A tragedy in the making

John B. Judis Reviews Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men” | The New Republic

Citing Reagan’s mastery of symbols and gestures, Obama remarked that “going forward as president, the symbols and gestures—what people are seeing coming out of this office—are at least as important as the policies we put forward.”

What can one say about the sheer silliness of this? Stories, symbols, and catchwords are important, but they merely dramatize how a politician sees the country and what a politician hopes to do. They can enliven what he wants to do—but if what he wants to do runs contrary to what people want, or what can be done, and if the results of his policies do not measure up to what he promises, and what people want, then even the most artful prose cannot rescue a president. Roosevelt’s “story” was successful because during his first term the unemployment rate was cut almost in half. Some of his programs failed, but by no means three-fourths of them. That first term saw tough banking reforms (which convinced the electorate that FDR was on their side rather than the banks), Social Security, the progressive income tax, the National Labor Relations Act, and so on. If unemployment had remained at 25 percent in 1936, then Roosevelt’s nostrums about “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself” would be recalled with the same scorn as Hoover’s assurances of prosperity.

Reagan, of course, preached optimism during the height of the recession of 1981-82, but he also insisted that by “staying the course” and retaining his policies, Americans would get through the recession. One can argue about who really deserves credit, Reagan or Volcker, for pulling America out of the stagflation from which it had suffered during the 1970s, but the fact is that it happened. And when Reagan ran in 1984 under the slogan, “It’s morning in America,” it wasn’t mindless optimism. America had gotten through a kind of night. So these politicians told stories, but the stories bore some relation to what they were doing, and what they were doing had the results that people wanted.

In fact, Obama had run for president and governed on the basis of a story—a story he articulated in his Democratic convention keynote address in 2004—of an America that is not red, blue, white, black, or brown, but a “United States of America.” This appeal resonated during the election, but as early as January 2009, when he was informed that Republicans as a bloc would oppose his stimulus program, he should have known that it had little basis in reality. He clung to it anyway. It governed his attitude toward Wall Street and toward the hard-line Republican opposition; and it led him to jeopardize his presidency and the country’s future. Yes, there was a failure of communication, but it was not because the President didn’t have a story. It was because the story was pure fiction.

Suskind’s book is being widely portrayed as critical of the Obama administration, but if you read the entire book, its message is that during Obama’s first two years he was foiled by his own inexperience as a manager and by a staff that didn’t do good by him, but that after the Democratic defeat in 2010 he learned from his failure. He replaced the toxic assets on his staff, and he set out on a new positive course, epitomized by the December deal accepting the Bush tax cuts in exchange for aid to the unemployed, and the appointment of William Daley as chief of staff. After a “clean sweep” of his White House staff, Obama, Suskind writes, was “now firmly along in a more dynamic ‘I’ll just do it myself’ model of leadership.”

In this respect, Suskind’s book is already dated. What the President has done since the November election has, if anything, worsened the country’s and his own situation. He made the December deal with the Republicans, he told Suskind, because he recognized “that, at this juncture, the country will feel better about itself … if they see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on anything.” But by robbing himself of revenues, Obama set the stage for the disastrous budget battles this year that have led to budget cuts at a time of a steep downturn, which have caused unemployment to rise again. His “clean sweep” left the two main proponents of a fictive centrism, Jarrett and Geithner, in place, and brought in a new ally in Daley. The new leadership has reinforced Obama’s worst political instincts, which became evident during the negotiations over the debt ceiling. Continued Republican intransigence and the looming election of 2012 may have finally energized him, and caused him to abandon his “story” of a united America, but it may be too late. Suskind may have set out to write a book about a president learning from his mistakes, but he may have ended up writing one about a failed presidency.

Home Page  Public Email  Twitter  Facebook  YouTube  Github   

Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution. 

Commenter Ignore Button by CK's Plug-Ins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

Comment →

Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

Comment →

[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

Comment →
CK's WP Plugins


Extraordinary Comments

CK's WP Plugins