we are right now. 
We’re looking for “business as unusual” when that simply isn’t possible
in the world we have collectively created and continue to facilitate.  Did Barack Obama’s eloquent rhetoric
and promise to be different take us down an unrealistic path?  Perhaps it did.  There was a lot of talk during the
campaign season about experience and perhaps he was not sufficiently experienced
or jaded to hold back unrealistic hopes — his and ours.  So it’s not that we’re surprised that
White Houses seek to influence the political process, it’s that in our own
naïveté we were hoping for business as unusual.  Much has to happen for that to be possible.  If we leave our lives, our
disappointments, in the hands of tea parties, rest assured business as usual
will remain with us, perhaps be reinforced.  Those folks want power they don’t want change.  The question we should be asking (and I
probably am beginning to sound like a broken record) is whether we really want
change or just like to complain that it isn’t happening?  Should we take the President to task,
press him to be different? 
Absolutely, and hopefully that will impact on his actions, reinforce his
will to do business as unusual. 
But he will need a lot of help, most especially from liberal Americans
who remain more onlookers than activists.