Sunday, March 11, 2012
Obama's non-political problems
I plan to vote for Barack Obama despite considering him a pretty lousy and reactionary president. I’ll be doing this because I don’t consider presidential elections a choice of leaders but of battlefields. I also believe that in such elections, poker is a better guide than virtue. Obama is the best bet for a lousy hand.
That said, with eight months left to go, I’d like to get something off my chest while it’s still relatively safe to say things like this. I not only don’t like Obama’s politics, I don’t like him all that much either. And I’m convinced that I’m not alone and that a major part of Obama’s problem is not political but personal.
I was reminded of this watching that video of Harvard law school student president Obama lecturing his classmates. I was surprised that even at such a young age he was so preachy and didactic, albeit combined with the occasional and thoroughly scripted moment of light humor. It is as though he has gone through his entire life standing behind a virtual pulpit and teleprompter, where he berates, grates and irritates.
There are several things wrong with this: for one thing it carries the subtext – you might call it critical speech theory if you were at Harvard Law - that the listener is not as bright as the speaker and, for another, it gets boring pretty quickly. Obama typically assumes the role of a professor, which leaves the listener in the position of a student rather than of a fellow citizen.
While the view of many towards Obama is driven by antipathy towards his ethnicity, I suspect there are many more, like me, who hear in Obama not the voice of blackness but of Harvard Law School, a robot of rigorously rehearsed rationality who seems somehow incapable of normal conversation, passion or beliefs.
It is the sound of otohbotoh – on the one hand, but on the other hand. It is the sound of data without dreams, of citations without soul, of examination without empathy, and anecdotes seemingly pulled from a TV commercial rather than from real life.
I also sense in Obama the character of someone who from an early age was told repeatedly that he was greater than, in fact, he was. This narcissism occasionally spills out, such as in comparisons of himself with other presidents or speaking of what he is going to do without any reference to Congress’ constitutional role in the matter.
Obama grew up in a culture in which data, legal details, management procedures, and presumed process takes precedence over what is actually accomplished. His administration reflects this in a two thousand page healthcare bill and a prescription for a national electronic health database with so little concern for privacy. And soon, his solicitor general will be defending this bill before the Supreme Court, arguing the superiority of a commerce clause that only lawyers can love over the rest of our Constitution. But, in the end, esoteric legal arguments don’t change many votes.
Further, to exercise the aforementioned skills, it is necessary that the federal government become a haven for law and business school graduates, data demons and process pushers. We’ve been headed this way a long time, and Obama is only the most recent and most exaggerated of the lot, but you get little sense he values anything that stems from actual experience, pragmatic suggestion, or advisers who are wise, inspired, or sensitive. He doesn’t even seem to like to talk with people from the Hill.
And it hasn’t just been members of Congress who are being dissed. I was reminded during the debate on the anorexic “stimulus, package” of the signs one would see on freeways under construction during the Eisenhower years. The reason I still remember the otherwise forgettable Paul Dever is that the Eisenhower administration shared sign space with even the Democratic governor of Massachusetts. With Obama, one gets the sense that states and localities are just part of the problem. Think how different this election might be if Chris Christie and other governors and mayors had gotten their names on, and credit for, the stimulus package.
I’m not talking Tenth Amendment here, but rather political common sense. A good politician knows how to share power. Obama has no feel for this.
Further, if Obama and his wife have any sizable number of friends not dependent on power and political circumstances, it is a well kept secret. People without unpowerful friends are people to be careful of.
Finally, Obama is not honest. Not in a slimy way, like, say, a former Arkansas governor, but in an intellectually manipulative fashion. He frequently seems to be attempting to dredge up some verbal slick trick that will get him through the evening news, but it just reinforces the idea that he is not someone you can count on. It began with his presidential campaign, which portrayed him as a liberal, which he certainly wasn’t. He was, in fact, elected by conning the most number of voters in recent American history.
I could, of course, vote Green. But I try to keep religion and politics separate. One demands pure virtue, the other just tries to give virtue another leg up. And history teaches us that it is the grassroots organizing of third parties, not their presidential campaigns, that change the country.
Besides, we are in a time when our political system is so remarkably rigged that the answer lies not in playing the gangsters’ game but by finding an ever increasing number of ways to create new struggles with new rules, such as the Occupiers have recently demonstrated. Making the best presidential political choice can protect our flanks, but it can’t provide the opening through which change can charge.
So before you get too upset with the foregoing, remember that I plan to vote for Obama. I’ll just be damned, however, if I’m going to brag about it.
Posted by Sam Smith at 11:09 PM