Sent to DS by the author, thanks, Robert.
When Campaign Poetry Gets Translated into Prose of Governance
There have always been two Barack Obamas, signaled when this principled community organizer first dined with the devil: he needed funds and support from Chicago’s entrenched, hard-nosed political powers. Ever the “devout non-ideologue,” Obama blended idealism as Constitutional Lawyer with brash ambition to hold power, unwisely catapulting himself into campaigns. Not to understand Obama’s dual personality, unified in one charismatic figure, fosters false expectations, then cries of betrayal when decisions elevate centrist, waffling compromises. That’s the price for having a true uniter, not divider, at the helm.
Many find the president taking moderation to extremes, pandering to popularity, uncomfortably echoing Bush. For left-wing critic, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, dualism masks subterfuge and contradiction, with Obama speeches making:
“pretty points in rhetorically effective ways about the Constitution, our values, transparency, oversight, the state secrets privilege, and the rule of law. But his actions, in many critical cases, have repeatedly run afoul of those words. And while his well-crafted speech can have a positive impact on our debate and contained some welcome and rare arguments from a high-level political leader — changes in the terms of the debate are prerequisites to changes in policy and the value of rhetoric shouldn’t be understated — they’re still just words until his actions become consistent with them.”
How can they be “just words” or “pretty points” when advancing change? Though the poetry of promise remains, increasingly Obama requisitions the prose of governance while marching through dilemmas. While no pretty points hide clear reversals – on transparency, military tribunals or procrastination on gay (military) rights – no government shifts from the worst White House to enlightenment in one season. What president in memory inherited more inexhaustible tangles, weighed down now by dodgy dissension from both parties?
The Audacity of Playing it Safe
As senator, Obama was neither ideologue, nor inspired progressive; his claim to fame, a fine, early anti-war speech, had to be dusted off for his presidential run. “The Audacity of Hope” reinforces a moderate wary of big, top-down reforms. Obama’s campaign was a testament to gradualism, his language cautious and annoyingly open-ended. This candidate understood without majority support he’d have no chance to modernize our money-infused politics and equalize the playing field for the millions left behind after Reagan. Uniters are centrists who split differences, whose high rhetoric outstrips action, optimistically waiting for the public to catch up. Observe the first Obama Commandment: consensus in the pursuit of change is no vice; extremism in the pursuit of governance is no virtue.
What unifies everything Obama is his ambition to be president of all the people – or as many as possible. This quest reconciles Obama’s two narratives, even when stuck with a myriad of Hobson choices: on torture, lawless CIA agents who followed orders, or a despotic White House that gets off? Does one respect due process if that means releasing dangerous terrorists? I anticipated Obama’s centrism, but not such wholesale establishment embraces: on economics (what diversity?), torture-CIA-detention-security (calling in reinforcements), or his mystifying confidence in militarism (“winning” in Afghanistan without an exit strategy?).
Certainly, we can accept Obama’s fine words while rejecting decisions that trump undeniable principles. Yet many worry. Will passing health care reform, especially if diluted, compensate for not addressing the Bush-Cheney cancers of torture, Constitutional assaults, and utter contempt for international agreements? While the perfect is enemy to good, does that mandate slicing every loaf in half, then bragging the half is more? So far, facts indicate more promise than change, a president uncertain whether to risk greatness or accept routine in Washington, when cutting every loaf in half produces more crumbs than progress.
CEO Manager or Game-Changer?
What’s unnerving and nervy is how Obama combines idealism and ruthless pragmatism in the same speech. At the National Archives, Obama elevated “accountability and oversight” as “the hallmarks of our Constitutional system” just before defending an ill-defined, extra-legal “architecture” for terrorists that cries out for accountability. This great educator has yet to reconcile Constitutional checks and balances with military tribunals begun by Bush, embarrassing photos, secret prisons and the scourge of indefinite, “preventative” detention. It’s bad enough to have re-worked torture from the Chinese communists. Do we now borrow Chinese legal violations: arrest without arraignment, due process, or trials?
And yet, outrage over freeing two dozen terrorists (vs. thousands at large) invites new legal thinking. Credit Obama for openness before decisions, partnership with Congress, and welcoming public challenge (indeed outrage on retention). What a stunning shift from rule by Bush’s egregious gut instinct, or faith alone (from that higher Father), or reactionary demagogues (yes, that Dick Cheney). Even when visibly the Compromiser in Chief, Obama still displays what Bush scorned, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” No divinely ordained truth from Obama, nor aged fathers – fabled, oedipal, or surrogate. After Bush, that’s a deluge of democracy from a president still getting his bearings.
The Drama Unfolds, the End Unknown
Welcome to front row seats and a suspenseful drama without clear finale. We all get to argue whether Obama’s consensus-building means forever playing it safe, or whether his reforms will truly “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Has America turned a corner, or just ceased to move backward? Is Obama style over substance, for then the danger is being enticed by a prettified change only the wealthy can believe in?
George Bush Cheney disapproved a long-held theory of mine, that no one president matters that much. Wouldn’t the massive anchor of Washington precedence, with media revelations, be counterweight to dictatorship? That defunct notion is reinforced daily by an unapologetic Cheney on the loose, his dark nightmares struggling to tarnish and thus handcuff Obama’s brightness. Who has a clue whether the circumspect president we elected will attain greatness or go down as a good but circumstantial politician, like Bill Clinton, whose achievements never quite matched the great promise?