So, it appears campaign season is under way in earnest. Mr. Obama officially kicked off the festivities in Virginia and Ohio yesterday, and we saw our first Mitt-scorcher on Denver TV a couple days ago. I’ve been thinking about the Obama administration’s performance to date for a few months, and perhaps now is as good a time as any to summarize what I think has been the dominant theme of his presidency.
My home state, North Carolina, has a wonderful motto: esse quam videri – to be, rather than to seem. In emphasizing the fundamental importance of substance over style, this snatch of Latin probably strikes the modern ear as wholly out of step with America in the third millennium. What segment of public life, after all, is about the real instead of the sheen? Entertainment? “Journalism”? Politics? Please. A significant number of our sports franchises, professional and semi-pro collegiate, aren’t even in it to win, but merely to “put an exciting product on the floor.”
Now, thanks to blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the unholy marriage of cheap cameras and YouTube, we all have the potential to mount our own “reality” channels, streaming our small, sparkly banalities to a world desperate for five seconds of disposable WTF. Pardon me a moment of cynicism, if you will, but we’re Snooki Nation – shallow, stupid and fully deserving of what our power elites are doing to us.
Which brings me to the Obama administration. Something happens. I look at it and see a trainwreck. Barack Obama looks at it and declares victory. WTF is going on? Let’s explore one possibility.
I spend a good bit of time surfing what progressives have to say and there are a number of narratives out there about Barack Obama. If you’ll allow me to oversimplify, I can sum the two dominant ones up pretty quickly:
- Obama has done all that can be done under the circumstances, with “the circumstances” being the most intractable, obstructionist, freakbat Republican opposition in any of our lifetimes. And even with these obstacles he has still posted meaningful victories, like the healthcare bill.
- Obama has been the new Neville Chamberlain, being consistently outwitted by the aforementioned GOPpers even though a wall-eyed cyclops could see their lack of good faith a mile away. If he wants to pay a dime and they’re asking a dollar, give him a few minutes and he’ll bargain them down to five dollars.
Purveyors of the first view will often further argue that we might expect the real, more aggressive and progressive Obama to emerge in the second term. Hell hath no righteous fury, it is suggested, like a lame duck true believer with nothing to lose. Well, maybe, and I certainly hope this is the case. But I tend to side with NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells here: At some point, “you are what your record says you are.”
My personal view lies much closer to the latter than the former (and by “much closer” I mean that the characterization here is actually charitable compared to how I see things). I’ve been brutally critical of Mr. Obama, and the only way that seems likely to stop is if I retire from political commentary altogether. Which, by the way, I have been threatening to do for several months now.
Still, I want to be as fair as possible, because the president has posted accomplishments that are objectively noteworthy. While I don’t subscribe to the full measure of the argument, I do recommend Josh Holland’s thoughtful August 16 Alternet piece on the “Obama Wars” as an outstanding take on why the president isn’t as bad as some of us allege.
With that caveat on the record, then, my take is that Obama has aimed low and pursued compromise with sociopaths when he’d have been advised to stand up and fight. I have argued a number of times that it is one thing to lose a battle and another entirely to surrender before it starts. At times his tactics remind me of all the bad jokes I used to hear about the Italian military in World War II. Jokes like “did you hear about the Italian 5-speed tank? Yeah, it has four reverse gears, but it also has a forward gear in case the enemy gets behind them.” However, lately I’ve been asking myself how Obama might defend himself against these charges, assuming he could ever be persuaded to talk to a progressive. How does he rationalize, for instance, what looks to me like a solid-gold sellout on the healthcare “reform” bill? From where I sit all he did was force 30 million more people to pay whatever the insurance companies are charging.
I will pause here to acknowledge that the “Obamacare” bill did, in fact, help some people. I know, because I’m one of them. Thanks to the pre-existing conditions program, I now have actual (if not exactly Cadillac-class) coverage, and I’m grateful. But I’m also conflicted. I want all Americans to enjoy the advantages of a first-rate healthcare system instead of what we have, which is objectively and demonstrably the worst in the developed world.
The Golden Age of the Small Accomplishment
This little internal dialogue has me examining my own biases in search of an answer, and maybe to some extent it comes down to a question I’ve addressed in other phases of my life. To wit, which is better: taking the small victory or risking a grand defeat? I even fight this battle in the world of poetry, where never in history have so many writers worked so hard to crank out so many meticulously crafted micromonuments to tedium. Has more energy ever been devoted to accomplishing so little? (No.) This bugs the shizzle out of me. My literary heroes – TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Dylan Thomas, William Blake, Charles Wright – these people swing/swung for the upper deck. Most poets today come to the plate with the winning run in scoring position and all they want is to coax a walk out of the pitcher. And sometimes they do. Other times they strike out looking. But they damned sure ain’t taking the bat off their shoulders.
Think small. Aim low. Build whatever legacy you can out of incrementalism. I’m sure my disdain for this approach to life is fairly dripping off the screen by now. For instance, I’ve always rather admired writers like Hart Crane, whom most readers have never heard of. In 1930 he published a long poem called “The Bridge,” which was intended as the American answer to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Eliot was from St. Louis, but had abandoned the US in favor of England, and Crane wanted to argue that Eliot had been wrong to do so. “The Bridge” was a marvelous conception, but most critics will tell you that it really didn’t quite succeed. Crane was swinging for the fences but managed only a towering shot to the warning track. Still, I far prefer the ambition, the exhilaration of the magnificent attempt to the quiet, insignificant yawners produced by some of his better-remembered contemporaries.
Win Big or Go Home
Barack Obama is clearly not cut from the same cloth. Sure, getting elected president is aiming big, but once you do that history doesn’t write down that you were a winner because you became president. No, history then commences evaluating you alongside your peers. You may wind up on Mt. Rushmore, or you may wind up with phrases like “worst Democratic president since Buchanan” stapled to your forehead. Barack Obama’s legacy isn’t going to have a lot to do with how good a state senator he was. If a guy makes the Major League and hits .100 before being sent back down, we don’t remember him as a remarkable player because he got to The Show (even though the number of players who have ever done so would only fill Fenway Park up about a third of the way). It may be unfair, but that’s how it works.
I watched the president declaring victory over the healthcare bill, which touched off a health insurance-led rally on Wall St. I watched as he led the charge to bail out the people who created the housing crisis and then declared victory. I’ve watched him double-down on the Bush administrations gang-rape of our civil liberties. From my perspective, these were worse than defeats. They were embarrassments.
But here’s what may be going on with Obama. In his world, it’s probably better to be weak than to be perceived as weak. Claiming victory is closer to victory than admitting defeat. I think we’d all respect him more and rally around him if he were willing to fight a losing battle with enthusiasm and then sic the voters on those who deprived them of what they need and deserve out of their government. That’s how I’d play the game.
But Obama, like all politicians, is mainly concerned with getting re-elected. And that means raising a billion dollars. Which means being able to convince rich people they can believe in him. One way you do that is to serve their interests, and Obama’s policies haven’t put a lot of millionaires on the streets.
To Seem, Rather Than to Be
The other way is to act like a winner. Swagger, strut, talk a good game. Look presidential. When something happens, it either needs to be a loss you can pin on the other guy or a win you can claim, and the latter is preferable. By far. In this formulation, winning and pretending that you’re winning are the same thing, and it’s not like the Bush administration didn’t spend eight years proving that the strategy works. It didn’t matter what the hell happened or how bad it was, Karl Rove and his legions of twisted spinmages were there to plant the flag in yet another win.
This is the modern condition, then: videri quam esse. Above all else, to seem. It may look and taste like a shit sandwich, but a zillion-dollar ad campaign insists that it’s delicately roasted prime rib. It’s all you’re gonna get either way, so you might as well join in the consensual hallucination. The willing suspension of disbelief. The matrix.
Election Season 2k12 ought to be interesting. As in the old curse, “may you live in interesting times.” It’s certainly not going to be fun for anybody except the local broadcast outlets counting the corporate cash being spent on pathologically dishonest attack ads, but at least it ought to make for good theater. Which is all that matters here in Snooki Nation.