Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

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Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

So now there's going to be a bipartisan health care summit, eh?  Woo-hoo. 

Is that sorta like the jobs summit we just had, one full year into the reign of Obama, despite that all twelve of those months has been riddled with severe economic cancer?  And hasn't that summit just really produced a raft of good solutions to the unemployment crisis? 

Is the health care summit gonna be kinda like the stimulus bill, a full third of which was a sop to Republican tax-cutting religious dogma, which effort bought all of a single GOP vote in Congress? 

Does it bear any resemblance to the health care negotiations which have been going on for nearly a year now, that also involved protracted efforts to accommodate Republican interests, and that succeeding in reducing the level of GOP support from the prior vote on the stimulus bill down by a full one hundred percent? 

Or are we talking here about any of a whole slew of "Democratic" policies, from the Middle East to Afghanistan to civil liberties to military spending, in which the Obama administration never had to negotiate at all with Republicans, because they were already running the same policies as George W. Bush?  And nevertheless still got slammed for it? 

I really have to confess that I don't know why Barack Obama ever wanted the presidency.  He had a boatload of fame and fortune in his hands already, though admittedly it's a whole other league to be in as a part of the exclusive club of US presidents. 

On the other hand, you run some serious risks as president that really call into question whether it's worth it, from a cost-benefit perspective.  Especially since you can only spend so much money in a lifetime, and Obama had already made tens of millions from his books, and had huge potential to keep on making more from lectures, lobbying and more books, without ever sitting in the White House. 

Lincoln and Kennedy remind us of the most prominent of these risks.  But combine the always present possibility of presidential assassination with the fact that we have the first black president of a country still loaded with angry, armed racists, and you have a serious concern there.  Additionally, America is just absolutely in a bad mood these days.  We're like a toddler having a temper tantrum, oscillating between wanting this or that, usually wanting both at the same time, and regularly throwing a shit-fit if we don't get just exactly what we want when we want it.  If it were possible for an entire country to need its diapers changed, that's just about where we are nowadays.  Put it all together and you get a recipe for disaster for a black president whose middle name is Hussein.  Especially one who allows himself to be labeled a socialist.  Maybe Michael Steele or Clarence Thomas could pull this off without agitating the survivalist crowd into taking a pop at him, but Obama's got a whole army of nuts out there waiting to take him out.  Many of them are in these tea party fringe fanatic groups.  Hell, many of them are in the GOP. 

Moreover, that's not the only risk he took in running for the presidency.  You can also get elected and then fail miserably.  Is it really worth it to enter the pantheon of American politics, but in a titular sense only?  Wouldn't it be better to lay low and get rich than to be a laughingstock failure who also happened to have once had an oval-shaped office?  Wouldn't most people rather be Jeb Bush than George W.? 

This is why I wonder why this guy ever sought the presidency.  Doing so clearly came with some serious risks, and not necessarily massive benefits relative to where he was already sitting. 

Of course, if you were going to do something with the office, that would be something else entirely.  That would be worth taking big risks for.  I think most people want to be successful in life, and most people who are either self-confident (or radically insecure) enough to seek the American presidency would absolutely also like the legacy of being one of the great ones.  Obama just doesn't seem to have that jones, though.  He's the perfunctory president.  He seems to want to have a health care bill, any health care bill, so he can say he's done that.  He seems to want to have a climate agreement, however eviscerated, just so he can tick off that box.  And he seems to want to be president just to be president. 

Of course, the Democratic Party has become nearly as captive of corporate and Wall Street interests as the Republicans have, which may be a better explanation for the inaction of Congress and the president.  But the capacity to sustain that facade is now rapidly melting.  Perhaps Democrats even realize this. 

The core (sometimes theoretical) principle at the root of representative democracy is the quid pro quo that is supposed to govern the relationship between the representative and the represented.  The member of parliament gets to serve in high office, provided that MP reflects the political sentiments of his or her constituents.  The problem with American politics today, of course, is that the real constituents of members of Congress are not the voters in their districts and states, but rather the special interests who fund their campaigns to fool the voters in their districts and states.  You don't need to see Bulworth again to figure that one out. 

And the problem for Democrats is that the country is now reaching the limits of viability for that game.  Voters can be fooled or lulled into political narcolepsy for a long time, provided conditions are relatively benign.  One reason, frankly, that voter turnout has been so low over the last half-century is that people have been basically satisfied with conditions in their lives, notwithstanding the usual grumbling about welfare queens or foreign aid or uppity blacks.  This also explains why we rarely see people marching in the streets in any serious way, and why we don't see the rise of alternative political parties of any serious scale.  By and large, people have been pretty complacent about politics because their life conditions have been pretty decent, whether they know it or not. 

All that is changing now.  Actually, it's been changing for thirty years, but now it's really crashing down hard.  During the middle part of the twentieth century a literal new deal was struck in American society, in which for the first time the masses would get a moderate share of the pie and the fantastically wealthy would be reduced in economic stature to being merely hugely wealthy.  But, after a while, the greediest amongst us decided they'd had enough of that tough bargain and, circa 1980 or so, the empire struck back.  The American plutocracy hired Ronald Reagan and his party to undo the provisions of trade, labor, tax and welfare state laws that propped up the newly created middle class, and the ground underneath most Americans' feet has been eroding ever since.  It was actually much worse than what people thought all along, because much of the pain for the middle class was eased by sending wives to work earning a second income, and stealing from their children via budget deficits. 

Now comes the triple whammy of the apocalypse, as the products from these policies come home to roost in a serious way.  First, deregulating everything in sight so that the rapist class could have its unfettered way with all of us has produced the inevitable reckoning with reality now screening in your neighborhood as "The Great Recession".  Second, the unsustainable pattern of profligate borrowing has become - go figure - unsustainable, and we are now seeing the beginning of serious movements toward reeling back spending on popular government programs, just when they are needed most.  And third, the structural changes that have been promulgated over the last three decades leave most Americans poorly positioned to even hope for a path to economic recovery.  Roughly speaking then, the middle class have been tossed out of the plane, their primary parachute was defectively fabricated by a deregulated corporation trying to save money on production, and their emergency chute was stolen out of the pack and sold on the black market called Wall Street. 

The problem for people like Obama or Pelosi or Reid or just about any Democrat in Congress today is that people increasingly know this.  They are feeling it acutely.  The decades of complacency have been replaced by the new era of fear and anxiety.  Thus we're now seeing signs of a reanimated political sphere.  Turnout is up, anti-incumbency is way up, and street rallies and alternative political movements are increasingly challenging the pathetically limited options of the status quo. 

We've entered an epoch of political oscillation - mood swings would perhaps be the better description - in which the two dominant political parties do fantastically well in opposition, but horribly in government.  That's because, in reality, neither of them is offering any actual solutions to the problems the shrinking American middle class is grappling with every day.  Republicans distract with an endless procession of bogeymen at home and abroad, and with tax cuts that only exacerbate the problem further.  Democrats, on the other hand, uh...  Democrats, er...  Well, I don't know what Democrats actually do.  They just kinda sit there taking potshots.  Both parties do great in opposition because it's so easy to show how useless the government is, especially if hypocrisy is not necessarily a problem for how you practice politics (and for the GOP it is not only not a problem, it has become a high art form).  But it turns out that actually governing after you win in opposition is problematic if you don't have any real solutions to offer.  Republicans have been hammered twice in the last two election cycles, once to kick them out of Congress and then again to kick them out of the White House.  Democrats will have precisely the same experience in 2010 and 2012, and for precisely the same reasons. 

And yet the public will be no more satisfied with the outcome than they are now, and likely less so.  It's ludicrous to imagine that the party of Bush and Cheney - which has only gotten worse in their absence - will actually solve any national problems.  Meanwhile, time is running out for Washington to actually produce solutions.  Or at least to be seen as serious about producing solutions.  People understand that this is not necessarily easily done.  Franklin Roosevelt got elected president four times without ever genuinely slaying the Great Depression.  But people believed that he was trying, and they knew that the party of Hoover would do nothing.  Obama, on the other hand, has done just the opposite of FDR.  He has entirely blown the good will which attended his inauguration one year ago, such that even if he were to be serious about dealing with jobs now, it's not clear that he would be trusted enough to be taken seriously, and it's not clear that he could even reap the political benefit from any success he might actually produce. 

This was the stupidest imaginable of strategic decisions by this White House.  If they thought they could simply continue to win by being not Republicans, they were wrong even in the short term.  (Very short term, as it turns out.  They got clobbered right away in Virginia and New Jersey, and now also in Massachusetts.)  If they thought they couldn't do anything legit to solve problems because they have to placate their real masters on Wall Street, they were wrong in the longer term.  Americans are unlikely to continue to countenance such treason from their government anymore, as they lose their jobs, houses, medical care and dignity. 

Look, let's be honest, American government was designed by its creators to fail, if by success one means the ability to govern in any real sense and the ability to be responsive to the preferences of voters.  It's a pretty ingenious system really, at least for those who have a congenital fear of government, that particularly American paranoia.  The system basically requires so much consensus (which is another way of saying that so many actors can block it from moving forward), that only on occasions like the day after Pearl Harbor can it move expeditiously at articulating and legislating national policy.  Otherwise, it requires a powerful figure who can light enough of a fire under the recalcitrant co-decisionmakers in the system for anything substantial to happen.  And that more or less can only be the president. 

In the long nineteenth century of American government, that mostly just didn't happen, in large part because the prevailing view of the role of government was so limited.  Today, however, it is more or less expected.  It more or less defines whether a presidency is successful or not.  Roosevelt and Johnson and Reagan and Wee Bush got what they wanted, and thus had largely successful presidencies, as measured by that yardstick.  Of course, in some of those cases what they wanted were really disastrous things, and so those presidencies turned out to be not so successful in the larger sense, by virtue, ironically, of their successes in the narrow sense.  In any case, for folks like Bill Clinton or Big Daddy Bush or Barack Obama it's all moot anyhow.  They don't aspire to much of anything serious, and they therefore, of course, don't get anywhere near achieving it. 

This model for governmental failure created by the Founders has now become even more unruly, at least when Republicans are in the opposition.  They have decided to use the filibuster and nomination holds in the Senate to block literally everything the Democrats want to do, including even staffing up the president's administration.  Democrats, of course, are just the opposite.  Even when they are in the minority by only the barest amount, they still allow the Republicans to do whatever they want, using whatever legislative bullying technique they choose.  Essentially what we have today is a situation in which Republicans make life for the vast majority of Americans worse when they are in government, and Democrats do nothing whatsoever when they are given control.  Nothing, that is, unless you count destroying the reputation of progressive politics while ironically not actually being progressive at all. 

America is increasingly in need of some serious Constitutional shake-ups, and a parliamentary system of responsible government to replace the existing do-nothing model is perhaps at the top of the list.  That alternative surely at least has clarity going for it, hence the term ‘responsible'.  You know who governs at any given time, and you get to throw the bums out of office if they don't do it the way you want them to.  It's a higher gamble affair, though.  It essentially puts all the eggs in one basket, at least for the short term.  If we had had such a system in 2005, for example, Social Security would have been effectively destroyed.  On the other hand, when people saw in 2008 what Wall Street did to the Social Security accounts they had been building over a lifetime, Republicans would have banished from the halls of government for eighty years. 

The system is truly broken, but the truth is that all systems are broken, and all systems are also not broken.  It's in the nature of people to switch systems, and to want to switch systems, as a cheap potential solution to their problems.  But, in reality, institutions and constitutions don't make nearly as much difference in the quality of governance as does the character and commitments of the people at the helm, and that of those who choose them.  Good people with good intentions and a good helping of guts will produce good results, even when faced with daunting obstacles built into the system of governance.  Rip-off artists, on the other hand, will not be deterred by mere checks and balances.  And those who seek to do nothing while the country burns will be able to under any constitutional order, at least for the short-term. 

Major aspects of the current crisis in American politics are deeply fundamental in nature, in the sense that a cavalier and self-interested (often at best) public has allowed the gravest crimes to be committed in its name, as long as it could still sit on the sofa unmolested, slurping beer, scarfing Tater Tots, and watching yet another episode of American Idol.  We truly do have the government we deserve. 

And yet, to some extent, it ‘twas ever thus, and still we've managed to do better at times.  Moreover, it's hard not to conclude that there has been a concerted effort to dumb down the American public on matters of politics and even their own welfare these last few decades.  And why not, eh?  There was a helluva lot of money to be made. 

But while the breakdown of the country's political system has been near complete - ranging from government to opposition party to the media to the public - those who ask for our votes by promising serious change, and who invoke the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and the centuries-long tribulations of the enslaved in order to get elected, have a special responsibility to fulfill their commitment.  It requires a particular and spectacular brand of treasonous contempt to piss away the beliefs of an entire nation in one's promise and one's integrity, not to mention trashing the legions of people who carried you across the finish line for exactly that reason.  Even worse, to mangle the governance of a country at a time of crisis - knowing full well what sort of creatures to whom that throws open the doors of the government in the wake of your failure - is an egregious crime of historical proportions.  How many Weimar Republics or Neville Chamberlains do we need before we figure that one out?  Obama's weakness will make Sarah Palin president. 

Some folks argue that change never comes from the top and it's a fool's errand to expect Barack Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or any other leaders of American government to ever just do the right thing for the right reasons.  Maybe that's all true, and I certainly rue the fact that the only people out on the streets these days are the know-nothings of the right.  There is a ton of work to be done right now building a progressive movement with the capacity to pressure the country's national leaders into doing the right thing for the country. 

But those leaders are part of the problem, too.  And it's also the case that some of the great transformative figures of this country or others - Franklin Roosevelt, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping - were so much more than history forced them to be.  To me, that means both that we should continue to expect a serious contribution from those entrusted with governing the country, beyond what the street forces them to do, and that history vindicates such expectations as being legitimate.  In other words, we know from the historical record that it can happen that leaders actually lead, beyond where we folks down below push them to go.  It is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect that of the current crop, notwithstanding the crucial role also to be played by the public, the media, social movements, etc. 

Few leaders in American history have been as blessed with the ironic opportunity of crisis as has been Barack Obama.  This last year could have been written into the history books with an entirely different script, and one which would have massively benefitted the country, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama.  Yet, because he is so very much not a man of his time, just the opposite occurred.  Clinton got away with being a nothingburger during fat times.  Obama is foolishly trying it during a moment of multiple simultaneous national and international crises, and he is failing miserably.  As he should be, with such a shamefully tepid agenda. 

Barack Obama and his congressional co-conspirators in cowardice will soon be toast, the victims - both directly through their own inadequacies and indirectly through their unwillingness to counter attacks upon them by the most destructive elements of American politics - of their own failings of character. 

But because of those failings, and because at the moment the bottom was falling out they would neither lead, follow nor get out of the way, they are not the only folks right now staring down the business end of the shotgun that is the future of America. 

We are, too. 

Indeed, far more than they. 

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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