Sunday, January 19, 2014

Toward the end, Obama still seeking beginnings

Much as I admire both David Remnick and Barack Obama, I did not find Remnick's new 17,000-word profile of the president particularly illuminating [update: not so for the outtakes Remnick published a few days later].  Remnick asked some tough questions but did not push back much on the answers. That allowed Obama to be Obama, splitting differences, embracing complexities and balancing opposites, without really enabling him to defend his record with much vigor.

On the other hand, Obama being Obama is always interesting to me, and I did find a couple of his dicta revealing in the way they reiterated and updated old habits of mind and speech. Here's one:
I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”
"Began to" is Obama's signature way of hedging his goals, which he has always cast in terms of new beginnings rather than completed revolutions.  It's his vaunted "long game" from the other end of the telescope. Not for the first time, I'm driven back to his in his 100th-day press conference:

This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.
 Even Obama's moments of greatest apparent hubris have been tempered thus:
If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. T
Some of those beginnings have been pretty slow, but they have all arguably, um, begun. And there was some poignancy to this interview in that, in 2009-2010, Obama began to address some of these goals with major legislation -- seeding alternative energy industries, making health insurance more protective and more affordable -- whereas now, hamstrung since 2011 by the GOP House, he looks to make new beginnings mainly by force of rhetoric (reorienting the national policy discussion toward inequality);  executive action (almost always more limited in scope than legislation); and diplomacy (hampered by a Congress in pawn to AIPAC, not to say missteps that have weakened his authority).

Those diplomatic efforts were the subject of the second tidbit that caught my attention:
Obama told me that in all three of his main initiatives in the region—with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Syria—the odds of completing final treaties are less than fifty-fifty. “On the other hand,” he said, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.
Just how could the Iranian boulder be pushed halfway up and remain stable?  When the interim agreement was struck, some forecast that it might be extended indefinitely, or lead to other incremental agreements, which might keep Iran from the nuclear threshold while provided long-term partial sanctions relief, which is to say an indefinite regime of partial sanctions, an extended low-grade economic cold war. If pausing halfway up the hill in that way is a possibility, perhaps the chance of negotiating collapse and war at least are somewhere well south of 50-50. 

Stepping back to think once more about Obama's long game: to what extent might he win it? My own sense, if I had to guess at a future historical assessment, is that Obama and the Democratic Congress will indeed be seen to have turned some major battleships in 2009-10 (healthcare, alternative energy, demilitarization, gay rights, perhaps a not-wholly-unsucccessful reining in of Wall Street), and Obama will be credited with having provided  some prudent stewardship thereafter. His "turning" ability has been hampered, however, by a failure to battle Republicans effectively on budgetary matters -- enabling them to place enough drag on economic recovery to weaken him politically and thus continue to hamstring recovery.  No Democratic president should have allowed an opposition holding one house of Congress to impose the vice grip of sequestration not only on short-term economic recovery, and thus on employment, but also on the long-term "investments" that have always been central to Obama's alleged long game.  How long that vice grip will last, and how much long-term damage it imposes, remains to be seen.

Related: Obama's permission structures  1/23/14

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