On one of the late-night talk shows, rocker Jon Bon Jovi referred to Barack Obama as the “coolest” president in the universe.
Agreed. We do have the coolest president imaginable, the classiest First Lady, two adorable First Daughters, and the most hypo-allergenic First Dog in history. More importantly, with the exception of Bo (left), less than one average human lifetime ago this entire beautiful family would have been relegated to the proverbial–as well as the literal–back of the bus in certain parts of the very country whose executive mansion they now rightfully inhabit. In spite of its flaws–which may be due to imperfections in human nature itself rather than the American system of governance–we live in a great nation with a moral arc bending towards justice in many respects.
Who can forget the expression of joy mingled with a sprinkling of disbelief in the teared-up eyes of older African-Americans, who had witnessed segregation firsthand, as they watched a black man delivering his acceptance speech and subsequently being sworn in as, yes, president of the United States of America? And irrespective of whether or not one agrees with Mr. Obama’s policies, who could possibly fail to delight in the notion of a bunch of knuckleheaded drips banging the deranged contents of their goofy-looking white hoods against the walls of their little klonvocation chambers in sheer frustration?
President Obama has been at the national tiller exactly one year plus change, no pun intended, and as yet there is no telling whether the slightly bungled oath was a premonition or a meaningless aberration as regards the overall success of his tenure. The motto of underpromise and overdeliver may be sound business advice; getting elected, on the other hand, calls for massive doses of overpromise, a strategy which inevitably entails a proportional degree of under-performance. During his campaign, Mr. Obama played the change card with such unprecedented ferocity that the current post-honeymoon doldrums were as predictable as a capital hangover following a night of unbridled carousal.
His barrage of euphonious campaign orations caused that single word “change” to reverberate in our cochlea nonstop for two years, thus effectively drowning out any specifics he may have appended to his pledge of momentous change on all fronts–with the possible exception of a reversal of gravity, thus making staplers fall skyward when dropped once he settled into the Oval Office. By the end of the seemingly never-ending ’08 campaign, I had developed a veritable allergy to that word such that the mere thought of changing lanes on a highway or changing a light bulb in my kitchen caused me to experience mild to moderate nausea, like the thought of a ginger snap after having just packed down several bagfuls for lunch. To this day, I don’t change channels anymore. I switch them. And I carry no more change in my pockets. Only coins. It may take me a few years to recover from the prolonged onslaught of that word over a 24-month period, but perhaps some day I’ll gradually reintroduce it into my life. For the time being, I’m thoroughly changed and hoped out.
Change, of course, comes in two flavors: change for the better, and change for the worse. No matter which way the pendulum may swing, the president will deliver what he promised. Even if the country takes a hefty turn to the right, that will be change. Even if nothing changes except for global temperatures to rise by yet another fraction of a degree during his time in office, the pledged change will have occurred, whether caused by or merely correlational with his actions in the White House. Even chump change is change.
A Harvard-trained lawyer with a natural gift of gab, Mr. Obama certainly excels at saying one thing and making it sound like another. We all know he meant change for the better, but we won’t be able to hold him accountable for wholesale breach of promise should things go south, for change is what he promised, and change, for better or worse, we shall receive.
In the specifics department, he promised, among other things, wall-to-wall C-SPAN coverage of the health care debates and the closing of Guantanamo. While the latter may still happen, he seems to have gone back on the former. To be fair, this may not be his call entirely. After all, not being an Egyptian-style pharaoh, the president commands only one paltry branch of government, and arguably not even the most powerful one at that. (Including the press and Oprah, I’m counting five branches.) And while the sky’s the limit as far as promising stuff, in a system built upon separation of powers, there’s only so much one person can effect without quite a few others playing along. The very system designed to prevent vesting another George III with unfettered tyrannical reign also severely curtails any potential messiah’s circle of influence.
I never heard candidate Obama promise to end the Iraq adventure; merely to consult with his generals and discuss an appropriate exit strategy, which really was just a different way of saying we’ll be there for another 100 years, although he phrased it in less blunt and hence more palatable a fashion than when John McCain said the same thing directly and got clobbered for it. Reducing U.S. forces in the region by one troop a year could legitimately be called an exit strategy. Weapons of mass destruction or no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq, being located smack in between Iran and the Saudi Arabian oil fields, with Saddam and his murderous Oprichniki removed as a regional stabilizer of sorts, I guess there’s little chance of pulling out of there until such time as we’re all driving solar vehicles.
The continued U.S. presence in Iraq as well as a troop surge in Afghanistan coupled with a stepped up bombing campaign against targets in Pakistan notwithstanding, President Obama has already proved his Reaganesque Teflon quality by scoring the Not-Bush-Award a.k.a. the Nobel Peace Prize.
The former senator from Chicago seems to be given a pass in many respects by people who would skewer others for very similar actions. The following statement, which I recently came across while listening to my backlog of semi-ancient podcasts on my iPod, exemplifies this phenomenon:
People who have trouble with authority lose their sense of compassion. Because I believe every one of you, everybody at WBAI, should have, if possible, it would be ideal, if you could have compassion for every Republican out there. Yes, I want you to understand, why did people vote, and why do people continue to vote to favor the war? [emphasis added] Why do they? Why is there a group of people somewhere down south wearing white sheets over their head, you know, and feeling the way they feel? Why is it? Can you feel compassion for that? Well, unfortunately I do, because when I see it, I see the illness, I see the sickness. I see how, um, damaged these people are, and I see the damage they do. (Armand DiMele, The Positive Mind, WBAI, 8/12/08)
What’s remarkable about the above assessment by an otherwise brilliant psychologist who hosts a show on WBAI, a self-described pacifist and ardently pro-Obama radio station with a proportionally large minority demographic, is that in the thick of the ’08 campaign Mr. DiMele clearly yet–I presume–inadvertently diagnosed prospective Obama voters, i.e., most of his audience, as “damaged” and seamlessly lumped them in with Republicans and KKK members. Throughout his campaign, candidate Obama unambiguously referred to Afghanistan as a “war of necessity,” advocated military action in Pakistan, and never explicitly vowed to withdraw from Iraq. Therefore, anyone who voted for Obama clearly voted, among other things, in favor of war, specifically a continuation of war in one theater, and an escalation in two others. Wars of necessity, perhaps, but wars nonetheless. Obviously, as Commander in Chief, President Obama could recall all U.S. troops at once. He never said he would, and he hasn’t done so after one year in office. If anything, he upped the ante, perfectly consistent with his prior rhetoric.
An Obama-supporting friend of mine recently opined that individuals opposed to gay marriage, by virtue of their mere opposition to it, were bigoted morons, whereupon I could not resist confronting her with a clip of Mr. Obama plainly stating that, in his mind, marriage was a union “between a man and a woman,” and adding, for good measure, that such union was “sacred” and that “God’s in the mix.” Even though her original tongue-lashing against gay-marriage opponents had contained no exemption for tone, my friend’s reaction to the clip was something to the effect that since Obama didn’t espouse these views in a preachy and self-righteous manner, there was no problem with his stance.
Following this particular train of logic, I suppose that when President Obama orders an unprecedented number of Predator drone strikes against Pakistani villages, strangely under-reported in the media, yet killing and maiming God-knows-how-many innocent bystanders in the process of taking out a bunch of suspected Al-Qaeda big shots, he does so in a more kind and loving manner than had a hawkish Republican ordered those very same strikes, who would, most likely, be slapped with the moniker of war criminal rather than given a peace prize.
Referring to Mr. Obama’s predecessor, the aforequoted Mr. DiMele said the following:
Bush has daughters, Clinton has daughters, except for George Bush, Sr. He had two sons, if you want to call ’em that. (Armand DiMele, The Positive Mind, WBAI, 8/28/08)
If you want to call them that? The expressions “son” and “daughter” being reserved for homo sapiens, Mr. DiMele essentially conferred sub-human status on the previous president. Given that Mr. Obama, like his predecessor, seems to favor war, I am waiting for Mr. DiMele to step in front of his WBAI microphone and refer to Barack Obama as “Ann Dunham’s son, if you want to call him that.” Such dehumanization of the current president, of course, wouldn’t go over too well in that particular forum, but I’m not sure I completely understand the difference between the two men in the war department. If there is a difference, the difference must be in degree, not in kind. While members of the previous administration were, and still are, frequently denounced as “war criminals” by the pacifist/liberal segment, Obama seems to get away with the lesser charge of being, oh well, a “politician.” The fundamental distinction, though, escapes me.
Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, likes to finish his show by counting the days since President Bush’s grotesquely premature mission-accomplished proclamation on the USS Abraham Lincoln. (“That is Countdown for this, the 2,037th day since the declaration of ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq.”)
On Sunday, January 22, 2006, then Senator Obama appeared on Meet the Press:
MR. TIM RUSSERT: So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I will not.
Thus, today is the 1,463rd day since Mr. Obama’s declaration of “I will not.” For some reason, Mr. Olbermann has never incorporated this count into his show.
In early 2006, I had never heard of Barack Obama, but I recall being impressed by the unequivocal nature of the senator’s answer. Usually, when asked whether they are considering running for higher office at some point in the future, politicians weave and dodge like someone is hurling plague-infested cushions at them, and once they’ve re-emerged from under the table and their initial blushing and stuttering spell has subsided, they enter Manchurian-candidate-mode and repeat over and over, until the interviewer snaps them out of it by mercifully switching the subject, that “right now” they’re “focused on” whatever office they’re holding at the moment, as if being focused on shooting hoops in springtime precluded a person from planning to go skiing in December. Aside from such obvious non-sequitur, which can’t but engender doubt as to whether the stammering official is bright enough to comprehend a simple question, what am I, a potential voter, to think of a person who is this hell-bent on convincing me that he or she doesn’t think about the future? Lack of foresight on the part of our helmsmen and -women is precisely what causes many of the messes we’re in, so I fail to grasp the tactical brilliance of coaching politicians to emphasize their disinclination to look ahead when asked about their personal career plans. A simple “maybe” or “not sure,” in my humble opinion, would come across as much more stately and confidence-inspiring than the annoyingly hackneyed and blinkered-sounding right-now-I’m-focused-on routine all the time.
Therefore, I appreciated the concise clarity and aplomb with which Mr. Obama delivered his I will not [run for president in ’08] to the nation. Trouble is, well, and ever since he announced his candidacy shortly thereafter, anytime the man issues a declarative statement of any kind, my mind inevitably goes, “Yeah, like he wasn’t gonna run in ’08.” (Had I run against Obama, I’d have taken the clip of his ingenious I will not, added the slogan Why believe anything else he says? and sent him a heartfelt thank-you note for handing me my haymaker campaign ad on a silver platter.)
Of course, we want to see a capacity to “adjust to new realities” in our leaders rather than expect them to unbendingly cling to previous statements like limpets on the hulls of sinking galleys. Obama, however, must have known in early ’06 that he might run in ’08, so I’ve never quite fathomed his categorical denial. Not the biggest deal of all deals, perhaps, but first impressions generally loom larger, linger longer, and are more difficult to alter than subsequent ones, and the nonchalance of his squarely proclaiming one thing into a television camera, then turning around and doing the polar opposite without missing a beat, set off my spidey senses right from the jump.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not vote for Obama. In fact, I didn’t vote, period. I became a U.S. citizen a few months after the ’08 election, so up until now I’ve been happily off the hook as far as having to make up my mind in these matters. I always considered myself lucky being exempt from voting, since other than on the basis of charisma and on-camera demeanor, which, although important to some extent, shouldn’t be the dispositive factors in choosing a competent leader, I’ve always had trouble getting myself to prefer any candidate over any other. Indeed, I couldn’t decide between Clinton and Dole, Bush and Gore, Bush and Kerry, nor between McCain and Obama. Whether this is a sign of exceptional intelligence, unparalleled stupidity, profuse confusion, general space-cadetry, or some other unspecified mental ailment, I do not know.
I sometimes picture myself at the aforementioned desk in the Oval Office, tasked with leading the nation. (Not being a natural-born citizen, the chances of this ever happening are slim to nil, so the panic-stricken reader may safely breathe a sigh of relief. Unless, of course, I can find a way to coax the nation into believing I was born on Oahu. Some crazed conspiratorialists will argue that such a caper was pulled before.)
Frankly, I doubt I could run a coffee shop, let alone a behemoth like the United States. In theory, perhaps, but in the real world the devil always hides in the small print. For instance, every president is sitting on a mountain of classified information which, by virtue of it being classified, only the president and his immediate circle have access to. So there seems to be no real way to assess what any given president actually has to contend with on a daily basis. This may, in part, explain why new presidents can’t govern the way they campaigned; because once a president-elect has been briefed by the lame duck, he’s suddenly privy to truckloads of potentially game-changing minutiae he wasn’t aware of when he ran, and all this novel information most likely requires a subtle (or not so subtle) change of tune in several areas as compared to his lofty campaign theoretics.
Without knowing what the president knows, I find it rather difficult to determine what I’d be doing differently were I in his (or her) shoes, even if his (or her) actions seem incomprehensible to me. Would I have given orders to invade Iraq? I hope not, but I may have. The world is a complicated place, and not possessing too firm a grasp on history, other countries and cultures, and economics myself, I’m having a bit of a rough time evaluating other people’s grasp on these very issues; hence my perpetual reluctance to either gush over or reject out of hand particular presidential candidates. Not having spent years studying a raft of complex issues, how am I supposed to know if the silver-tongued person on the podium knows what he (or she) is talking about?
I’m not exactly sure how a de-facto popular vote for president is constitutional anyway. If the relatively uninitiated masses were meant to vote for a president, then why did the guys in Philadelphia devise an electoral college, i.e., a group of individuals provided by each state (whether by appointment or elected by the people), equal to the number of congressional representatives of that state, whose charge it is to elect the head of the executive branch? It seems that this intolerable circus of an election campaign which literally consumes half of an entire presidential term, at the conclusion of which the whole nation lines up at the poles to check a box or dimple a chad next to the name of whatever candidate did the better job of looking smooth and tan on TV and wheedling themselves into their confidence is precisely what our forethoughtful Founders were trying to avoid by setting up the electoral college.
Prior to the 17th Amendment, there was no popular vote for U.S. senators, either. Perhaps I have an outdated version, but my personal copy of the Constitution does not yet contain an amendment that sets forth a popular vote for president. Keeping on hand a contingent of perfunctory electors in each state who mindlessly execute the will of the majority in that state seems at striking variance with the spirit of the Constitution. Either comply with the darn thing, amend it, or toss it. Had the Founders wanted the people to vote for president, they would have put it in there. No doubt this would have been a lot easier than the convoluted procedure they did put in, which plainly indicates how important it was for our vaunted Framers to keep the people as far as possible away from the presidential polls.
The time for a popular presidential election may have come, and so may have the time for a naturalized citizen to be elected Commander in Chief, yet I doubt that my candidacy would fly prior to the passage of a specific constitutional amendment allowing it. Of course, we could simply re-define natural-born as no Cesarian, which would be somewhat on par with the eyeball-numbing constitutional elasticity on display every four years on November 4th.
(If President Obama, a constitutional law professor, reads this post, perhaps he will take a moment and explain the constitutionality of it all in the comment section below. I’d also like to hear from James Madison. I’m curious who’ll respond first.)
Policy-wise, depending on whether a right-winger or a liberal has the microphone, Mr. Obama either ran from the center but, alas, governs from the left, or he ran from the left but, alas, governs from the center. Either way, no one seems perfectly happy with wherever our cool president may, in fact, be governing from. By the very nature of the gig, a president of all Americans must necessarily display a certain degree of all-over-the-placeness in his positions.
In the end, though, no matter what a president does, he (or she) will take it on the chin for being either too right, too left, or for spinelessly trying to have it both ways.
Why would anybody want this job in the first place?