Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Wrinkle in (Presidential) Time

A bit of free association below, keying off George Packer's musing about the disillusionment he's hearing on his book tour from young Obama supporters (h/t Andrew Sullivan). Packer:
The most disappointed people I meet are under thirty, the generation that made the Obama campaign a movement in its early primary months. They spent their entire adult lives under the worst President of our lifetime, they loved Obama because he was new and inspiring, and they felt that replacing the former with the latter would be a national deliverance. They weren’t wrong about that, but the ebbing of grassroots energy once the Obama campaign turned to governing suggests that some of his most enthusiastic backers saw the election as an end in itself. The Obama movement was unlike other social movements because it began and ended with a person, not an issue. And it was unlike ordinary political coalitions because it didn’t have the organizational muscle of voting blocs. The difficulty in sustaining its intensity through the inevitable ups and downs of governing shows the vulnerability in this model of twenty-first-century, Internet-based politics.
The triggered memory is of the disillusioned twelve-year heroine of the children's fantasy A Wrinkle in Time after she catches up in a far-off galaxy with her adored, longed-for, long absent father:
She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn't able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. (Ch. 10: Absolute Zero).
Those of us who are not disillusioned -- who are thankful that the Obama Administration has ended the torture regime, and restored U.S. standing in the world, and averted a second depression, and perhaps rescued the domestic auto industry, and is on the brink of shepherding through a remarkably balanced health care reform bill -- we are prone to an equally childlike error: investing Obama with the properties of what the Freudian psychoanalyst Lacan called "the one presumed to know." When presented with an apparent Obama error of policy or presentation, the reflex is to assume that he's "playing a long game," thinking five moves ahead, not focused on the daily news cycle, etc. etc. -- rather than that he or his surrogates just miscalculated, or suffered a failure of nerve, or failed to pay attention, or otherwise erred.

Thus Obama did not give up too much too soon on the stimulus, which was as large as could be passed; he has not been too passive as the health care reform bills have undulated through Congress; he was wise to let the Republicans expose their scorched earth intransigence by extending his hand early; he did not get rolled by the Chinese on his public exposure or human rights advocacy; he could not have expressed firmer support for the Green Revolution in Iran without undermining it; his long pause on Afghanistan is something to celebrate; his mend-it-don't-end-it approach to megabanking is the most efficient do-no-harm approach. I do actually believe that some of these assertions are true; others, not; still others, it's hard to say yet. On health care, in particular, I think that his light touch is shaping a better bill than a more ostentatious leadership posture would have. But I also think that there's something of a pattern of Obama not pushing hard enough, advocating forcefully enough, attacking frontally enough or engaging publicly enough. Still, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful in the extreme that the U.S. has a President of such enthralling intelligence, fundamental decency and formidable shrewdness.

On the question of how much disillusionment is warranted, the full posts of Packer and Sullivan (links at top) are well worth reading.

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