Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Continuity easily turns into inertia."

I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks trying to figure out exactly what I think about Barack Obama and his presidency at this point. Garry Wills' review of David Remnick's new book, The Bridge, in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review suggests that the manner of his rise to the Oval Office  hold the key to understanding why his first year in office, the time when a landslide victor with both charisma and party control of the Congress might have been expected to achieve a myriad of goals, was instead marked by turmoil and disappointment.

Yes, the mindless obstructionism and near-criminal demonization of the new president by his opponents played a crucial role and the ruined economic landscape left him by his inept and disinterested predecessor played an an even larger part. But it was not only exterior forces that thwarted Obama.

His long, foolish and obviously doomed effort for "bipartisanship," as if it were some sort of moral value rather than merely a political tactic, allowed much of the energy to escape from his historic election. Many of the people he surrounded himself with, especially on his economic team, had played significant roles in the disaster that may yet bring him down. The fire and passion of his arguments for new policies and directions, until very recently, was dimmed.

The central theme of Remnick's books, from all accounts, is that Obama's solution to his always being the outsider, the newcomer, has been to ingratiate himself by the oldest social rule of them all, to get along, go along. And especially in seeking the presidency and then assuming the Oval Office, that predilection was often paramount. He could never risk being the Angry Black Man on the campaign trail; he wanted above all to embed his presidency in the long history of the office even if it was undeniably a demarcation from all that had gone before.

Wills is one of my favorite intellectuals and the final two paragraphs of his review provide a summary of what he took from The Bridge and what that might portend:
Obama’s strategy everywhere before entering the White House was one of omnidirectional placation. It had always worked. Why should he abandon, at this point, a method of such proved effectiveness? Yet success at winning acceptance may not be what is called for in a leader moving through a time of peril. To disarm fears of change (the first African-­American presidency is, in itself, a big jolt of change), Obama has stressed continuity. Though he first became known as a critic of the war in Iraq, he has kept aspects or offshoots of Bush’s war on terror — possible future “renditions” (kidnappings on foreign soil), trials of suspected terrorists in military tribunals, no investigations of torture, an expanded Afghan commitment, though he promised to avoid “a dumb war.” He appointed as his vice president and secretary of state people who voted for the Iraq war, and as secretary of defense and presiding generals people who conducted or defended that war.
To cope with the financial crisis, he turned to Messrs. Geithner, Summers and Bernanke, who were involved in fomenting the crisis. To launch reform of medical care, he huddled with the American Medical Association, big pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms, and announced that his effort had their backing (the best position to be in for stabbing purposes, which they did month after month). All these things speak to Obama’s concern with continuity and placation. But continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid — believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope.
The last time this sad excuse of a nation and what it used to be awoke from its stupor and put someone in charge to pick up the pieces left in wake of a destructive Republican non-stewardship of the nation, we chose The Man from Hope. If it turns out that this time we've chosen The Man form Inertia, then the broken heart of hope could turn out to be the least of the pain we will reap.

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