Friday, August 28, 2009

The Sorry State of Everything

The venerable and beloved "liberal lion" of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, is dead. Not only was he a great friend, ally, and mentor of the President, but he was also the primary mover and shaker across decades in the Senate with regard to universal healthcare reform. At this point, it is impossible to know how, if at all, Kennedy's death is likely to affect the outcome of any proposed legislation that has already received the kiss of death in advance from Republicans. In case you haven't heard, they have made it clear that, for them, healthcare reform is an opportunity to "break" Obama's presidency. So, even though Kennedy's death has been on the cards for some time, the precise timing of it, at least for me, has the ring of hidden synchronicity, whose meaning, however, is yet to be revealed

Meanwhile, the problem of passing healthcare reform has been compounded in recent weeks by the many defecting Obama supporters, who are adding their disenchanted voices to those of his despisers, opponents, and accusers. Last week, my friend Jane and I listened in dismay while Arianna Huffington (co-founder of the HuffingtonPost blog) chastised Obama publicly on "The Charlie Rose Show" for not exercising enough LEADERSHIP. Things aren't coming together, she declared, because he's "conflict-averse." (Was she channeling Sigmund Freud?) Obama, Arianna railed, needs to stop waffling on the public option. He needs to throw all those lying Republicans over the wall. He should fight harder and act nasty--where is the sound of the lion's roar? Her own stridency was stunning.

Of course we all went through similar tough passages like the current one during the campaign: those jaw-clenching periods when every one and his brother had an overheated opinion about what Obama should or should not be doing. Times when it seemed like his ship was sinking, but then, almost miraculously, it didn't. So all of this feels a bit like watching reruns of "Two and a Half Men," only without laughs. My own sense of Obama's "leadership" style is quite different from Arianna's, I must confess. I don't exactly read him as "conflict-averse." I think he just prefers to bide his time, keep his cool (when all around him are losing theirs), and wait for the right moment. Then, at what may seem to everyone else like one second before midnight, he will make a canny move. However, I can imagine a question being legitimately raised with respect to such an off-hand strategy--like, what if the moment for acting has already come and gone? Yikes!

So, if the question now is whether the President has been too deferential to Congress, and not daring enough in seizing the reins, my own opinion is, I don't happen to think so. One of my best blogging mentors (not Virgil, but Andrew Sullivan) seems to feel the same way. In one of his many posts about Obama, Sullivan assesses the President's M.O., describing him as a liberal in policy but a conservative in temperament (i.e. cautious, consensus-seeking, empirical, not impetuous). Obama, he claims, understands the role of his office as the presider, not the decider--the executive being just one of three co-equal branches of the U.S. government.

"As he [Obama] had once written when describing his strategy as a black man in a white world: no sudden moves," Sullivan writes. "And we have seen none. Obama likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people...Obama is, at his core, a community organizer. Community organizers do not jump into a situation and start bossing people around. They begin by listening, debating, cajoling, inspiring, and delegating...[they] try to empower others, not themselves."

Sullivan concludes: "It's too soon to tell, but I learnt long ago not to underestimate Obama's strategic skills and persistence....He is taking his time and keeping his cool. The question is whether a volatile electorate in a terrible economic time will be patient enough to wait." Admittedly, things are not looking all that good with respect to those racist crowds consumed by hate and Nazi-speak and guns.

"People are starting to lose faith in the president," Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times and a big supporter of Obama's, wrote recently. "Their biggest worry is that Mr. Obama is soft, that he is unwilling or incapable of fighting hard enough to counter the forces responsible for the sorry state the country is in...more and more he is seen as someone who would like to please everybody, who is naive about the prospects for bipartisanship...and who will retreat whenever the Republicans and the corporate crowd come after him."

But Herbert concludes: "Maybe they're wrong....It's possible that we've been without mature leadership for so long that it's difficult to recognize it when we see it. Mr. Obama has proved the naysayers wrong time and again. But if it turns out that this time HE'S wrong, hold on to your hats. Because right now there is no Plan B."

In the current issue of Time, Joe Klein wonders how you can sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal? He describes the crude takeover of the healthcare debate by the right wing of the Republican party as a "DISINFORMATION JIHAD." It's a killer phrase, and I hope like hell it catches on. Klein voices outrage that no moderate Republicans dared to stand up to Rush Limbaugh, when he compared the President to Adolf Hitler--nor when violent crowds have tried to pulverize public forums in order to render creative policy discussion impossible.

Obama, Klein concludes, "will have to come up with something, though--and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican party." Virgil suspects it is the First Dog "Bo" (he of the white paws), who is the secret sharer Obama can tell his troubles to. So I just hope he's right, and that Bo is giving the Prez some good tactical advice for how to deal with political lepers, douchebags, and dickheads. Maybe he'll come up with something like "you reach over, and you just pour it, right in their bowls," and we will all have one of those "teaching moments" again. Or, do you suppose that would be considered just a little too unsporting?

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