How to Squander the Presidency in One Year
Hey, Conan Obama: How About Now? Can You Hear Us Now?
There's only one political party in the entire world that is so inept, cowardly and bungling that it could manage to simultaneously lick the boots of Wall Street bankers and then get blamed by the voters for being flaming revolutionary socialists.
It's the same party that has allowed the opposition to go on a thirty year scorched earth campaign, stealing everything in sight from middle and working class voters, and yet successfully claim to be protecting ‘real Americans' from out-of-touch elites.
It's the same party that could run a decorated combat hero against a war evader in 1972, only to be successfully labeled as national security wimps.
Just to be sure, it then did the exact same thing again in 2004.
It's the same party that stood by silently while two presidential elections in a row were stolen away from them.
How ‘bout dem Dems, eh?
One year ago today, there was real question as to what could possibly be the future of the Republican Party in America. That's changed a bit now.
And, speaking of ‘change', the one kind that Barack Obama did actually deliver this year was not that which most voters had in mind after listening to him use the word incessantly, all throughout 2008. Obama and his colleagues have now managed to bring the future of the Democratic Party into question, just a year after it won two smashing victories in a row.
Personally, I'm not real bothered by that. Today's Democrats are, almost without exception, embarrassing hacks who deserved to get stomped a long time ago.
What really upsets me, however, is what these fools have allowed to be done to the name of progressivism, and to the country.
Barack Obama has now, in just a year's time, become the single most inept president perhaps in all of American history, and certainly in my lifetime. Never has so much political advantage been pissed away so rapidly, and what's more in the context of so much national urgency and crisis. It's astonishing, really, to contemplate how much has been lost in a single year.
It was hilarious, of course, when Michelle Bachmann invoked the Charge of the Light Brigade at a rally against "Obama's" (has he ever really owned it?) health care "initiative" (isn't that too strong a word to use?), quite oblivious to the fact that the actual historical event was one of history's greatest debacles. Obama, on the other hand, seems to be actually reliving the famous cock-up in the flesh. Except, of course, that he doesn't really "charge" at anything. He just talks about things, thinks about things a real long time, defers to others on things, and waits around for things to maybe happen.
This week, though, something actually did happen. Alas, not precisely what the president had in mind, however.
But the election in Massachusetts was only slightly less inevitable than the sun rising in the east each morning. It was the product of an amazing collection of abysmal choices and practices over the last year that has produced a meltdown of equally amazing proportions for this president and his party. It is fitting that it comes on the anniversary of the president's inauguration, a moment filled with so much hope for so many just a year ago.
What has Obama - this Conan O'Brien of presidents - done wrong in order to produce this devastating outcome? The short answer is: Just about everything imaginable.
* He does not lead. Americans, especially in times of crisis, want their daddy-president to pick a point on the horizon and lead them to it. Often - especially in the short term - they don't even care that much which point it is. They will happily follow a president whose policies they oppose if he will but lead.
* And if he will demonstrate some conviction. I have never seen a president so utterly lacking in passion. This man literally doesn't even seem to care about himself, let alone this or that policy issue. He doesn't seem to have any strong opinions on anything, a sure prescription for presidential failure.
* He has therefore let Congress ‘lead' on nearly every issue, another surefire mistake. Instead of demanding that they pass real stimulus legislation - which would have really stimulated the economy, big-time, and right now - he let those dickheads on the Hill just load up a big pork party blivet of a bill with all the pet projects they could find, designed purely to benefit their personal standing with the voters at home, rather than to actually produce jobs for Americans. And on health care, his signature issue, he did the same thing. "You guys write it, and I'll sign the check." Could there possibly be a greater prescription for failure than allowing a bunch of the most venal people on the planet to cobble together a 2,000 page monstrosity that entirely serves their interests and those of the people whose campaign bribes put them in office?
* Well, yes, now that you mention it. If you really want to bring your government crashing to the ground, why not spend endless months negotiating with vicious thugs, who will never vote for your legislation anyhow, because they are so entirely devoted to your destruction that they're willing to call you a granny murderer? What a great and winning strategy!
* Another possible strategic move even stupider than deferring to Congress to write major legislation is to cozy up with the least popular people on the planet - including, in fact, the real-life granny killers. Got an economy that is so raw it's leaving thousands in literal peril of losing their lives? Why not draft some legislation to bail-out the people who created that mess and guarantee that they retain their multimillion dollar bonuses?!?! You know, the same folks who are always talking about how great capitalism is and how important it is to take risks! The same ones who are always telling us how awful the government is - the same government that saved them from extinction. Those folks. That's right, bail out with outrageous bonuses the very people who need it least and who caused billions of people around the planet to suffer, while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves! That'll raise your presidential job approval ratings every time! And while you're at it, bring in the much beloved health insurance and pharmaceutical corporate lobbyists, and negotiate a deal with them to craft your high profile health care legislation! What voter can't get behind that?
* Another brilliant presidential tactic is to be such a Mr. Happy Nice Face that you acknowledge no enemies for the country, or even yourself. Not the health care corporate vampires who suck the blood out of Americans from San Diego to Bangor, providing absolutely no value-added health service whatsoever, while denying treatment to deathly ill human beings at every opportunity, all to rake in billions more in profits. Not the reckless pirates on Wall Street who bet all our money on insane gambles that wrecked the global economy, took government bail-out money to survive, and yet are still drowning in bonuses as rewards. Not the Republican Party who spent three decades downsizing the middle class, plunging the country into wars based on lies, deregulating every protection in sight, fattening up corporate cronies, wrecking the environment, trashing the Constitution and polarizing the country politically. And not even a catastrophic climate disaster speeding toward the planet with relentless determination. No! We must all be happy and talk nice! No bad guys. Not even the bad guys can be bad guys.
* While you're at it, if you're trying to run the most failed presidency ever, a really good idea is to campaign in the grandest terms possible, and then deliver squat. You know, talk about bending the arc of history. Invoke Martin Luther King's dream and his struggles and even those of the slaves. Ring the big bells of generational calling. Remind voters every thirty seconds that the country badly needs "Change!". Then get elected and turn around and continue the policies of your hated predecessor in every meaningful policy area. Only with less conviction. People will love that.
* A related brilliant move is to mobilize a giant army of passionate volunteers dedicated to putting you in the White House, and then do nothing with them once you get there, other than taking them completely for granted and never calling upon them to do anything in support of your agenda. Be sure to deflate their enthusiasm in every way possible.
* Even more importantly, if you're trying to run your presidency into the ground you'll definitely want to avoid mobilizing the general public behind your agenda. To make sure that you don't repeat the great legislative victories of FDR or LBJ or (unfortunately) Reagan or (really unfortunately) Little Bush, never use their method of appealing directly to the people. Never express your legislative program as a moral imperative, a great calling to the nation. Never attempt to rally the public behind your cause. Never express any urgency. And never call upon them to demand that Congress pass your bills. Then, you can rest assured they won't!
* And let's take it up a whole ‘nuther level, while we're on the subject. A successful president is one who articulates a strong and compelling narrative for the nation. So, in your quest to avoid rising even to mediocrity, be sure to leave a great big gaping canyon where that whole narrative thing is supposed to go. No New Deal, no Great Society, no New Frontier or War on Terror for you. Nope! Just a thousand little projects with little non-solutions to big problems. Hey, why not inject yourself into Cambridge, Massachusetts community police politics while you're at it! Or the New York State Democratic Party gubernatorial primary! Or you could deliberate for weeks about which breed of dog to get for your kids! That's a great use of the president's political capital!
* As long as you're walking away from the grand narrative, why not let the opposition define you as well? Let them say anything imaginable about you, and never respond. You're a socialist! No, you're a fascist! No, you're both! At the same time, no less! You're a granny killer! You're not really even an American! You're taking over the US for the Muslims! You're a massive taxer and spender! You're running around the world, apologizing for America everywhere you go! No worries. Just remember the golden rule, and your presidency is sure to sink: Never engage, never respond, never preempt, never attack, never fight back.
* In general, you'll also want to take the most important power the president has - the bully pulpit - and totally piss it away. Appear everywhere at once, all the time, saying lots of nice words, about a thousand different issues. But never with passion, never with compelling simplicity, never with repetition, and never with urgency. Pretty soon you'll turn being everywhere into being nowhere. Everyone one will tune out your ubiquitous self. Give up the high moral ground which is the most important asset of the office you hold, and you'll make sure that no one ever listens to you anymore. You will persuade the public of nothing. Except that you are irrelevant.
* But you can do better still. Help your enemies, so that they can crush you more effectively! Start by not even realizing they are your enemies. Then, treat them with greater respect than your friends, even though they've run the country over a cliff. Defer to them at every opportunity. Consult with them even as they insult you to your face. Allow them to run Congress, even though they have small minorities in both houses. Never force them to vote against simple, popular legislation. Never call their bluffs. Never associate them with the destruction they've caused. Never label them the treasonous hypocritical liars that they are. Help them to resuscitate the comatose near-corpse of their political party, just before it's about to die, so it can rise up and savage you.
* Another great trick for crashing a presidency is to pick all the wrong priorities to ‘fight' for. Imagine, for example, if FDR had substituted for his ‘Day of Infamy' speech right after Pearl Harbor a ringing call for an American revolution in cobbler technology! Yes, that's right, in response to the devastating surprise attack by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan, what if the president urgently called upon us all to start making really amazing shoes?! Before it's too late, and we all get blisters on our feet! Similarly, Mr. Obama, your spending the last year on (jive) health care and jetting around the world dipping your toes into foreign policy problems while Americans are losing their jobs and their houses is a fine way to kill your presidency. Guaranteed to work every time.
* And, finally, perhaps the most important thing one can do - and the thing that helps explain many of the other items above - is to adopt really, really pathetic policies. If you're doing a stimulus bill, for example, make sure that it's too little money, not targeted at real stimulative levers in the economy, costs a lot, doesn't kick in for a year or two, gives away about a third of the money to ineffective pet projects for Republican while none of them vote for it anyhow, and leaves the unemployment rate stuck at a miserable ten percent. Or, if you're doing a bail-out of the banks for the purpose of producing the liquidity essential to restarting the economy, let them take bonuses as big as they want, and don't actually require that they loan out to anyone the money you've given them. Or, how about spending nearly all your political capital on ‘health care' legislation, which is really an insurance company boondoggle bill instead? That's really what the people want, eh? No wonder Obama's not out there writing the narrative, fighting the good fight or crushing his enemies. Even he can't get excited about his own priorities, so extraordinarily abysmal are they.
All of this represents the best prescription I can imagine for wrecking a presidency, and Obama has followed it with exacting precision. Indeed, doing so would appear to be his only real passion. It's almost as if he were a Republican sleeper politician in some party politics version of the Manchurian Candidate, planted to arise on cue and destroy the Democratic Party from within.
And thus - while anything's possible, of course - I am hard pressed to see how the Obama administration is anything but finished. Consider his options from here.
He could turn to the right, like Clinton did in 1994. But the first problem is that he's already there. If you look carefully at his policies, he is basically running George Bush's third term. Regressives (conveniently) forget that. They call him weak on national security, even while he dramatically escalates the war in Afghanistan, hardly draws down in Iraq, breaks his own promise to close Gitmo, and smashes through the $700 billion mark in military spending for the first time, not even counting Afghanistan's costs. They ignore his Bush-cloned policies on state secrets, renditions, executive power and other civil liberties issues. They forget that Bush's health care bill was far more socialistic and far more fiscally irresponsible than Obama's, and that his bail-outs and stimulus actions were almost identical. So, in short, for Obama to turn to starboard at this point would literally require him to outflank the GOP to its right. Moreover, the Limbaughs and Becks and Palins would still excoriate him, no matter what. Worse still, such policies would only make the lives of ordinary Americans a lot worse, just as they have been doing for thirty years now. So what could be gained by a turn to the right?
Second, he could go small-bore, as Clinton also did in the 1990s. But, of course, these aren't the 1990s. FDR didn't win four terms during a Great Depression and a world war by focusing on school uniforms and V-chips. This is not the 1930s or 1940s, but it's close. People are hurting, frightened and angry. Obama is suffering badly already because he is not addressing their very tangible concerns. More of the same policy-wise will produce more of the same politically. Going this route, he'd be lucky if the public was kind enough to let him finish his single term as a James Buchanan wannabe, then go home.
The obvious solution, of course, would be a sharp turn to the left. Go where the real solutions are. Fight the good fight. Call liars ‘liars' and thieves ‘thieves'. Do the people's business. Become their advocate against the monsters bleeding them dry. Create jobs. Build infrastructure. Do real national health care. End the wars. Dramatically slash military spending. Produce actual educational reform. Launch a massive green energy/jobs program. Get serious about global warming. Kick ass on campaign finance reform. Fight for gay rights. Restore the New Deal era regulatory framework and expand it. Restore a fair taxation structure. Rewrite trade agreements that undermine American jobs. Rebuild unions. Fill the spate of vacancies in the federal judiciary, and load those seats up with progressives. Rally the public to demand that Congress act on your agenda. Humiliate the regressives in and out of the GOP for their abysmal sell-out policies.
All of this could be done, and most of it would be very popular, especially if it was backed by an aggressive and righteously angry Oval Office advocate for the people who knew how to use the bully pulpit to shape the narrative, to market ideas, and to mobilize public support.
But I doubt Obama has anything like the constitution for that sort of presidency. I think his personal disposition is so strongly controlling of his politics that he would rather preside as a three year lame-duck over a failed one-term presidency, than actually throw an elbow or two and make anyone uncomfortable. Think how unpleasant it would be.
Moreover, by blundering during the only chance he'll ever have at introducing his presidency, he's now created an additional set of problems for himself which may well be insurmountable, even if he were to now try to live up to his campaign billing. He needs Democratic votes in Congress to do much of anything, but they're all focused on the looming tsunami of next November. The very same people who might have swallowed hard and reluctantly followed the lead of inspirational new president Obama one year ago, today will join everyone else in the world and spit in the eye of useless, feeble, washed-up Barack. He's got zero leverage over his own party in Congress now. As for the public, it's gonna be pretty hard to now market himself as the great enemy of the people's enemies, when he's just finished a year of making secret sweetheart deals that benefit Wall Street bankers, health insurance pirates, and pharmaceutical predators, all while leaving his own base and the public he's supposed to be serving out in the rain. Politicians can reinvent themselves, but you need time and there are certain limits of plausibility that cannot be ignored, any more than you can ignore the laws of physics.
Of course, I don't give a shit about Barack Obama anymore, other than my desire that really ugly things happen to him as payment in kind for the grandest act of betrayal we've seen since Benedict Arnold did his thing. But what about the country?
Not so good there, either, I'm afraid. What happens when you have two parties to choose from, and one of them wrecks the country with dramatically evil policies so radical even backward America hates them, but then you turn to the other party, which spends an entire year on the campaign trail promising change, only to turn out nearly identical to the first lot when in government? What do you do?
One option is to find another party. To some extent that is happening, but absolutely not where it should be. The tea partyers are the ‘alternative' vision for salvation in today's America. (Very) unfortunately, they are not alternative in any sense, have almost no coherent vision whatsoever, and - as the possible third right-wing party for voters to choose from, out of three, obviously offer zero salvation whatsoever. All the tea party lunatics seem to know is that they don't like taxes and they don't like federal spending. But they can't even tell you what they'd cut if they actually controlled the government. My guess is that it would be nothing, just like the Republicans before them, or else they'd slash entitlement spending, which would surely make them one of the flashiest flashes ever to get royally panned by the public.
The other option, which the voters are now exercising, is to continue a process begun in 2006 of voting for the party which is not the party in power. Today, that means Republicans, as witnessed in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts. The absurdity of this, of course, is that it was these exact same people who created this astonishingly thorough mess we find ourselves in. What is Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Sarah Palin going to do for Americans who don't have jobs? Cut taxes they no longer pay (and thus also further increase the national debt, by the way)? What will they do for those same folks who've lost their health insurance? Kill Democratic plans, even when they're nothing but corporate giveaways anyhow?
Americans will simply be more sick, more broke and more unemployed two, four or six years from now than they are at this moment, if they put the Republicans back in control of the government.
Of course, there's one other possibility, which is that this time the Cheney Party goes balls-to-the-wall, bringing down on our heads a full-on fascist dictatorship, serving corporate interests in total, and likely launching a couple of good wars abroad to complement the complete repression of dissent and freedom of expression at home.
Ridiculous? I try pretty hard every day - and it takes some work - to keep my most apocalyptic totalitarian nightmares for this country in check. But think about this chronological sequence for a second: The Democrats get killed in November for doing nothing while the public suffers. But they are still seen as the party in power in 2012, so they get killed even worse, with Obama sent packing and Palin or her equivalent moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the new radical GOP regime's policies are even more detrimental to voters than Bush's or Obama's. Maybe the public is distracted for a year or two by some bullshit foreign policy ‘crisis' or another, but pretty soon they're getting real restless. After about six years now of suffering badly, they're getting real surly, and ‘anti-incumbent' doesn't begin to describe the mood of the country. Now they really want some serious change.
Of course, anything can happen - but which part of that sequence seems improbable? And if the answer is none, then the salient question becomes: What does the regime do at that point, faced with an angry mob? What are the Dick Cheneys and Sarah Palins of this world committed to? What are they capable of when pressed?
I don't think those questions really require a response. I think we all know pretty well the answers.
This is the country that Obama - the great Hope guy - is bequeathing us.
Dante said "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality".
Better stock up on the mist sprayers, Barack.