I was pretty sure that Barack Obama would not turn out to be my ideological cup of tea. And, indeed, when it comes to his policies and cabinet picks, he did not disappoint in disappointing me, though I am increasingly despondent at how despondent he is leaving me.
Three Republicans in the cabinet? Judd Frickin' Gregg, in exchange for a new Republican senator appointed by the Democratic Governor of New Hampshire? A raft of Clintonite retreads (including an actual Clinton) coming direct from their Wall Street finishing schools? Tom Daschle (even without tax-cheat problems)? A bunch of nobodies known for the safest of white-bread politics, if they're known for anything at all?
And in the midst of that ugly collection, a single liberal - Hilda Solis - now probably about to get thrown under the bus for some absurdly minor tax infraction. Of her husband's. if she goes down, it will be Clinton Redux for sure, and Solis will be the equivalent of Joycelyn Elders, who got fired by the philanderer-in-chief for talking about masturbation as an alternative to sex for young people. Apart from being the mother of all walking metaphors for the entirety of Bubba's wasted eight years, that episode showed once and for all that the regressive right's teenage-level obsession with sexuality is fundamentally not about blocking unbiblical sex, or unsafe sex, but rather, all sex.
Meanwhile, speaking of getting screwed, progressives who believed Obama might be the second coming of Bobby Kennedy are rapidly being disabused of their fantasies.
As noted above, that's not a mistake I made (though I held out some hope in that regard, and still do - sorta, kinda, barely). As an agnostic waiting for the facts to come in, I have been arguing for the better part of a year now that the central question concerning Obama is whether he will turn out to be FDR or Bill Clinton. After months of waiting for the other shoe to drop, we are now well on our way to having an answer to that question, and it ain't the one we wanted. Nor is it the one America needs. Nor, ironically, is it the one that will actually best serve Obama.
While I didn't make the Pollyannaish mistake of believing that Obama's frustratingly oblique politics on the campaign trail would turn out to match my own, it does look like (though it is very early still - the guy hasn't even completed his first month in office yet) I misjudged him on the question of competence.
Obama ran a near letter-perfect campaign for president. Doing so allowed him - a young, inexperienced black man, no less - to defeat two of the biggest names in the pantheon of American politics, both of whom had major political machines backing them, and at least one of whom seemed all but inevitable as the campaign began. By all appearances, Obama was successful because he was smart, his campaign was highly disciplined, and he had learned well the lessons of contemporary American politics. He therefore not only came out of nowhere to win a very improbable victory, but he did so with an astonishing near-complete absence of mistakes over the course of a two-year campaign.
Moreover, the transition was - at least in one respect, and at least until the end - also a model of efficiency, discipline and seeming competence. All of this led me to believe that whatever this guy was going to be politically (probably rather centrist), he was definitely going to dominate the landscape in ways that only presidents can, but only smart and aggressive presidents really can, like FDR, or (gulp) Reagan, or (double gulp) Little Bush in his first term.
What we've seen instead is nearly a textbook case in how not to be that sort of dominant political force. Though they are not by any means irreparable, and though he has very recently improved his game, Obama has already made giant mistakes. And, not least among these are included what he hasn't done, in addition to what he has and gotten wrong.
And I'm not talking about the Daschle or Geithner nonsense, either. Those were dumb moves, though to the extent those guys hid their tax scams from the Obama vetting team, he can't entirely be blamed for these nevertheless somewhat disabling cock-ups. Much more disconcerting with respect to those appointments is just how small these figures are, and what records of nothingburgerness they bring to the table. Worse still is to hear them described as the indispensable choices for these positions.
That's absurd. I pay pretty close attention to American politics, and I had never even heard of Geithner before his nomination. I'm sure the guy is bright, but his record is scant and, it would seem, principally one of massive and recent screw-up on the very issue he's now helming. In any case, what is really needed in the job right now is a heavyweight to sell some big ideas. Just watching Geithner in action, I can't help but think that he is the sheer antithesis of gravitas. You know that famous photo of Lyndon Johnson towering over a member of Congress two-thirds his size, completely in the guy's face, selling his legislation? That's what we need in a Treasury Secretary right now. And that's actually what we got. Unfortunately, though, Geithner is the other guy in the picture.
Daschle, of course, I knew quite well. Except that what I knew him for was as the capitol's king of capitulation. Time after time, he led the Democratic Party toward the battlefield to war against the horrifically destructive agenda of George W. Bush, only to stop off at Starbucks instead, for a nice warm latte. This was the guy the Obama people were saying was crucial to navigate a complicated healthcare plan through the rocky shoals of Washington politics. But dang if I can remember a single piece of legislation for which he did that in all his time as minority and majority leader in the Senate. I remember, well, however, the many times he got rolled by the Rove machine. And the many times where he held a nice press conference to express his regrets, always failing - much like his brother Barack - ever to raise the temperature in the room more than two-tenths of a degree. In the end, this guy couldn't even keep his own seat, despite being in the ultimate position to bring home the goodies for his constituents in South Dakota.
Impressive, eh? But Obama's seeming obsession with mediocrity in his team members is not even what I'm talking about when I point to the failures - now growing egregious - of his first weeks in office, and indeed of the period prior to that as well. I'm talking about something much bigger. Obama has made two fundamental, core, mistakes in his new presidency. Of course, mistakes are to be expected. He and his team are new to the job, the work is hard under normal circumstances, and these are not normal circumstances. The regressive scorched earth national suicide machine has been enormously effective these last three decades, and the new president comes to office with crises on every front.
Of course, sometimes - if not most times - such crises can be beneficial to a president and expedient in assisting his agenda, if handled properly. If. And this is where these mistakes are really especially disconcerting. Because they are so fundamental, so obvious, and so foreseeable. Rather than the crack team of disciplined operatives successfully serving a centrist agenda I more or less expected, it's now looking more like a collection of amateurs fumbling Caspar Milquetoast's weekly to-do list.
Obama's first mistake has been to be (until just recently) completely AWOL in managing the agenda of American politics. This is huge, and it is especially egregious considering how much power he has in this respect if he would only employ it. He has a compliant Congress controlled by his own party. He has the enormous good will of a well-liked and respected president following behind the endless depredations of a hated predatory moron. He has the completely unmatched soapbox of the American presidency's bully pulpit.
And what has done with all this? Well, funny you should ask. Indeed, in this case, it's easier to see the full magnitude of this failure by focusing on what he hasn't done, rather than what he has. Did Obama, as president-elect, craft an economic stimulus bill that was smart, bold and likely to work, both politically and policy-wise? No. Did he take such a bill to members of Congress and tell them that this is what he wanted, with little or no change, and that he was prepared to fight them if they messed with it? No. Did he go out on the road and rally public opinion (and pressure on Congress) in support of his initiative? No. Did he forcefully outline his plans and demands, and the reason why they are necessary, in his inaugural address, while he had the ears of an entire planet? Gimme a break - no, not in that seriously anemic speech. Has he called Congress into joint session for a state of the union speech or at least a special address to the nation, as presidents do when something big is on the horizon? No. Has he even held a televised, prime-time, White House address to pitch his program to the American people, and urge them to lean on Congress to get this done and get it done right?
No. Nada. Nothing. Not even. Never. Nein.
I'm sorry, but this is Presidential Politics 101. Ninety percent of the power presidents have is the bully pulpit and their capacity for agenda management. This is basic. And, whatever Obama's more expected disappointments ideologically and in terms of boldness of action, I'm pretty shocked that he and his team couldn't handle this part of the gig. How do you get to the White House - one of the world's most difficult mountains to climb - and then blow the most basic part of being president? This is the equivalent of casually proving Fermat's last theorem while simultaneously being unable to handle long division.
What's even worse is that the vacuum the president has left behind in his absence from the stage has not only damaged his agenda, but has been an absolutely astonishing unexpected gift to the radical right. There they were, about to drown in their own bile and stupidity, and what does Obama do? He gives them the opportunity to control the agenda of public discourse on the stimulus bill, his central legislative program. Not only do they leap into that void, they partially resuscitate themselves in the process. A moribund movement of horrid ideas and the meanest of political styles thus snatches life from the jaws of death, and they can thank the sharp new leader of the other party for the opportunity. Brilliant.
For a good sense of how this should have been done, think of the Bush team selling a war in Iraq that the public didn't want. Or Reagan pitching tax cuts. They were relentless, they were clever, they were bold, they were aggressive, and they were successful. Unfortunately - disastrously - they were also selling nefarious policies of the most destructive sort.
Art Agnos, failed former mayor of San Francisco, began his term by saying he was looking to staff his administration with people who had linebacker eyes and Peace Corps hearts. America's problem seems to be that we never get that particular combination, but rather one or the other possibilites, which is the worst of all worlds. Bush and Reagan had linebacker eyes, but also Strangelovian hearts. I'm not sure we've even had a president in some time with a Peace Corps heart, though maybe Jimmy Carter came closest. Unfortunately, he also had kindergarten teacher's assistant eyes.
Barack Obama? He's looking about the same right now. Although, as the week came to a close, it appeared that the administration was starting maybe to get it. The president changed his rhetoric to something more aggressive, held a press conference, and traveled to a few hard-hit places in the country to sell his program. He still seems clueless that there needs to be a major speech (or several) to build a platform by laying out the threat, the agenda for dealing with that threat, why the alternatives proposed by the Regressive Society for the Criminally Insane won't work, and what Americans need to do to aid in their own rescue. (A press conference is nowhere near the platform called for right now.)
Instead, Obama let incredibly creepy recidivist malefactors like Limbaugh, Boehner, McCain and now Steele roll him. And as the country stands on the edge of a precipice these predators themselves created, with many of us already now well over the edge, in the entirety of Congress there were all of three Republican votes for the stimulus plan.
What's even more amazing is how Obama continues to allow the party of Satan to dictate the national agenda, despite its having been crushed twice in a row in the last two national referenda on its program. So now we have the stimulus plan as envisioned by ‘moderate' Republicans like Arlen Specter, as complete a toady to power as imaginable, even on his best days.
And what is most amazing of all is that Obama, having now seen the GOP play its hand, didn't go back to the starting point and write the bill he actually wanted, and that would actually work, rather than the one reflecting all the compromises to corporate ideology he crafted in order to get Republican votes that never came. I mean, even if all he cares about in the world is getting a second term, it would be smart as hell for him to use diminishing fiscal resources as carefully as possible in the hopes that this thing actually works. Why, therefore, once the GOP is not only opting out, but slapping away the open hand he offered it, why piss away $200 billion so that regressives can continue to worship the tax cut god, when you know from economic studies that that money would have far more stimulative impact if it was used in other ways? Why walk away from aid to states and localities and education just because Arlen Specter wants his party not to hate him quite so much?
The obvious answer is that you need those three votes in the Senate to kill a filibuster by the minority, which would block consideration of the bill. But, in fact, that solution is obvious only to cowardly Democrats (pardon the redundancy) who have spent thirty years capitulating to Wall Street bullies dressed up like conservative politicians.
Here's another, and far better, scenario: Let the GOP filibuster. Make them actually physically do it, as senators used to have to. Then go to the country with this message: "You're hurting, and if we don't do something right now, it's gonna get lots worse. A majority of the House of Representatives has passed a rescue bill. I will sign that bill immediately when it comes to my desk. A majority of the Senate wants to vote for the bill as well. But it is being held up by the Republican minority who are using Senate procedural rules to block it from even being voted on. These are the same people who got us into this mess. They have been defeated in two elections in a row, where you, the voters, said you wanted change. Now they stand in-between us and our rescue from a grave threat to our way of life. They say they are worried about the national debt, but they just doubled the size of it during the time they were in control. They say they are worried about deficits, but they want to pass more tax cuts for the wealthy that would add another three trillion dollars to the pile. America, we are about to plunge over an economic cliff. Don't you, the American people, deserve the right to have your government, that you've chosen, be allowed to vote yes or no on a rescue plan? Haven't these people done enough damage, already?"
I suspect that if Obama had the guts to do that, he would crush the GOP, or else completely marginalize it. He has the public on his side, especially now, as he begins his presidency. He has a crisis in which people want government action to save the country. Heck, he more or less even has Republican governors on his side. All that remains in opposition are the gargoyles of greed on Wall Street, and their marionettes in Congress.
I'm constantly amazed at how brazen the regressive right can be, but I say play chicken with them now and get it over with. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be one of the handful of people standing between an angry mob of 300 million people and a rescue for their middle class standard of living. If the GOP wants that gig, that's fine by me. I'll even be happy to clean up the mess afterwards.
And then there's the side benefit of furthering the destruction of the American cancer known as conservatism. Either way the GOP goes on this, they would take a massive body blow, thus further diminishing the party and its failed ideology. This is crucial since they have the capacity to rise to power again, and because - remarkably, even with no control over any institutions of American government - they still continue to exert power through the one remaining tool they can use, based on the one or two Senate votes they have over the magic number necessary for a minority to block consideration of legislation.
I guess they just didn't get the message. Okay, fine, if they need to be defeated not only twice, but thrice, so be it. If they need not only to be defeated, but crushed, terrific - make it so. It can only do the country good. Enough of this monstrosity, finally.
When will Democrats ever learn and end this incessant coddling?
Serve the GOP for breakfast. Hand them their lunch. Set them on fire and turn them into a nice dessert flambé.
But, for chrissakes, don't take them out for dinner. They'll only eat you alive.