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After Obama

Eight months into it, it now seems pretty clear that the Obama administration is finished. 

There were some of us -- indeed, many of us, myself included -- who thought there was a possibility that Barack Obama might seize this moment of American crisis, twinned with the complete failure for all to see of the regressive agenda, to become the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. 

Many think that was a naïve position from the get-go.  I disagree.  Not only do I believe that it was a legitimate possibility, I would argue that it was the logical choice even just from the narrow perspective of Obama's personal fortunes.  The president is every day committing political suicide by a thousand cuts because he chose not to take that track. 

That's certainly his prerogative, and at this point I wish him all the worst of luck in whatever comes next.  Since I never assumed he would be a progressive once elected, any bitterness that I feel is not rooted in his failure to become the new FDR.  However, I am irate that, in domain after domain, President Obama has become the personification of the very Bush administration policies that Candidate Obama so roundly criticized.  And I feel deep hostility toward him about the betrayal of legions of voters -- especially the young -- who believed his message of hope and thought they were getting a president on their side, not Wall Street's. 

More on that in another column.  Right now, the question is what comes next?  The Obama presidency is probably already toast, though of course anything can happen in three or seven years.  But he is on a crash course for a major clock cleaning and, what's worse, he doesn't seem to have it remotely within him to seize history by the horns and steer that bull in his preferred direction.  Indeed, near as I can tell, he doesn't even have a preferred direction. 

Obama was complete fool if he ever believed for a moment that his campfire kumbaya act was going to bring the right along behind him.  Even s'mores wouldn't have helped.  These foaming-at-the-mouth lunatics have completely lost all sense and proportion, and were bound to viscerally hate any president left of Cheney, let alone some black guy in their white house.  Meanwhile, centrist voters in this country seem pretty much only to care about taxes and spending, and so he's lost them, too, without the slightest rhetorical fight in his own defense.  And he's blown off a solid progressive base by spitting in their eyes at every imaginable opportunity, beginning with the formation of his cabinet, ranging through every policy decision from civil rights to civil liberties to foreign policy to healthcare, and culminating with his choice not to even mobilize his email database in support of his policies. 

So if he's lost the left, right and center, just who does he think is going to be clamoring to give him a second term three years from now, especially if the economy remains lousy for most people in the country, as it's likely to do regardless of GDP or Dow Jones growth? 

There is the possibility that Obama could change course significantly, just as Bill Clinton did in 1995, following the mid-term election in which his most astute political stewardship managed to turn both houses of Congress over to the Republican Party.  But Clinton turned to the right and became just a less snarly version of the Republicans, while Obama is already there.  I don't really think he could conceivably turn further rightward at this point, and I don't think he has anywhere near the guts to turn to the left and do what he should have done in the first place. 

What all this suggests to me is that Obama and his party will manage by 2012 to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and return the GOP -- and probably an even nastier version of it than the Bush-Cheney junta, at that -- to power.  It suggests that the Democrats, who were riding high six months ago over an all but destroyed Republican Party, will be switching places with them within three years time, if not sooner -- and all because of their own cowardice, corruption and ineptitude.  This outcome is hardly inevitable, but it is fast approaching.  Looking out over the horizon, I see five key factors most likely to effect the health and longevity of the Obama administration, and not one of them looks positive. 

The eight-hundred pound gorilla rummaging around in the kitchen right now is the economy.  Indeed, this factor alone could readily swamp the combined effect of all the others, particularly if it swings dramatically in one direction or another.  My guess, as a non-economist (which, of course, only means that I have a better shot at an accurate prediction than the economists do), is that the economy will exhibit some substantial signs of growth over the next three years.  But I suspect the recovery will be tepid, even according to establishment measures such as GDP growth or the state of the Dow.  More importantly, I strongly suspect that this will be another jobless recovery, like the last ones we've had, and that the new mean standard of living for the middle class will be pretty mean indeed, significantly diminished compared to what people were already struggling to hold on to when the Great Recession began.  Personally, I think if American history teaches us anything at all about presidential elections, it is that for an incumbent president this is more or less the worst possible scenario imaginable upon which to go asking the public to punch his ticket again.  Americans vote their pocketbook, and that alone is likely to be the kiss of death for Obama's second term aspirations. 

Meanwhile, of course, he's also chosen to put healthcare reform on the table as the signature legislative initiative probably of his entire presidency.  That's fine, but watching him in action I sometimes wonder if this clown really and actually wants a second term.  I mean, if you had asked me in January, "How could Obama bungle this program most thoroughly?", I would have written a prescription that varies little from what we've observed over the last eight months:  Don't frame the issue, but instead let the radical right backed by greedy industry monsters do it, on the worst possible terms for you.  And to you.  Don't fight back when they say the most outrageous things about your plan.  In fact, don't even have a plan.  Let Congress do it.  Better yet, let the by-far-and-away-minority party have an equal voice in the proceedings, even if they ultimately won't vote for the bill under any circumstances, and even while they're running around trashing it and you in the most egregious terms.  Have these savages negotiate with a small group of right-wing Democrats, all of them major recipients of industry campaign donations.  Blow off your base completely.  Cut secret sweetheart deals with the Big Pharma and Big Insurance corporate vampires.  Build a communications strategy around a series of hapless press conferences and town hall meetings, waiting until it's too late to give a major speech on the issue.  Set a timetable for action and then let it slip.  Indicate what you want in the bill but then be completely unclear about whether you necessarily require those things.  Travel all over the world doing foreign policy meet-and-greets.  Go on vacation in the heat of the battle.  Rinse and repeat. 

Altogether, it's an astonishingly perfect recipe for getting rolled, so much so that I'm not the first person to have wondered out loud if that was actually the president's intention all along.  Look at this freaking fool.  Now look at the guy who ran a letter-perfect, disciplined, textbook, insurgent, victorious campaign for the White House.  Can they possibly be the same person?  And, since they obviously are, is there possibly another explanation for this disaster besides an intentional boot?  I dunno.  But what I do know is this.  Obama's very best-case scenario for healthcare legislation right now represents a ton of lost votes in 2010 and 2012.  And the worse that scenario gets, the worse he and his party do.  But even a ‘success' in the months ahead will produce a tepid bill, a mistrustful public, an inflamed and unanswered radical right, and a mealy-mouthed new government program that doesn't even begin to go online until 2013.  A real vote-getter that, eh? 

Which brings us to a third major electoral liability for Obama.  Human beings, by and large, like to be led.  They like their leaders to inspire their confidence -- even when doing so takes the form of the most fantastically shallow dress-up kind of blowhard buffonery, à la George W. Bush -- so that they don't have to think too much about how little personal confidence they themselves actually possess.  Obama is the complete antithesis of this model of the presidency.  He is Harry Reid's incontinent grandmother as president.  He is Neville Chamberlain's squirrely little nephew knocking shit over in the Oval Office while he plays "Mr. President", in-between episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants.  He is a bowl of Jell-O.  That someone forgot to put in the fridge.  He exhibits no competence as a chief executive.  He inspires no confidence as a national leader.  And, increasingly, his credibility is coming into question.  Who wants to vote for that? 

A related problem is that he loves to flash that big toothy grin of his right before his venomous adversaries knock his choppers back into his head.  I'm trying to imagine what a wimpier president would look like, and having a very hard time coming up with an answer.  I'm trying to imagine how the regressive right could possibly bathe their country's president in a more acidic pool of vitriol, and I'm having a difficult time topping their assertions that he's out to kill the elderly while simultaneously indoctrinating grade-schoolers into the ranks of the Revolutionary Spartacist League.  I'm trying to conceive of how vacant a White House could possibly be of any whiff of push-back against these assaults, and I can't quite envision it.  Maybe if they went out and did some real scandals and filmed it all as a gift for the GOP?  Perhaps they could dig up Vince Foster's body and murder him all over again, this time on video?  Or they could hire Ken Starr to just run amok in the White House for a few years, looking for anything remotely juicy?   But could Obama's Keystone Kops even do a scandal properly?  I'm not sure, but I'm pretty confident the public is losing trust in this guy as their Big Daddy Protector.  Who in America would vote for this eunuch to be in charge of keeping their little suburban Happy Meal-stuffed brats safe from tawny evil-doers with bad intentions? 

As if all that weren't enough, Obama is probably also sitting on several national security powder kegs - including Guantánamo, which he is unlikely to close;  Iraq, which he is unlikely to leave;  and Afghanistan, which he is unlikely to win.  The latter in particular has now become his war, and lately it is smelling a lot like Vietnam, circa 1964.  An decades-long struggle against a popular nationalist adversary.  Endless calls from the Pentagon for more troops.  Incredibly inhospitable terrain for fighting a war.  An American-made puppet government hated for its corruption and for its gross incompetence at every task other than raw predation.  Mmmm-mmm.  What a yummy stew.  Haven't dined on that fine cuisine since 1975.  And what another great vote-getter to add to this sorry list, eh? 

Put it all together and it's pretty hard to see how Obama gets a second term.  Which can mean only one thing:  We're looking at a Romney or a Palin or some sort of similar monster as the next president, despite the fact that their party was absolutely loathed only a year ago, and actually still is today.  It won't matter.  People will be voting against the incumbent, not for any candidate, and that will leave only one viable choice, especially for centrist and right-wing voters.  Whoever wins the Republican nomination will be the next president, crushing Obama in the general election (assuming he survives the Democratic primaries).  And that's a particularly scary notion, since the party's voting base who will make that choice in the Republican primaries is the same crowd you've seen featured all this summer at town hall meetings.  Olympia Snowe is not going to be the Republican nominee in 2012.  Know what I mean? 

So the question then becomes, what next?  What happens after Obama? 

I see two possible general paths going forth from that point -- one bad, and one worse.  The bad path would involve a frustrated but essentially beaten-into-submission public oscillating between incompetent Republican and Democratic administrations, turning one after the other out of office -- not on ideological grounds, but instead seeking any change that has the possibility of stanching the empire's hemorrhaging wounds.  This would look a fair bit like Japan or Britain does today.  The former just replaced its government and the latter will likely do so next spring.  But I don't think either of these major party shifts are really ideological in nature, and I don't think either new government is likely to be hugely different from the one it succeeded. 

But Americans seem to me especially piggish critters these days, and the benign model that is sufficient to placate disgruntled citizens of long-lost empires may not suffice to soothe the savage soul of Yanquis still deep in the process of watching theirs crumble around their feet.  That moves us from the bad path to the worse.  Given what the American public is capable of happily countenancing during relatively flush times (can you say "Reagan"?  "Bush"?), imagine what could happen when spoiled Baby Boomers go to the polls under conditions approaching the 1930s. 

Such a crisis could conceivably entail a sharp turn to the left, and in every rational country certainly would.  But this is America.  We pretty much don't go anywhere near socialism, at least not overtly, and in any given decade -- especially the recent ones -- we're lucky to get away with anything less than creeping fascism.  Moreover, elections are almost always reactions to the status quo.  Since Obama is ridiculously -- but nevertheless widely -- perceived as a liberal, the reaction is all the more likely to involve a sharp turn to the right in response. 

Under this scenario, anything portside of Torquemada would be buried alive if not annihilated, and the next regime would likely be one that could make Dick Cheney shudder.  And that's the happy side of the equation.  If history is any guide, a nifty (not so) little war could only be right around the corner, for the helpful purpose of jump-starting the economy, crushing the domestic opposition, and distracting the public from that pesky nuisance once affectionately referred to as ‘reality'. 

I don't want to lay odds on which of these outcomes is the more likely, but I feel pretty confident, I'm sad to say, that any happier scenario is considerably less likely than either of these.  For a lot of reasons, America's near-term future looks bleak to me, and this country -- which already has a remarkable tendency to make dangerously foolish and sickeningly selfish political choices -- is altogether too likely to do something that would make the Bush years look like a scene from a Norman Rockwell canvas by comparison. 

This tragedy, if it comes, will have many sires who share responsibility for driving America from Republican red to fascist black.  But on that list must certainly be included the powder blue of the effete Obama administration that came in between. 

Rahm Emanuel once famously averred that "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.  And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." 

I don't really believe that corporate-controlled fascism is what he had in mind when he said that. 

But, who knows?  Maybe that's exactly what he was thinking. 

Or -- perhaps most likely of all -- maybe nobody at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is doing much thinking whatsoever these days.     

David Michael Green

David Michael Green

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

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