Nobody, nobody, elected this guy to be bipartisan. We hired him to go and fix George Bush's mess. The president's new stump speech is, "Well, I don't know what the political consequences will be..." which I do not entirely believe. I think he knows, or at least finally realizes, there are real consequences to his continuing to be Professor In Chief. That if he's going to be a one-term president, he might as well leave it all out on the table. That his meekness, patience and all that lobbying and careful stepping was about politics, whether he himself saw it that way or not. We've got enough politicians. We need a leader. Write the vision, Mr. President.
It seems likely the future of Barack Obama's
presidency hinges on the success of his historic Congressional win on
health care reform. At least, that's what the pundits want us to
believe. A major defeat on the president's signature legislation
would indeed be a body blow to his administration but, let's be
honest—he'll get over it. The notion that a ninth-hour defeat
would land the president huddled in the Lincoln bedroom a la
Richard Nixon is mostly Fox News-style ridiculous hype. 21 out
of 22 times reconciliation legislation—fixes to a passed
bill—has been sent back to the House of Representatives, thus
affording Congress another opportunity for even more of the
circus they've subjected us to this past year. However, people
who've underestimated this president usually end up on the
sidewalk as his motorcade passes by. Win or lose, the president
has still failed and failed mightily in his freshman year. I
believe he is resilient enough to learn from those mistakes,
even as he seems to have reluctantly embraced a truth the
country, if not the entire planet, understood from day one: no
matter what he does, the Republicans are not, not, not ever
going to support him. Even with dire consequences to the nation
staring them in the face, Republicans play hardball, dirty
politics and will always and every time, put their political
interest above the nation's welfare. And yet the president went
on, month after month, courting these disingenuous people,
moving to his right, watering down his lofty goals to an
unrecognizable cluster grope just to please them. And, guess
what? They still said "no."
Whether the president wins this Hail Mary pass on health care or not, he has still lost and lost big, disappointing his liberal base and losing independents in droves while looking weak, indecisive and, at times, powerless by squandering his unprecedented political capital on trying to win Republican support. If the vote goes his way, this may, finally, be the president's week. But his victory will surely be pyrrhic: an impotent, half-a-loaf bill that pleases neither friend nor foe, at a cost of nearly all of his political capital.
“Barack Obama has grandly failed to lead the nation emotionally as well as rationally,” Newsweek's Jon Meacham wrote. “What works in a classroom or a think tank does not work on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Obama sometimes seems to be running the Brookings Institution, not the country. Like all of us, Obama has the vices of his virtues. He is cool and steady, but can seem cold and remote. He is thoughtful and thorough, but can appear eggheady and out of it. He appeals to the intellect, but often fails to make the visceral case for something.” Meacham’s engaging essay, The Trouble With Barack, is well worth the read. It is, despite my choice of quote, here, quite positive of the president, making the case that the conservative right’s scare tactics present a distorted view of Obama, presenting him as an extreme liberal when a sober review of the president’s record fins him just slightly right of center (including the president's health care reform ambitions, which Meacham describes as "just to the right of those of Richard Nixon").
But I agree with Meacham’s assessment of the president’s biggest failure thus far: to lead, to inspire. He’s been, for the most part, the Negotiator-In-Chief, wasting enormous amounts of time working within a Pollyannaish view of Congress—specifically the Senate—and, from what I can tell, wrongly assuming these men and women are, in fact grownups. The sheer vitriol going on in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, paints a picture of a deeply insecure gang of children. The sheer level of childishness—from petty agendas to dirty tricks—going on in the face of the worst economic crisis this country has ever faced defies description. These folks seem concerned exclusively with their own reelection chances. Their focus on the coming midterm elections inhibits every choice, every decision, as conservatives bank hard right and liberals move to the center, nervous about being blamed if things go wrong.
Well, guess what, Sherlock: things HAVE gone wrong. And we DO blame you—all of you petulant, snotty-nosed children running the country. Democrats: you absolutely will get voted out of you fail to act, to do what we voted you nitwits in to do. Democrats spent eight years tip toeing around conservatives. Now we’ve thrown the bums out, but the Dems, idiots that they are, are still tip-toeing.
Political commentator/comedian Bill Maher said, two weeks ago, "I think his biggest mistake that he has made in his first year was to put bipartisanship ahead of fixing the country. He spent all his political capital on getting three damn [Republican] votes for that stimulus bill, instead of coming in, with all the energy from the election and saying, "Y'know what? We're in a crisis mode, I won this election by a sizeable mandate, here's what we're going to do..." And Maher is absolutely correct. The president's greatest failing is not meekness so much as temperance and, perhaps, naïveté in thinking Congress and the nation would pull together in time of crisis. President Bush had that and squandered every bit of it, lying to and misleading us into the Iraq quagmire. Obama was elected to fix things, not waste month after month after month trying to get cooperation from the same petty, selfish and ultimately ridiculous people who got us into this mess in the first place. It seems the president is finally aware of what we knew all along: the Republicans are simply not going to support any idea he has, no matter how he waters it down to suit them. Which means Obama can play with his kids and read the paper for the next three years, or he can accept the fact Congress is overrun by cowards and children and muster what little political capital he has left to force them to do what we elected them to do.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan—these guys would have strong-armed, threatened, insulted people’s mothers. Would have gone on TV and embarrassed them. These men set the tone. Instead, President Obama seems to be insisting on an admirable path of hands-off legislating. But all it’s done is drag his numbers down, push moderates and independents to the right, and bog down the president’s hopeful agenda in a mud wrestle of name-calling.
I was heartened to see the president finally talk tough last week. Rumors abound that the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the likely author of Obama’s thus-far professorial tip-toeing, and that the president is fed up with the foolishness in Congress and had finally gotten the message: Step Up, Mr. President. All of which could be clever White House maneuvering, or it could be table setting for Emanuel’s long-planned departure, with, hopefully, a more determined president emerging in Emanuel’s wake.
I don't like the health care bill. Worse, I, and most Americans if you believe the polls, don't believe the health care bill will do much for me, at least not right away. The health care bill is almost besides the point of this essay. The president has not articulated his vision, and has not written it on stone tablets for us. He's squandered virtually all of his amazing and unprecedented popularity in a severe and sadly naive attempt to be bipartisan. When nobody, nobody, elected this guy to be bipartisan. we hired him to go and fix George Bush's mess. John McCain lost because he started to look and sound far too much like the guys who screwed this country in the first place. We sent in a new voice and a fresh wind to make changes. Change doesn't come easy. Nobody gives you anything—you have to take it.
In his first year, the president has been, at best, a mediocre pastor. He's got the right goals and the right ideals and I certainly applaud his passion to change the way things are done in Washington. But I think he has grossly underestimate the sheer level of self-interest and caprice there. That, in times of national crisis, these men and women would still continue to place their political careers ahead of the nation's interest. Sadly, the president has not realized that, by putting his lofty principals ahead of fixing the country, he himself may also have been doing precisely that.
Much like Mr. Clinton, President Obama has done a great deal of simply amazing work under impossible stress and in difficult times. And, like Mr. Clinton, he has thus far done a terrible job of telling his own story. Modesty has absolutely no place in Washington, where whomever shouts the loudest tends to be the one telling the story. Only, the loudest voice, in any room, at any time, is that of the president of the United States. Thirteen months later, Mr. Obama has finally made a good start. I hope and pray he continues, now, to do what he should have done from the very start: lead. Bully if he has to. But, we’re begging you, Mr. President, get something done.
On the precipice of a historic vote on health reform, the president has, thankfully, found his fire. Thursday's passionate speech in Washington presented Barack Obama at his most alive since taking office more than a year ago. It is as if somebody woke the president from his nap, "Mr. President: the Republicans aren't body-blocking heath care because of their principles. They are out to destroy you. (1) because you're black, (2) because you're black, (3) because they're haters, and (4) because your success virtually dooms their entire way of life. I mean, it wouldn't matter what the issue is—health care, Afghanistan, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Jobs. Somebody needed to wake the president from his nap—and maybe it took a year of Republican childishness to make him realize this—for him to realize the Republicans are going to vote "no" on anything—anything—this president tries to do. He needs to let go of that lofty bipartisan notion and get things done. A year, in this economy, with these troubles, was an awful, terrible waste. He should have done this reconciliation, deem on pass, thing right after his inauguration. I mean, on his way to the ball, they should have shoved this right through.
The president's new stump speech is, "Well, I don't know what the political consequences will be..." which I do not entirely believe. I think he knows, or at least finally realizes, there are real consequences to his continuing to be Professor In Chief. That if he's going to be a one-term president, he might as well leave it all out on the table. That his meekness, patience and all that lobbying and careful stepping was about politics, whether he himself saw it that way or not.
We've got enough politicians. We need a leader. "[This is] a debate that's not only about the cost of healthcare..." the president said Thursday, quoting the late Senator Edward Kennedy, "...it's a debate about the character of our country." Write the vision, Mr. President.
Christopher J. Priest
21 March, 2010
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