December 2008

President Obama

By Jonathan Wallace

 The big lever

           I have voted in ten presidential elections, every one since 1972, but I have never voted with such excitement as I did this time. My wife and I had been in Florida for two months, taking care of her ailing mother. We ordered an absentee ballot for her, but I planned a trip back to New York. At six a.m. on election day, I was fifteenth on a line of sleepy local people waiting for the polls to open in my home town of Amagansett.  Minutes later, I was in the 1962-era voting machine—guaranteed utterly free of microchips—setting the little flags for Barack Obama and the local Democratic Congressman, Tim Bishop. I pulled the big lever to the left, opening the curtains and recording my vote. The lever makes a very satisfying “kachunk” sound when you pull it back. Since I first voted in a Brooklyn polling station for George McGovern in 1972, that “kachunk” has been the sound of democracy. I’m glad I did not miss it this time.

His race

           In 1975, on the first episode of “The Jeffersons” television show, an upwardly mobile black family moved into a ritzy apartment building. Their next door neighbor,  a goofy Englishman, rang the bell and introduced himself, chatted about nothing, and left. A moment later, he was back, his eyes glowing: “You’re black, aren’t you?”

           To an American of the era, that portrayed a moment which could never happen in the real world: it was impossible we could fail to notice someone else’s race. The skin color of another person was usually the first thing we saw about them, and often enough, knowledge stopped there; race was the only thing you knew about most people, in that it immediately predetermined the entire course, or non-course, of possible contacts with them.

           When I started practicing law in New York in 1980, there were a few black judges but no black lawyers visible in their courtrooms, and none working for the law firm where I was employed. Ten years later in the business world, I hired the first black employees at the software firm where I was an executive. Sometime late that decade, the ‘90’s, I went to see Denzel Washington in “Devil in a Blue Dress” on the night the movie opened. Looking around me in the audience, I saw scores of young black people who were better dressed, better groomed than I was.

           It was the first time I had a concrete understanding that there was an entire black middle class I never met in daily life. I grew up in an all white neighborhood in Brooklyn, and aside from a year spent on an integrated, lovely street in Cambridge, Massachusetts during law school, had always lived in all-white neighborhoods. When you do, the only black people you see are the working class and the people on the subway—the one about whom most urban whites of the sixties and seventies formed their prejudices, the ones we crossed the street to avoid and assumed were up to no good. In the public schools I attended, the only black kids were the ones bussed in from other neighborhoods. They did not want to be there, felt very unwelcome, and we were afraid of them,   and did nothing to welcome them.

           Only when I worked in the ambulance world starting in 2002 did I have my own “Jeffersons” moment. I was sitting in the operations office of my company with a couple of friends and some other people I liked and respected. A young Italian-American man in his late teens came into the office, got nervous and left, and one of my friends said, “He doesn’t want to be alone with the moulinars.” Only at that moment did I realize that I was the only white person in the room—and had been for many days. Most of the partners that I trusted the most were African American; I had African American bosses for the first time; I worked nights in Harlem and the South Bronx where I didn’t even see another Caucasian the whole tour.

           The lesson I learned that day in the office was the same one that much of America just learned from Barack Obama. Rather than being the most important, even the only fact we know about another person, once you really start living and working with and starting to know people, the color of their skin assumes its appropriate place on the spectrum of importance, somewhere between irrelevant and mildly interesting.

           This week, the New York Times’ reported a sociologists’ study which determined that racial trust spreads as rapidly, and as virally, as prejudice does.

           The final word on President Obama’s race was contained in a photograph which circulated on the Internet around election day. It was a large posterboard sign which said, “Rednecks for Obama…even we’ve had enough.”

           The saddest side-light of the election was the passage of the anti-gay marriage amendments, especially in California where the state’s highest court had legalized it just months before. Apparently black and Latino voters coming to the polls in force had put these biased initiatives over the top. It is incredibly disturbing that minority voters couldn’t realize the hopes and dreams denied them so many years without killing someone else’s.


Born to Lose

           Since 1972, I have lived twenty-four years under Republican administrations and only twelve under Democrats. In that time, I have seen the Democrats devolve into a professional minority party, weak, uncertain, always expecting defeat to jump out of the shadows and punch it in the jaw, as happened in 2000 and 2004. When a renewed Democratic majority came in two years ago, and accomplished next to nothing, it reaffirmed my worst fears that the Democrats have forgotten how to lead. Years of campaigns like Kerry’s, where our side plays by Marquess of Queensbury rules while the Republicans follow Brooklyn street rules, also made me fear that the Democrats weren’t tough enough to take it.

           This year was like a dream. It took extraordinary circumstances, an administration with a reverse Midas touch, turning everything to shit, for the voters to turn to the alternative of a man who would have been definitely non-mainstream even if he didn’t have dark skin. He was the one person in the contest with little or no negative baggage, who radiated the intelligence, self confidence and certainty, one of those rare candidates (but John McCain was another) smart enough to be President.

           Sometimes we just have to elect a tabula rasa. Obama is that; he hasn’t even been in the Senate long enough to have any kind of track record, and the stuff they dug up from his Illinois senate days (voting present too many times, “palling around” with Bill Ayers) was definitely meager. 

           The result is that he has been elected with unprecedented credibility, like a huge line of moral credit on which I hope he will draw really carefully.

           I was ecstatic right up until election day at the thought someone I admired so much was likely to be president. The moment he finished his acceptance speech, I began, very oddly, to slide downhill, to feel strangely disheartened. We are now his to alienate and lose; I have already lived through the experience of the two Democrats I helped elect, Carter and Clinton, squandering our hopes and trust and ending up so much less than we expected. I projected myself into a possible future where we ask each other, “Remember all that fuss when Obama came in?”

           I hope he can carry all that weight. There are moments when he seems to good to be true. If he has his own Bill Clinton moment of infidelity or dishonesty, it will actually hurt much more than it did with Clinton, who we all knew from day one was a capital P Politician.

A Republican lock?

           Part and parcel of my demoralization flowed from the belief that the Republicans have a lock on power, even when they lose the Presidency. The singlemindedness and ferocity with which they undermined Bill Clinton, defeating his health insurance reform in the first years of his administration, and enmeshing him in the sad impeachment tangle in the last, guaranteed that Clinton’s time in office was all promise and potential, with an almost complete lack of execution and delivery.

           Think about how often in human affairs, the most vicious, self righteous and low-minded take it, while the more thoughtful, ethical and careful are ridden down and destroyed. (Yeats’ “Second Coming” never needs to be quoted again, but here goes: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
/ Are full of passionate intensity.”)

           The Democrats’ failure to achieve the filibuster-proof majority of sixty in the Senate seemed to presage more years of Republican veto over Democratic initiative.

           The only hope we have is that we have reached one off those historical moments when the spin doesn’t work any more. George Bush or John McCain saying the fundamentals of the economy are strong will not make anyone believe it today. The Republican message has really shrunk to something like the following: “You should be happy to lose your house and your nest egg and your health insurance if that is what is required to preserve free market ideals. All else is socialism.” The famed “trickle down” theory of conservative economics, that’s what’s good for the big dogs is good for everyone, has proven quite toxic as what trickled down was a go go attitude towards debt and deficits, a warped concept of the possibilities of home ownership, an ethic which said that we don’t need to explain the terms of the mortgage you are obtaining and you don’t need to understand them.

           Phrases like ”socialism” (and of course Democrats have their equivalents) are simply ways of short-circuiting dialog, and are mere stopgaps, equivalent to saying “I win” to end a debate. I find it much more useful to ask myself what I want from government, if I were a member of a committee of five hundred colonists establishing one on a newly settled planet in Orion.

           Since my odds of being bankrupted by a serious medical problem (if I don’t actually die for lack of adequate treatment) are much greater than those of dying in a terrorist attack, I prioritize the government provision or guarantee of universal health insurance slightly above the homeland security function. That’s not socialism; it is common sense. The problem is that the Republicans have so dominated the debate—by setting the vocabulary in the first place—that we never get to talk about common sense. In 1992, the Republicans protected us against socialism—and the result is that today, 47 million Americans have no health insurance.

           Without doubt, at least a few of them are grateful not to have coverage if that’s what it took to dodge the socialist bullet. But how many? I was amazed to hear a 1990’s style Republican radio ad the week before the election in heavily conservative Lee County, Florida: Obama, said the ad, would have bureaucrats, not doctors, deciding what medical care you can have! And McCain (whose favorite comedian is Henny Youngman; when I read that I had a poignant sense of confirmation the guy is not just trapped in the wrong century, but in  the wrong decade of the wrong century) said in one debate that Obama would land us in a British or Canadian situation—how terrible is that!!

           The question is whether, after so many decades of Republican dominance, Obama, backed by Congress, will be able to break free of the old spin and do the right thing, the common sense thing.

A strong presidency

           The last instantiation of a really strong President was Richard Nixon, who was arguably (with his secret bombing, burglaries and disinformation campaigns) a really serious threat to American democracy, more so even than his present day successor. Arthur Schlesinger published quite a good book in those days, entitled “The Imperial Presidency”.

           After Nixon resigned, the pendulum swung in the other direction and we had a succession of quite weak presidents facing strong Congresses. Gerald Ford was a running joke about the commander in chief falling down flights of stairs; Jimmy Carter, the last president to have a sixty seat Senate majority, could not get his own party to do his bidding; Bush the first a one term president who hardly got started; Bill Clinton was neutered by the Republican majority and his own self destructiveness; Bush Jr., even when he had a majority, hardly seemed to exercise control over it. Bush’s wicked genie, vice president Cheney, has consistently tried to aggrandize presidential power for his boss, but has been slapped down at each turn by Congress, the Supreme Court and by public opinion. Ronald Reagan was the only president since Nixon who really seemed to achieve any appreciable policy successes; he will always be remembered for tax cuts and for the fall of the Soviet Union (as well as the Iran Contra scandal). 

           After watching the spectacle of a number of weak presidents played like a hockey puck by the Congress, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we need a stronger presidency than we have had. The situation is urgent and Barack Obama must Get Stuff Done, or many of us will go down the drain entirely. In order to rescue the economy, figure out what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan,  while fighting world terrorism and doing the rest of his job—he will have to be unusually strong, smart and persuasive, leading the Congress in a way no one has done since Reagan reached out to democratic speaker Tip O’Neill.

           Obama is the first sitting senator elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The truism is that former governors (Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, Bush) make better presidents because they have been executives, actually run something. Senators don’t mostly exercise any similar leadership; they weave coalitions, take safe positions which will attract or at least not spook the money, and rarely get out in front. The buck famously stopped on Harry Truman’s desk; but in Congress, where responsibility is always diffused and deflected, the buck is a quantum particle, everywhere and nowhere at once.

           When we have a weak president, Congress does not lead, not only because Congresscritters don’t know how, but because a crowd can’t lead. What Congress is really good at, most of the time, is ensuring that nothing gets done. Every modern presidency provides case studies of popular initiatives, launched with great fanfare and hope, which came to absolutely nothing. There may be no better example than Bill Clinton’s health care project at the beginning of his first term.

           The modern growth of the filibuster is key to Congress’ increased inclination to make sure nothing gets done. According to Wikipedia, use of the filibuster has increased more than ten fold from the 1960’s to today. ( No earlier Senate term had more than seven closure votes. By November 15, 2007, there had already been 70 closure votes. The Wikipedia article, which has not been updated, predicts that that number will triple in the 2008 session. Among the notable use of the filibuster in recent years has been to prevent judicial appointments by a minority president. The increasing use of filibusters illustrates a substantial decline in collaboration and civility, of any notion that work must get done, and a rise in rigid ideological grandstanding and point-scoring.

           I wish President Obama could begin his term with a 60 senator majority, as the best guaranty that he will be able to accomplish his agenda. However, Jimmy Carter had one and still accomplished nothing. (One thing that scares me a bit is that the adulation when Jimmy Carter won had points of similarity to Obama-love: Carter was smart, ethical, an outsider to Washington, would completely reform the corrupt and violent government his predecessor left behind.) Democrats are notoriously unruly and independent, and their leadership does not punish them for it. Republicans march more in lockstep, another reason they have dominated the government for so long.

Ideology and pragmatism

           Over the past eight years, I have repeatedly marveled at the fact that highly intelligent and educated people (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz) could be so damn stupid. The short answer is that some otherwise highly intelligent people of both parties are crippled by ideology, a way of viewing the world through Procrustean glasses, stretching some facts and amputating others.

           The argument that Obama + 60 senators = socialism (false for so many reasons) is based on the assumption that he will be an ideological president. But he has shown signs that he will be a pragmatic one. What we need in the next eight years is someone willing to figure out what works, not someone willfully blind to reality. Hard core libertarians, who believe that free markets fix everything, are Procrustean thinkers. Hard core liberals would probably be also, but there aren’t any, after thirty years of Republican dominance of the debate and the vocabulary.

           To succeed, President Obama must be a brilliant engineer (and coalition builder, and salesman, and bully) , not a preacher. I don’t want to hear its morning in America; I want to stop worrying about losing everything.

           His appointment of Hillary Clinton makes me very hopeful. I like her, think she’s incredibly smart and pragmatic and would have made a good president herself. His ability to reach out to a rival seems to confirm that he is strong, practical and a coalition builder. Also, she is of the center, and if he is to get work done, I think Obama must inhabit, and captivate, the center.


And then  there’s me

           I started publishing the Spectacle three years into the Clinton administration. By then, I was angry and disappointed, with his and Hillary’s failure to carry off health insurance reform, by the cowardice of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, by the whiff of scandal from Whitewater and later, by the Monica Lewinsky debacle. I called for his resignation in 1998, writing: “Late last year, it was poignantly reported that President Clinton was wondering about his place in history. He has now answered his own question: he will be remembered, if at all, as one of the screw-up presidents, like Grant and Nixon.”

           My discontent with Bush began during his 2000 campaign, when I expressed my opinion that the man wasn’t smart enough to be President and that figurehead chief executives are the worst of many bad ideas foisted on us by Republicans. Since then, in almost every issue of the Spectacle, I have called the Bush administration to account, for its 9/11 response, for Iraq, for Hurricane Katrina and now for the economy.

           The advent of President Obama leaves me a bit unsettled. I thrive in opposition and will have to learn how to support. I suppose there will always be something to complain about, though—there always is.