observations and opinion
Every life and has its “defining moments” – those which illustrate most sharply the reality of the person. It may be that we don’t see them because we’re immersed in the moment itself, and because no-one else is watching. That’s not so true with U.S. Presidents. When they have their “defining moments”, everyone is watching.
Look back into recent history and you will see them, stark and plain: Jimmy Carter’s brutally honest, shockingly prescient speech about America’s dependence on foreign oil showed him for what he was – smart but unable, maybe unwilling, to shape events. But I think it was the photo of Carter collapsing while running a half-marathon that really stood out as the “defining moment” of that incredibly hard-working, over-reaching man. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, defined his early administration by firing all of the air traffic controllers and in one move, illustrating exactly who was in charge and who was going to win in the 1980s (hint: not trade unions). Reagan was a lot of things but one of them was unbending – he believed things and didn’t relent in them, a fact which genuinely shook the world, for good and ill.
The first George Bush is rightly remembered for his “new world order” speech, telegraphing an arrogant complacency which cost him re-election in 1992. Most will remember Bill Clinton for his most immortal words “I did not…have…sexual relations…with that woman…Ms Lewinsky” and certainly that awful episode stands close to representing the terrible excesses and lost opportunities of an administration full of brilliant women and men, so fat and affluent that the definition of “sex” became the definition of the Presidency.
And then there is W. His fans (and revisionism is rapidly re-assembling his reputation) would say the speech on the debris pile is his defining moment. Nope. It was the hubris, mental laziness and total inaccuracy of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of a Navy vessel that perfectly captured 43’s reign. Although pouring a trillion dollars into the banks one weekend in late 2008 comes a close second.
Which brings us to the present occupant of the White House. It is hard now, in the painful light of day, to know whether Barack Obama was really ever as promising as we hoped, or whether it was just an illusion. Maybe America just married him on the rebound.
For those who admired and hoped the best for the President, it has been an excruciating 54 months so far. The smartest thing he did – the 2009 stimulus – has somehow become an object of shame. Rather than inspire and trigger a wave of reformist energy, Obama’s glamour and personal charm became a lightning rod for his political opponents – the extreme right wing is far more determined, crazy and capable in 2013 than it was in 2008. So much so that the GOP is now a rogue’s gallery of creationist, woman-hating corporate ghouls with tight control over the House of Representatives and heavy influence in the Senate. Almost nothing good gets done.
So is Obama a bright and shining Gulliver, beset and chained down by the Lilliputian Republicans, or is he just “an amateur”, as allegedly described by Bill Clinton? The answer of course, is a little of both.
Barack Obama is perhaps the most successful and truly “self made man” of the modern age. Not even Steve Jobs did as much, as fast, with so little help as Barack Obama. Alone and apart his whole life, with an uncanny ability to be non-threateningly attractive, he prospered as a student. Fiercely competitive, vain, self-absorbed but also deeply thoughtful, the President arose from the shadows as if chosen by God to lead. And then was plunked on the shore without a compass or a fishing rod and told to catch alligators.
It is there – standing on the shore line, looking out grimly and rather hopelessly – where Barack Obama had what will probably be his defining moment. In April 2010 a BP oil platform blew up and, far below it in the briny depths of the Gulf, oil began to spew out – torrents of it, millions and millions of gallons of it. And President Obama found himself that day in a position which, if it was unfamiliar beforehand, has become his second home: helpless.
The problem wasn’t just that the President couldn’t swim down and plug the leak (although that was really a problem). The problem was that, for the longest time, he didn’t even seem interested. Maureen Dowd, who pours acid on her cornflakes before writing about Obama, had this to say:
Obama wanted to be a transformative president and now the presidency is transforming him. Instead of buoyant, he seems put upon. Instead of the fairy dust of hopefulness, there’s the bitter draught of helplessness. His battle against water is taking on Biblical — even Job-like — proportions.
… This president has made it clear that he’s not comfortable outside whatever domain he’s defined. But unless he wants his story to be marred by a pattern of passivity, detachment, acquiescence and compromise, he’d better seize control of the story line of his White House years. Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative.
It was then that I saw the President for what he was, and what he seems still to be: depressed. Having negotiated the rapids of life through the greatest imaginable trials and achieved the greatest imaginable success, here was a man rendered powerless. And he was glum about it. More than glum, he seemed (and at times still seems) genuinely depressed. Not only unable to affect events but unable to get interested in events. We have seen this time and time again in the years since. Perhaps people don’t notice, or don’t want to notice, but the record is replete with instances of President Obama totally zoning-out:
All of this sounds terribly unfair, I suppose. It is hardly the whole record. The President did do the stimulus; he has appointed some good judges and other officials; he spent everything he had to get Obamacare through and, God willing, it survives and it works. It is not that the President has been entirely inert or inactive or ineffective. It is just that he doesn’t seem to know how to fight the forces which beset him, and oftentimes, he doesn’t seem willing to go the distance in that fight. He keeps on trying to be the aloof, superior, lonely guy whom everyone admires. And it doesn’t work.
The truth is, when you like a guy and you desperately want him to succeed, it is infuriating to watch him spend most of his time looking blue and seemingly unwilling to try. But again, it is hard to fault him personally, because when you look at the whole record he does, in fact, simply seem to be depressed. And that is a terrible burden to bear along with the weight of the world.
What Mr. Obama needs is another campaign, one that means something, one that might rescue him from Gulliverhood and give him one last chance to re-define his Presidency. He needs it almost as much as America needs it. That moment is the 2014 Congressional elections, when he could (if he is interested) help break the back of the intransigent, loony Republican House majority in time to re-start the Obama Presidency and finish it well. He should throw everything he’s got into that fight, starting right now. He should visit every damned hamlet and burg out there. He should ask people to move to Republican districts, if necessary, to vote out the vulnerable GOP members. America needs a new Freedom Rides movement. The President should be driving the bus.