There are many indications that large numbers of Americans are depressed about their prospects. Democrats, historically the party of hope, are 20% less likely to vote than Republicans. 15% of the country is unemployed, and no one outside the financial industry feels good about his or her economic prospects. Something close to 70% of Americans tell pollsters that they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Large numbers of Americans, including even immigrants, are afraid that their children will have worse prospects in life than them. International affairs specialists tell us that America’s global position is in decline.
All of these indicators are important but none of them explain the core problem: the affect of depression that is at the center of American life today. That affect has a specific cause; it is not the result of a series of adversities. It is rooted in the institution that historically has been integral to the country’s optimistic, “can-do,” forward-looking character: the Presidency.
The problem started with George W. Bush or, more specifically, with the opportunity that 9/11 gave Bush to remake American society and government in the most drastic ways. Certainly the young men who attacked the World Trade Center hoped that the United States would overreact to their provocation, but even in their wildest dreams they never could have imagined anything as stupidly self-destructive as what ensued. Like a blinded Cyclops, an over-muscled nation rose from the debris to mindlessly rain technological destruction on another colored people. With a great roar of self-righteousness, a victim psychology, a martyrology, was used to justify the discarding of civil liberties, the institution of torture, wiretapping, surveillance, and every variety of illegal power. When one adds to this the setting in overdrive of the mercenary greed in place since Reagan, the corruption of money, real estate, accounting, corporate law, and most forms of investing – it became very hard to be an American during the Bush years.
But the one thing Bush did not destroy was hope. On the contrary, the longer that grinning caricature of a Wild West sheriff stayed in office, the deeper and the more intense the longing for change became. Bush created many of the problems we are saddled with today, but he did not create the hopelessness. That was Obama’s contribution.
Scientists have discovered a sixth reason why the Democrats are in trouble. Barack Obama is using his pre-frontal cortex while the rest of us are all caught up in the limbic system, the reptilian brain that triggers emotion. As the President explained to a group of Democratic donors in Massachusetts: “Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared.” Apparently it never occurred to the hard-wired, no-drama community organizer, that if people were scared it was his job to reassure them, not offer “facts and science and argument,” but what do I know.
[See here for Eli Zaretsky's other five reasons. Ed]
1. Democrats thought that when they elected Barack Obama he would just snap his fingers and solve all the problems. Democrats don’t understand that change takes time.
2. Democrats don’t realize that no President in history faced the problems Obama faced. It was like the Civil War, the two world wars, Vietnam and the Great Depression all wrapped up in one.
3. Obama made the right decisions, even if they were not popular. Democrats don’t understand that a President has to make the right decisions.
4. The Republicans opposed the President, instead of helping him consolidate a victory that would have made the Democrats the majority party for a generation. Democrats don’t understand how mean the Republicans can be,
5. Obama is a positive thinker. Democrats are sourpusses, always seeing glasses as half-full.
The question: how stupid does the White House think rank and file Democrats are?
If there is one thing that characterizes American politics today it is the idea that leftists are idiots. This, of course, is a long-term derivative of the original idea, formulated in the late forties, which was that leftists are traitors. The original charge has been endlessly repeated, worked over, softened, even sublimated so to speak, so that now it seems benign: oh yes, the leftist, still in the playpen, the charming but no longer dangerous idiot of American politics.
Given the widespread assumption that the real action in American politics lies in the struggles between “realistic,” “mature,” “problem-solving” “progressives” and Neanderthal Republicans, one has to wonder why it is so important for defenders of Obama to scapegoat leftists. Why, in other words, they have to explain that there are “limits” to what any President can do, that it is “necessary to compromise,” that previous periods of reform also had “fits and starts,” as if they were speaking to children who know nothing of politics, history and human nature.
How are we to understand the malaise, the feelings not only of disappointment but also of disinterest, depoliticization and even hopelessness that the Obama Presidency has brought in its wake? The “liberal” supporters of Obama, such as David Remnick, Hendrick Herzberg or Jonathan Alter give us two contradictory explanations. On the one hand, the campaign raised too-high expectations, there was bound to be a let down. On the other hand, they also tell us that Obama has been a spectacularly successful President, “delivering” health care, financial reform, and saving us from a Great Depression. In either case “we” – the disappointed Obama supporters, in a word, the left – are subtly reproached for our immaturity, our lack of realism; their’s is a sort of: “thank-you-very-much-for-your-help-in-the-campaign-but-lets-leave-things-to-the-grown-ups-until-the-next-campaign” approach.
There is a deeper way to understand the Obama malaise, however, one that frees us from focusing on the man, and helps us to see our society. That way is to situate the campaign, and the Presidency, historically. In this regard no context is more important than the one that remains the deepest, most important and most unmastered part of our collective history and imagination – the 1960s. For the Obama Presidency was inconceivable without the sixties, and it is precisely the sixties that Obama has repudiated.
The greatest division in America today lies between people who have genuine political values, like Shirley Sherrod, and people who live by images and market values, like Fox News and like the Obama administration. Of course, it is true, that people like Sherrod are rare. But as Bob Moses used to say when in 1960 he first ventured into the frozen heart of segregationist Mississippi, if we could find ten people willing to die, we could end segregation in America. Charles Sherrod, Shirley Sherrod – that made two; Bob made three, and the other seven were eventually found.
Anyone who listens to Shirley Sherrod’s extraordinary speech will recognize in it the authentic cadence of the civil rights movement. Born in rural Georgia, Sherrod spent her childhood ogling Northern Negroes who visited the South in rented Cadillacs. She swore to herself that she would leave the farm, leave rural life, leave Georgia and go North but all that changed when, in 1965, when Sherrod was seventeen, her father was murdered. She swore to stay in the South and devote her life to civil rights, which she did. Sherrod’s decision echoed the deepest moment of the civil rights movement, not Thurgood Marshall’s magnificent and ultimately successful pleas before the Supreme Court, not Martin Luther King’s transcendent and soul-uplifting leadership of the Atlanta and Birmingham marches, but those young, mostly but not entirely black kids, who left school, left jobs, left home and went to live in segregated, rural black neighborhoods, over which pistol-toting sheriffs and plantation bullies ruled with impunity.
There is a name for what people like Sherrod did: community organizing.
How embarrassing for America. For eight years their President was a kind of junior bully, a swaggering, bow-legged, sarcastic naïf, who made most of the country ashamed of their nationality. One apologized continuously for being that pariah in global culture — the American, the one with the drones and the barbed wire and the mines and the maimed children and the spy systems and the banks. One watched Europeans treat America as a Walmart nation, showing up for weekends with empty suitcases to buy the cheap goods, but with contempt as well as shame for its tawdry values, its greed, its mercenary and bullying ways, its sneakiness.
And then hope appeared. Just as in the cowboy stories and other American romances, a stranger came out of nowhere, a hero, someone who everyone believed could save the day. Pas si vite, mon vieux. As an American, one could hold one’s head up again with a deeply intelligent leader, who knew how to use our precious language, who could speak truth to power, someone who was also black, and therefore could redeem us, not just for eight years but for four hundred. Be still my beating heart, Americans thought throughout the campaign: Get out of his way, Hillary.
By dismissing McChrystal, did President Obama reassert civilian authority over the military, pull his “national security” team together, and enhance the power of our democracy? So it would seem. But in fact, the dismissal provides a classic example of what Marxists used to call ideology: it represents reality in an inverted form. The truth is that the dismissal of McCrystal is another giant step in the defense establishment’s control over American policy. Let me explain.
The key thing is to understand the Rolling Stone story. The news accounts have provided a series of speculations concerning “how this could have happened” including the role of alcohol, hardworking military men unwinding after 18-hour days, or (my favorite) the Icelandic volcano that supposedly trapped McChrystal, his team and the reporter (Michael Hastings) in a Paris hotel for a week during which the General and his aides let their guard down.
In fact, nothing like that occurred. Duncan Boothby, McCrystal’s PR man who has since resigned, carefully arranged for the story. From the moment that Hastings arrived he was shocked at how open and candid McChrystal and his aides were about their vituperative opinions. According to Eric Bates, Rolling Stone‘s editor, every insult in the piece including the view that McChrystal found Obama distant, uninformed and intimidated, and the slams at Eikenberry, Biden and Holbrooke were repeatedly run by McChrystal for approval, which was forthcoming. Many other things that were said were off the record, and none of these were printed. In other words, this was no careless thoughtless loose talk. McChrystal and his aides deliberately planted this story, pretty much as it was written. The question is what were they thinking?
It is not possible to imagine a better symbol of the miserable condition of the United States today than an oil company destroying a huge swath of the American ecosystem, society and economy, while the President sits by helplessly, saying that he is meeting with experts in order to find out “whose ass to kick.” Obviously, Obama should have seized all the equipment that BP had available to plug the leak, deputized their engineers, brought in the US navy and coast guard, and spent as necessary to deal with the problem within days, or even hours of the original spill, when it became clear that BP was in over its head.
That is what Lincoln did in 1861 when he took control of the railroads and telegraph lines around Washington DC, what Wilson did in 1916 when he nationalized the defense industries, what Roosevelt did in 1941 when he seized an aviation plant, and again in 1944 when he seized Montgomery Ward, it is what Truman did in 1947 when the government took control of the steel industry, in a sense it is what Reagan did in 1980 when the government fired the air controllers. These acts were all controversial but that is what strong Presidents did when facing threats no less severe than those in the Gulf today.
Why hasn’t Obama done anything like that? Ultimately the answer depends on understanding his individual character, but there are at least four large conditioning factors that will help us understand, if not the man, then the event.
What do Obama’s three greatest failures — health care, Afghanistan and the oil spill — all have in common? Each one was preceded by an elaborate attempt on Obama’s part to portray his decisions in non-partisan, quasi-scientific and technical terms. Each one was presented as seizing a middle-ground between unreasonable partisans on the two extremes. Of all of the masks worn by this carefully constructed persona, that of the man of reason is the most prominent. Let us look at how it works.
At least since the New Deal, progressives argued for health care as a universal right. They did not want to live in a world where their fellow citizens, or even their fellow human beings, died because they didn’t have access to doctors or medicine. Obama dropped this emphasis for one that foregrounded cost-cutting. According to him, evidence-based scientific research would be used to mandate medical decisions. The possibility that raising the level of the country’s health might cost money, not save money, was never directly considered.
Obama’s first expansion of the Afghan War occurred only a few weeks after taking office, but his second large-scale expansion was preceded by an elaborately choreographed set of seminars in which all the different options were supposedly considered. Those who still believe that this was anything more than a charade have to tell the rest of us what Obama learned from his seminars, i.e., in what way his post-seminar understanding of “the good war,” as he calls Afghanistan, differs.
As to the oil spill, Obama announced his support for offshore drilling on March 10, unfortunate timing for him as the BP spill occurred a few weeks later. In his announcement he said he would provide “order and certainty to offshore exploration and development … ensuring we are drilling in the right ways and the right places.” As to spills, he promised we would “employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration…. And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.”
Once again, we got the message: the non-Bush, the thoughtful ratiocinator.