One of the fictions propagated in American history courses – of the order of Washington throwing a dollar coin across the Potomac – is the theory that America always comes up with brilliant leaders at a time of crisis. Witness Washington himself, and Lincoln, Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt (Republicans will throw in Reagan for balance). This was supposed to have something to do with the genius of the Constitution and the American political system’s ability to surface political talent.
A time of crisis is certainly upon the US, and the entire globe for that matter. The financial system is ratcheting itself down step by step into a total, catastrophic collapse, bringing default and ruin to over-leveraged borrowers everywhere. The global economy’s dependence on petroleum is more and more seen as a point of extreme fragility which could, like the corrupt financial order, bring economic growth to a complete halt. The nations of the world cannot agree what to do about global warming, and this failure alone seems to show we are incapable of setting aside personal gain for the common good, even when the survival of so many species (including our own) is at stake.
Into this morass an inspiring political leader is required, someone who sees the true problems at the center of so many challenges, and who is willing to upend the existing order to enact the necessary change. Barack Obama was supposed to be that leader. Many people, and I include myself, were skeptical of Obama’s neophyte resume – his arrival seemingly out of nowhere with little experience – but we were inspired not only by how he communicated, but by the soundness and freshness of his ideas. He was going to take on greedy corporations, right injustices, fight for the environment, throttle back on America’s adventure in Iraq, and bring mature management to the White House after eight years of imbecilic leadership from Bush.
Today hardly anyone thinks of Barack Obama as an inspiring leader. Yes, he can still give an inspiring speech, but the connection between what he says and does seems so tentative that he is slowly losing the trust of the people he is governing. Who really is Barack Obama, and what has gone wrong? Why did he speak so highly of his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, when the man did nothing to weed out the patently corrupt managers at the Minerals Management Service? Why is Obama floundering around in the face of the BP oil spill, when he should be exercising decisive leadership and long ago pushed BP out of the role of problem solver? What is the purpose of keeping people like Timothy Geithner around, a man who played a critical role in the economic disaster he is supposed to now solve? Why does he have faith in Eric Holder as Attorney General, when the Justice Department has done nothing to prosecute Bush administration war crimes, or hundreds of criminals who committed fraud during the housing bubble?
The easy answer to these questions is that Barack Obama is out of his depth; his inexperience as a senator for only a few years has not prepared him for the job of president. But presidents do learn on the job, especially in the first year, after which they begin to make course changes and management changes. Look at Bill Clinton, who had less national and international policy experience than Obama did when elected. He learned and adjusted and turned out to be a capable leader and manager. Why hasn’t Obama, who is just as smart and well-trained as Clinton?
One difference in the character of these two gentlemen is that Clinton was confrontational when he needed to be, while Obama seems the quintessential conciliator – someone who enjoys making trade-offs with important congressmen in order to get legislation through, but who doesn’t want to burn bridges with anybody. Another difference was Clinton was a notorious policy wonk, devouring 200 page reports and able to recite all the key conclusions one year later. Obama can spend days with experts huddled over possible solutions to the Deepwater Horizon calamity, but he can’t speak intelligently off-the-cuff about these solutions. He sticks with the script, and when he ventures off-script he embarrasses himself, as occurred with his recent display of ignorance about something as basic in finance as the price/earnings ratio.
None of this explains why he doesn’t seem to care about some critical issues. At the very start of his term he announced his administration wanted to look forward and not backward, and would therefore not be spending time investigating possible war crimes conducted by the Bush administration. What happened to defending the Constitution as his primary oath of office? You would think a professor in Constitutional law would above all others insist on upholding the law. On the other hand, he does care about nuclear proliferation of weapons and weapons-grade material to non-state actors, an issue George Bush deliberately shelved when coming into office, and an issue which had not received due attention until Obama put it on the G-8 agenda.
Obama came into office with 60 members of his party in the senate, enough to overcome all Republican opposition to his legislative proposals. He then wasted a year catering to and empowering Republican leaders, and deferred entirely to the Democratic leadership in Congress to do something about healthcare reform. It was only at the end of the healthcare debate, when things had fallen apart, that Obama stood up to Republican stalling tactics and managed to get something done. Has he learned yet how to exercise political leadership over his own party and how to beat down Republican bullies? We have only modest evidence of this so far, and it may well be too late after the mid-term elections.
The media has been all over Obama lately for his coolness – his refusal to get riled or testy in the face of so many people punking him. Coolness under pressure is not his problem; it’s his deliberateness under pressure. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to mix up his managerial response, making a quick decision when necessary and a deliberate one otherwise. It’s as if he always needs more facts. Of course, this is looking at the situation from the outside; there are no doubt people at the White House who work under Obama who would be able to affirm or deny this, but they aren’t talking. The place is run as secretly as the Bush White House.
Clinton was just as “corporate”
It may be tempting for Democrats to say “if only Bill Clinton could be back in the Oval Office.” He certainly would show more decisiveness than Obama, more grasp of the details to complex problems, more ability to stare down political enemies foreign and domestic, and more emotional connection to ordinary people in trouble. But let’s not forget that Bill Clinton is a creature of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, and every time he talks today about solutions to the financial crisis it is obvious where his sympathy lies: with the financial elite who also happen to support both his party and his personal charities.
There is hardly anyone in the Democratic Party at the national level who “gets it”, who sees how politics have been corrupted so badly by corporate money that we need a complete upheaval of the whole system in order to deal with problems seriously. Bernie Sanders gets it – the senator from Vermont – but he’s a self-described socialist not taken seriously in Washington. The Tea Party activists get it, at least in a limited way when it comes to objecting to bank bailouts, but they seem otherwise happy living in a society where oligarchs hoard the wealth and exercise power behind the scenes. Some of them, like Ron Paul, are also willing to stand up to the military and the empire (as is Barney Frank lately), even though this is still politically dangerous.
There are not enough of these people around to break up the Big Four banks, for example. The recent financial reform package does nothing to destroy the Too Big To Fail doctrine, and the thousands of bank lobbyists in the capital (many of whom are ex-congressmen and staffers) are working quietly but effectively to gut other provisions in this bill. It is, in other words, business as usual in Washington, where money speaks last and always wins.
This is a time when someone like FDR would already have a trust-busting plan in place for the big banks, would be butting heads together in Congress to get the necessary legislation in place, and would be criss-crossing the country building up political support for these reforms. Not Obama. Even if he didn’t have his hands full with the Deepwater Horizon disaster he would still be showing disinterest in pushing for real reform of any sort.
He is too much part of a system that has to go, and unable to see not only the danger to the country this system represents, but the electoral doom to politicians who continue to think and operate in the old way.
Originally published in The Agonist