January 18, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. O

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to come to terms with my feelings about the Obama Administration, my pervasive sense of disappointment and loss of interest in the political process in general. As the old Yiddish saying has it, live long enough and you'll see everything; and I don't recall ever being this surprised (I think that's the word) by a candidate as I've been by Barack Obama.

In one sense, of course, I'm just jealous. He's got a cool job: the Oval Office, good salary, huge perks, immense staff, and his future is secure. He'll really start making the money after his term or terms are up. That's the way it goes in modern American politics. It's really a branch of the entertainment business for its media-genic stars.

I understand that Obama is constrained by finances. He's the CEO of an insolvent company. Revenue from sales (taxes) is much, much lower than expenditures. There are probably many things he would like to do that just aren't possible because we don't have the money. Activity in the main product line of the U.S. Government, war, remains brisk, although there is a very low return on investment (ROI). We don't really know why we're fighting all these wars, but I can understand the appeal of the President's Commander-in-Chief role. So much of what the federal government does is simply the redistribution of taxes (entitlements) that war is about the only area of leadership that makes a president look presidential. Social Security, for example: money in, money immediately out. You don't really need a President for that, just a large accounting agency. The same with Medicare. In a normal fiscal year, that's over half of the budget right there.

So the war budget is without doubt the most fun to play with. It involves large wall maps of Asia, lots of military brass in olive green with gold braid, their chests heavy with medals and decorations, all of them meeting in high-tech rooms to discuss strategy and geopolitics. I imagine it must have been pretty intimidating for Barack when he first presided over such a Situation Room...situation. He was never a soldier, and he doesn't really look like the kind of guy who got into a lot fistfights when he was a kid. Still, he's gotten very good at that gravitas essential to ordering "troops into harm's way." "It's the hardest decision a President has to make," he told Steve Croft of "60 Minutes." That's exactly how George W. Bush used to say it. I notice, however, that it's not so hard that Presidents don't routinely make the decision.

I think in a lot ways Barack Obama is a more talented actor than Ronald Reagan. I know what you're thinking: damned by faint praise. But think about it. Reagan had actually been the CEO of California, the nation's largest state, prior to becoming President. So he had executive experience. He was a remarkably shitty governor, of course, and best remembered for closing the doors of the state's mental health facilities, thus creating the first generation of California's open-air lunatic asylums called the "homeless population." Reagan, a profligate spender, warmonger, delusional fantasist, anti-intellectual to his core: he set the standard by which all succeeding Presidents have been measured, and all of them, even Barack, have made their obeisances to the Great Communicator's lasting influence. They base their impersonation of leadership on his model.

If you'll permit a little armchair Freudianism, I'll tell you what I think might be going on here. Obama is the second Democratic president in a row who grew up without a strong masculine presence in his life. No father, no real father figure. Clinton and Obama were both raised by women who idolized them and nurtured their dreams, perhaps in part to overcome obvious difficulties in their (the mothers') own lives. Boys raised in households where a strong father or father figure rules the roost learn a couple of early lessons about the nature of the greater world. One is that fucking up often has severe, immediate consequences. The other is that the world outside is pretty much a non-ending shitstorm of competition, disappointment, conflict and difficulty, because that's the world Dad inhabits.

Barack Obama's bizarre penchant for "bipartisanship" and consensus, no matter how utterly unrealistic it is in light of the Republican Party's implacable opposition to everything he suggests, may arise from Obama's formative experience. In Clinton's case, I could never understand why the guy always folded so easily when met with opposition. For example (and to cite my favorite case), Clinton backed down on Lani Guinier, his choice for a high post in the Justice Department, because of an academic paper she wrote on cumulative voting as a solution to under-representation of blacks on Southern political councils, boards, etc. Her paper was a theory. Clinton dumped her (the first black woman tenured as a professor at the Harvard Law School) because the conservatives said she was undemocratic. By contrast, Clinton's successor, George H.W. Bush, succeeded in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, he of the pubic hair on the Coke can remarks, because Bush the Elder refused to back down, the Dems be damned. George the First's son, W, was the same way. No matter how bad his idea, he told everyone to pound sand.

O is more like Bubba. Obama doesn't seem to understand that the masculine style of interaction is to take what the other guy will give you, and to fight for the rest. Competition is hard enough as it is; if the other guy wants to concede, great, let's move on to the next round. So Obama repeats his lawn-chair act over and over and over. He gives in on everything. Authority figures (Gen. Stanley McChrystal knee-capped Obama by leaking his own surge plans to the Washington Post, and Obama did nothing about it) intimidate Obama, and he doesn't like conflict anyway.

War, under such circumstances and under such leadership, becomes a nice sublimated outlet for thwarted masculinity. Obama is showin' 'em. He's got more wars going now (I think about four) than Bush ever thought of fighting. Clinton used to bomb Iraq whenever the CSI boys would find a semen stain in another unfortunate location.

It's interesting that the last President who made his abhorrence of war very vocal, who worked (often against the wishes of his own party) to methodically reduce military spending, and who presided over a booming peacetime economy, was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. It used to be that American leaders rose to the top through participation in the violent crucible of masculine conflict, like Ike and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and they learned a balance between diplomacy and defiance. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, whatever works. They were natural leaders who distinguished themselves by the example they set, and not through the simulation of leadership qualities highlighted as part of a marketing campaign.

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