The Obama Paradox: the Audacity of Retrenchment

by Robert S. Becker on December 15, 2009

Riddle of the week, month, or past year. Policy overlaps aside, how does a well-versed, savvy campaigner who glories in knowledge merge increasingly into his most uncurious, uninformed predecessor, who gloried what he didn’t know? How did this high-risk candidate, taking on his entire party establishment, turn adverse to risk even before he stumbled?

How can the Barack Obama who won the election, and the Nobel Peace Prize, by being not-Bush, match Dubya’s impulse to detach, delegate and default? And the final puzzle: how did a dense, inarticulate bully command his bully pulpit while the infinitely more articulate, tolerant newcomer fails to frame, let alone command key debates?

Bizarrely, the Paleolithic Sarah Palin prances and postures and plays the media while Obama hunts for his first major triumph true to the best of his campaign. Echoing the movie, Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery,” as the besieged stage producer forlornly cites the “natural condition of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” But, unlike that happy ending, Obama’s narrative is stagnating, and millions search for magic dust to make it all “turn out well.” Beyond the painful defaults to the status quo in key advisers, business and the military affairs, the real shocker is why this presumptive reformer yields leadership to a venal Congress, the slipperiest slope to “imminent disaster.”

Double Default Presidents

No modern president knew less, or cared less, about policy or issues so it made perfect sense for Dubya to charade as front man, the cheerleader-in-chief. Call it trust or talent, Bush sidestepped thinking, defaulting big-time on invasions, treaties, taxes, education, deregulation, and anti-terrorism. His recent racket, as itinerant con man boosting other low-skill, low-esteem types, fits him to a tee.

So, I find it astonishing, a year later, for Bush’s anti-matter to similarly relegate high-level judgments, as if the job is mainly a kind of detached mediation. When Gen. Petraeus insisted Gen. McChrystal oversee Afghanistan, bumping a competent commander, the president followed orders; when McChrystal pre-empted, by leaking his containment plan and Pakistani escalation, Obama wiggled but said yes. When the anti-terrorism old guard piped up, “Follow Bush, here, too,” Obama extended secret prisons, permanent rendition, lack of transparency, and military tribunals. Indeed, the audacity of entrenchment.

The Unkindest Cut: All Hail Congress

One readily asks, “Does this guy trust his own judgment – or any principles worth dying for?” This week his Oslo speech delighted militant neo-cons – oddly justifying ferocity to Europeans aghast at war – with a combative tone not unlike the incumbent whose reign of error propelled this Democrat. How does Afghanistan qualify as a “just war,” dramatically at odds with Obama’s every justification: national self-defense (against whom?), proportional response (jets, drones, and missiles vs. cave-dwellers), and negligible civilian deaths (the most mind-boggling pretense of all)?

Not once, by implication or hint, did this future chief executive of the executive branch forego his Constitutional mandates, yielding reform completely to Congress, not just to write bills, but conceive them. I missed this astonishing, operative rule of thumb, “Elect me and Congress rules.” In this way, today’s Default President contradicts Bush, whose White House handlers decided everything, from invasions to rewriting details of agency reports. No wannabe, especially riding anti-incumbency, wins even his home state were he, in advance, to so brazenly exalt the lobbyist-infested Congress, by every poll the most profoundly distrusted federal branch. The disaster that is the health reform process verifies this void of presidential leadership, negotiating away key reforms to every loudmouth Lieberman with weekly “insurmountable obstacles.”

Bush may not have known or believed in much of anything (beyond Cheney, God and cheerleading), but he understood the hopeful audacity of the bully pulpit, reinforced by fearless, unrestrained, and deceptive boosterism. This popinjay understood his task: to vilify opponents as cowardly nincompoops while equating his every program with national survival, hanging by a thread. The ultimate mystery so far is why the philosophic, big picture Obama doesn’t get the biggest picture of all: his election wasn’t about nuanced, intelligent speeches or backroom pressure. He was elected to define a vision, fight for it, and even fail while battling the demons he dramatized so well.

Unbearable Lightness of Obama

At this point, no-drama, low results Obama stars as the President of Process, the aloof mediator, as distant from unshakeable convictions as from the woes of average folks. Goods words articulating good ideas are mere starters, not enders, “nice to haves,” not “must haves” for any politician sporting real clothes. To repeat my question, “What does Obama believe, and when did he stop believing it”?

This mystery is lasting so long I fear it’s a permanent disability. If this president never gets energized, never realizes no risk-taking is the greatest risk of all for his party, then he becomes a transition figure between Bush and some fellow demagogue, likely more powerful and decidedly less liberal. Why should fickle independents be taken in again? Where do first-time voters, 71% of whom voted Obama, go, except to flee politics? Either this president achieves measurable, genuine achievements or lesser beings will define the future. This guy appears battle-wary without ever having gotten battle-weary.

Though a year after inauguration, Obama oddly reminds me of those stationary, detached 19th Century nominees who barely campaigned on the stump. Instead, prospective presidents dispatched oratory from on high, through the press, as if too dignified to jump in the trenches and get dirty. When does Obama roll up his sleeves and escape his own bubble, plus the one he admitted is Washington, not only fighting for his vision, but showing he can fight at all. If not, call rewrite and nix the happy ending. Even his re-election won’t dent the status quo.

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