I think I’ve figured out Obama’s Achilles heel as President of the United States — what could very likely turn him into another Kennedy (victimized by his advisors), another Johnson (lured into a disastrous escalation), another Carter (ineffective despite his undeniable intelligence), and another Clinton (too dependent on his verbal skills). All of these Democratic presidential deficiencies now seem combined in one very disappointing package, the brilliant but fallible President Obama. In the simplest possible terms, Obama has broken his campaign promise to banish lobbyists from the Oval Office (they live there), and he has fallen short of the pledge he made early in his administration to defend his liberal agenda from the many conservatives who swarm the White House, inclusive of subordinates borrowed from the Bush administration and the mob of articulate lobbyists who unabashedly promote the needs of their employers.
No wonder Obama has refused to reveal the list of his visitors in the White House. His two broken promises would be obvious if he fully disclosed the identity of his Oval Office guests.
How and why has this happened? One answer — perhaps the primary one — is that Obama has actually turned the Oval Office into a University of Chicago graduate seminar classroom. Obama is the professor and the American public is the entire student body, some of whom (mostly lobbyists, it seems) have access to his classroom. Whenever business-suited advocates for a conservative cause at the expense of the American people — say, in defense of retaining the prohibitive cost of pharmaceuticals — are ushered into his presence, it is as if they are a throng of lively graduate students who respectfully disagree with his liberal assumptions. Obama hears them out as an obliging hierophant and in response comes up with a brilliant compromise that somewhat diminishes their expectations but gives them a substantial portion of what they have requested — in fact, as much as they had been hoping for. They leave the Oval Office fully satisfied with their gain, and he in turn sits back in his leather swivel chair delighted that he has once again whittled down their demands so effectively. Next in line comes a team of advocates insistent on Wall Street deregulation, or insistent on escalation in Afghanistan, or insistent on putting the screws on Iran. Time and again through the day — nay, through the week, the month, perhaps his entire presidency — he wins countless partial victories against respectful requesters. However, the stack of dispensations steadily mounts favorable to the conservative agenda, and, like so many professors since the beginning of time, he himself seems to miss the point. Some niggling critics might complain that he has given away too much prematurely, but what else is possible? Everybody present seems the winner — at least at the time. Of course not all of his Oval Office sessions fit the pattern, but enough of them to make a difference.
Try to imagine an alternative agenda. The gaggle of talented pharmaceutical lobbyists, for example, crowd into the Oval Office, only to find Obama in the presence of lean and mean experts hostile to their cause and with ample documentation to back up their arguments. And, of crucial importance, the number of critical experts be roughly equivalent to that of the lobbyists. Suddenly the lobbyists find themselves up against a tide of information antithetical to their perspective, so the gentleman’s handshake they are hoping for turns out to be far less generous than otherwise. This arrangement would put Obama in pretty much the situation of a judge or a strike negotiator instead of an obliging professor. Hard decisions would occur, and a different outcome could be expected after meticulous debate. Obama’s presidency could actually begin to bear credible results. As yet, however, such is not the case, so that many of the electorate enthusiastic about Obama’s election last November now feel cheated by his current performance.
How, then, has Obama’s professorial diffidence betrayed our nation? Let me count the ways.
Right now Obama is favoring all the health insurance corporations in providing national care at the expense of the American public. What started out as a grand design to protect the American public from health insurance profiteers is turning into exactly the opposite — a plan to augment their profits that much further at the expense of the American public.
Right now Obama is favoring all the Wall Street bankers who have benefitted from extraordinary federal generosity well enough to get back on their feet. What they demand at this point is to be able to resume the same extravagant financial manipulation that threw them into what should have been bankruptcy in the first place.
Right now Obama is favoring all the federal agencies that have exploited the task of homeland security to the limit under President Bush and want to perpetuate the arrangement into the indefinite future, of course because our nation is supposedly under the threat or dire imminent attack. At this point these agencies are big and persuasive enough to be included in the same category as bankers and health insurance providers.
Right now Obama is favoring all Pentagon interests that want to shift our nation’s military juggernaut from Iraq to Afghanistan, a state whose military Keynesian potential now exceeds that of Iraq, especially if portions of Pakistan can be thrown in as well.
Right now Obama is selling out in favor of Israel, which wants our nation to impose an embargo on Iran, setting the stage for a potential military attack at the same time as any kind of a two-state solution with Palestinians continues to be perpetuated into the indefinite future.
And so on.
Additional disappointments in foreign policy are listed in Garry Wills’ article, “Entangled Giant,” in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Obama has fallen short, for example, in his use of signing statements, in his retention of the state secrets privilege, and in the indefinite detention of Gitmo prisoners, military tribunals, and extraordinary rendition. He also seems to be trying to perpetuate the denial of habeas corpus, the unilateral cancellation of treaties, and the existence countless military bases abroad (many with their own golf courses). In most, if not all, these instances, one can imagine Oval Office consultations with supposed experts, most of whom are defending their jobs or former jobs as well as those of others who have worked with them as subordinates. Inevitably, these individuals turn out to be knowledgeable advocates of policies involving exactly what they themselves did for a living for a couple decades. Their jobs too often necessitated their deliberate ignorance relevant to the questions that matter the most (e.g., should we truly be invading any particular nation?), but they escape being challenged about this ignorance while presenting their case to the president. Later on they or their families can admit, “Oh yes, too bad about Vietnam.” or “Oh yes, too bad about Iraq.” Or “Oh yes, too bad about the collapse of Wall Street,” neglecting to acknowledge that these huge mistakes were the product of very bad judgment by themselves and others like them.
As Wills explains, our nation’s current imbroglio of layered crises has grown worse from one generation to the next since World War II. Our last president severely escalated the trend, and now Obama seems to be holding his own without sufficient incentive to reverse it. As of yet, we have had no dramatic increments beneficial to the genuine needs of the American public during his presidency. What President Obama has provided instead is effectively an administrative plateau whereby too many of Bush’s gains seem in the process of being consolidated. And of course both Iran and Afghanistan loom as potential future wars equivalent to Vietnam and Iraq in guaranteeing the ruination of his term in office.
One can appreciate how Obama advertised himself with the electorate last year as both a Chicago legislator and community organizer. It sounded promising. But he was also a University of Chicago law school professor who spent plenty of time teaching seminars and having lunch with colleagues dedicated to Milton Friedman’s assumptions. These assumptions have been discredited since then, but far more important has been his sense of personal identity as a thoughtful professor willing and eager to accommodate the needs of all involved. And what site in America can better serve this end right now than the Oval Office itself in the White House — the most impressive classroom of all. Let the espousers of profitable ventures make their arguments at the expense of the American public, whatever they might consist of, and our brilliant president can bestow them what seems their appropriate share. This genteel flexibility can be harmless enough in an academic setting, but its consequences might well be disastrous in running the nation. Unfortunately, Professor Obama just doesn’t seem to get it.