The Obama Problem
By conventional standards, the character of our current president seems relatively solid. He’s a former Chicago lawyer, golden-tongued Senator and a well-to-do family man. He’s trying to quit smoking, battle a seething wave of congressional Republicans, and balance the whims of his populace with a moldering national financial statement. He’s going gray, as he should be, but he’s still getting up once a month to post a YouTube video and stoke the fires of his under 40 voter base, still having somebody tweet for him, still trying to remain the Obama we all remember from that epic 2008 campaign.
But solid character is not necessarily a positive. Dubya, you remember, was forever the free-wheeling, boot-stomping Midwest rancher. Reagan, at least on camera, rarely stepped out of his smiling, grandfatherly public persona. In truth, the American presidency has been at least 60% a game of appearances since the JFK/Nixon debates. After all, only a fool would change so much as his hairdo after being elected to the highest office in the land. If your goose lays a golden egg, you don’t go changing its food.
But who among us is the same person they were three years ago? Where were you in 2008? Who were you dating? As the world around us shifts and pitches, humans naturally adjust their daily motivations and opinions to fit. But a president doesn’t have this luxury. He must abide his campaign promises, he must perpetuate the man he put on display throughout his campaign. And herein lies the Obama problem.
If you asked Bradley Manning what he thought of our current president’s character, I’m sure he wouldn’t have a lot to say. Mainly because he’s currently losing his mind after nearly a year in solitary confinement for supplying Wikileaks with confidential military documents. Manning, originally placed in solitary “for his own safety” on suicide watch, has been kept there long after the watch was lifted with no mention, let alone explanation, from the Obama administration. Nor has there been any discussion of the targeting of U.S. citizens in Yemen, the warrantless surveillance of Islamic charities here in the U.S, and the persistent and unapologetic defense of Bush-era torture and rendition policies across the globe. Obama does not tweet about such things.
The problem, of course, is one of image. Obama essentially campaigned as the anti-Bush; an intelligent, well-spoken black man with his sights set on restoring the American brand in the global marketplace. He promised countless times to grease the cogs of federal machinery with “transparency” and “honesty.” So, when he is forced to use the “state secrets” defense in court, when he has to stand up and say that all of vicious atrocities committed on behalf of Dubya’s henchmen in the War on Terror were necessary – even moral – he finds himself at noticeable odds with the man we saw promising his daughters a puppy during that Oscar-nominated acceptance speech three Novembers ago.
This disjunct is complicated because it occurs on two fronts. First, we have Obama defending via policy and court action the very policies and military actions that he so violently condemned in his campaign. Wire-tapping, torture, cloak-and-dagger deals, Blackwater; these were quite often the setup pieces he used to launch into an anti-Bush, anti-Republican harangue about personal rights and due process. His first act of office, you remember, was closing Guantanamo Bay. Right after buying the puppy.
Secondly, we have Obama utilizing the “state secrets” defense – saying that if, for example, a suspected terrorist who is captured by the CIA, flown to a foreign country, tortured for two years, and ultimately proven innocent decides to sue the United States for damages and suffering; the Justice Department can state that his testimony in the case could reveal classified information and potentially put American citizens in jeopardy, effectively closing the case and shipping the plaintiff back to his home country with nothing. This, again, is a picture-perfect throwback to the Bush era policy of hiding unconstitutional or explicitly illegal policies behind the curtain of “classified information.” Every time Obama talked about transparency, he referred specifically to this practice.
Some, of course, would contend that this image/action disconnect is fundamental to the job. Every president has to do dirty things that a middle-aged soccer mom from Illinois doesn’t want to hear about, and every president is forced to keep these things quiet in the name of national security. Obama is doing the best he can within the system.
Others, including Bradley Manning, would say otherwise. Just a few weeks ago, Obama unveiled his new rallying cry: “Winning the Future: Responsibility, Reform, Results.” This, of course, has nothing to do with government. It’s aimed at education. As I write this, I’m watching our president talk at Miami Central High School. To his right, Jeb Bush. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. I had to go back step by step and make sure I hadn’t ingested anything in the last 24 hours that would lead to disturbing psychotropic images, but no. Just Froot Loops. President Barack Obama has teamed up with Jeb Bush, Dubya’s brother, in Florida to grandstand about what a great job he’s been doing and how bipartisan he’s been and how much he cares about the kids. All of it, of course, bullshit. He’s only in Florida raising money for Bill Nelson’s reelection fund, and Jeb Bush is trying to jump on this “clean up our schools” fun happy feelgoodtime bandwagon and ride it into a Senate seat of his own. Meanwhile Manning rots in a cell with no window, no pillow, no communication and no access to the outside world. Because he provided the sort of “government transparency” Obama promised us in the first place.
Pop quiz hot shot. Who said the following:
“’We only know these crimes took place because insiders blew the whistle at great personal risk… Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.”
A) Bradley Manning
B) John Adams
C) Barack Obama
D) Guillermo the Tram King, a violent meth-addicted homeless man in San Francisco
Google it and find out.
The Fallen Curtain
But the real question here is why. Why is Bradley Manning rotting month after month in a 5×8 concrete cell instead of standing trial for his actions? Are the military courts really that bogged down with whistleblower cases at the moment? Of course not. The point here is Interrogation. The Obama administration has proven beyond any doubt that it is hell-bent on squashing Wikileaks like a diseased apple-stealing rodent. It pressured companies like Paypal, Amazon, Visa, and Mastercard to sever ties with the organization and has employed at least four informants with the task of infiltrating Wikileaks and disrupting it. Only a fool would think that Manning is being kept in jail because he’s “suicidal”. I refuse to believe there is a military general in this country dumb enough to think long-term solitary confinement is an effective treatment option for terminal depression. They are torturing him (Charles Dickens, who spent months at a time living with the general populations of prisons and mental hospitals throughout America in the 1800’s, wrote: “I believe [solitary confinement] to be cruel and wrong…I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body”). The goal, obviously, is to elicit intelligence and/or cooperation from Manning, either before or after his spirit breaks completely. And Obama, ominously, refuses to discuss any of it in public.
The Obama problem rests as thus. He is not the independent-minded change maker we thought –or hoped – he was. He is not the black-jacketed Neo sent into our political Matrix to destroy the Smiths and free us all from the bonds of the System. He’s just a lowly pawn in a centuries-old partisan chess match, a rank-and-file Democrat who shocked party leaders by proving that he could speak like Ellison’s Invisible Man and debate like Bill Clinton, who even as president doesn’t seem to be in control of his own party. He was like a dull penny in the bottom of change jar, and it took the Democrats five years to figure out he had two Lincoln heads. Since Day One the donkey bigwigs have been using Obama’s powers for the good of the party, not the good of the nation, and it’s taken us a long time to see through the veneer.
If Bush had implemented all these new airport-based security procedures, no one would have turned their head to spit. But these backscatter X-ray machines and genital-focused grope-downs were turned loose under Obama, in reaction to a would-be terrorist who boarded a plane in Amsterdam with explosives in his tightey whiteys. No one in his administration questioned why we were ramping up security in America when the clear flaw was in a Dutch airport, no one bothered to ask if this latest, substantially degrading loss of personal freedom was necessary at all. They just signed the multi-million dollar contract with American Science and Engineering and began installing potentially hazardous cancer boxes in every airport in the nation.
The Obama we elected would never compromise something he believed in for the sake of retaining voters, but again and again our president has dodged the question of legal gay marriage, saying only that he is “struggling” with the issue. 2008 Barack would never have allowed a foreign company to destroy a large swath of the Gulf coastline and get away without paying, but in January BP was allowed to write off 35% of their cleanup expenses and government-mandated penalties. In the end our government actually issued them a $10 billion tax credit, and the budget hole it created was ultimately filled by cuts in Pell Grants, funding for the arts, and heat stipends for the poor.
There was no American intervention in Egypt or Bahrain, still no intervention in Libya or any of the other conflicts in the Middle East or northern Africa in recent months. Libyan refugees are huddled in shit swamps near the Tunisian border, robbed of their money, clothes, and food by armed militants, and all we have to offer are well-timed “comments” by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gibbs in support of democracy. When two U.S. journalists were held captive in the Far East, it was Bill Clinton, not Obama, who flew in like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials to whisk the ladies away on a private jet and make suave jokes about “confidentiality” while he poured champagne and coyly offered them cigars.
Wait, news flash. Apparently it has been discovered that Bradley Manning was left naked in his cell for at least two days. CNN, of course, made sure to mention that “military officials claim it was not punitive, but only in an effort to keep Manning from harming himself.” Hm.
The upshot, after all this, is that Obama is no more a political rogue or “maverick” than John McCain or even George Bush. In fact, he’s a lot more like good ole Dubya than people give him credit for. Just ask Jeb. Anyone left in America or abroad holding out hope for a spontaneous turnaround or a vast restructuring of American politics prior to the election season of 2012 is in for a serious letdown. And anyone still clinging to the idea that Obama’s lofty ambitions or failed campaign promises were only dashed by contentious Republicans and ingrained political processes should contact me at once. I have a few bridges to sell you.
Obama’s “character” was as carefully crafted as Bush’s Texas homesteader act. He’s an excellent speaker and extremely intelligent for an American politician, but to the average citizen our president’s private life is as censored and managed as his smoking habit. (As a smoker, I can assure that no man, however powerful, would be able to quit smoking with a job like that. My guess is he’s got a hermetically sealed smokeroom in the basement, and it smells like the Harrah’s Atlantic City poker room on a Friday night.) For all we know, Obama could spend his evenings drawing up media strategies with some left-wing doppelganger for Karl Rove, granting convicted super-hackers unconditional immunity in exchange for help with the “Wikileaks problem”, or chasing two-dollar hookers around the Iron Horse Taproom. Yes, he tried a few novel things – not least of which the national health care system – but he’s proven all too willing to give up on them the second they prove dangerous to his political aspirations. Aspirations which more often than not seem conveniently coherent with the long-term health of the Democratic party.
The Apple Cart
According to Open Secrets, Democrats get most of their money from education lobbies, specifically the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Actually, one non-lobbyist group called ActBlue contributes more than both of these groups combined, but as an online collective that solicits mostly anonymous $200 donations it is (intentionally) impossible to know who or what is actually signing all those checks. But it’s safe to say that one of the top Democratic priorities for perdurable fiscal survival is allocating more government resources for education.
Which brings us back to the Obama and Jed Show in Florida on Friday, and his commitment to “Responsibility, Reform, and Results.” The tone of his speech was clear.
“Now, I want all the young people here to listen,” he said, “because over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs are going to require a level of education that goes beyond a high school degree. So, first of all, you can’t drop out. You can’t even think about dropping out. (Applause) But it’s not going to be enough just to graduate from high school. You’re going to need some additional education. And a good education equals a good job. If we want more good news on the jobs front, then we’ve got to make more investments in education. As a nation, making these investments -– in education, in innovation, in infrastructure – all of them are essential.”
Notice the word investments. Investment means money. Give schools money. And while we’re at it, give some money to infrastructure (#8 Democratic donor: American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). But mainly schools. Stay in school, then go to college.
Ok, so we know that if more students stay in high school, the schools will need more money and Obama will be able to increase the amount he gives them. The top Democratic contributors will be appeased, and will give him money again in 2012. But why does he care about college? If all of those kids he’s talking to decide to go to a private school, the government gets nothing. And the teachers’ unions don’t care about PhDs teaching graduate-level physics at Stanford for $200k a year. Is Obama actually being altruistic?
Of course not. Even Bush was pushing our young little learners to study hard and go on to college. Remember where he was on 9/11? In these tough financial times, and all other times for that matter, the American higher education system produces some of the most consistent and effortless income our government can get its hands on.
In 2009 – statistics for 2010 are not available yet – undergraduate students borrowed $53,839,588,907 in subsidized and unsubsidized loans from the U.S. government. That’s 54 billion, at 3.5% APR. Graduate students borrowed another $3.5 billion, at 6%. In effect, presidents have the ability to coax legally underage students into a complicated, 20-year deferred-loan scheme on a national level and actually improve their image at the same time. Like Robin Hood, but back asswords and the public loves him for it anyway. By consistently plying the idea that college is the “right” choice for all American youth, by insinuating that the only people who don’t go to college are either too dumb or too lazy to get their lives together, Obama is paving the way for a nice economic boom if and when he has a second term. Thanks in part to the recent bankruptcy of Sallie Mae and other private student loan companies, the federal government has a veritable monopoly on the cash for college system. And now that higher education funding has been frozen or slashed at nearly every state college in the nation, the principle on those loans is going to be higher than ever. More college students in this current setup effectively equals a better financial resume for the Democrats to stand on in the 2014 and 2016 elections.
But the nut issue right now, of course, is Wisconsin. There seems to be no better recent symbol for the Obama problem in action. Initially, Obama came out and said flatly that Scott Walker’s stance against teachers “generally seems like more of an assault on unions.” But soon after, it seems, he remembered his image. 2008 Obama was not in bed with unions. He collected all of his campaign money in spare change and crumpled singles mailed in from the downtrodden and degraded all across America, online donations from laid-off construction workers with one leg and no health care. So he crawled down to the basement, chain smoked a pack of Newports, and rewrote his opinion:
“I know many of you are making decisions regarding your public work forces and I know how difficult that can be,” he said to a conference of American governors last week. “I recently froze the salaries of federal employees for two years. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but I did it because of the very tough fiscal situation we are in. I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something in order to solve our budget challenges. I think most public servants agree with that. Democrats and Republicans agree with that.”
Which, of course, translates to absolutely nothing. “I’m currently struggling with that issue. Next question please.” The truth of it all is that both Obama and his Democratic “advisors” have learned that doing nothing, saying nothing, is often a much better political strategy than pushing for “civil liberties” or “unprecedented legislation.” I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that the National Health Care Act cost Democrats the 2010 midterm elections. If Obama focused on health care, Republicans said he wasn’t working on the economy. If he worked on the deficit, they said he wasn’t working on jobs. If he worked on jobs, they said he was an Islamic socialist. After a while, Obama forgot about trying to get things done and instead leaned back on what got him elected in the first place. Talking.
Now he’s back to saying a lot without saying anything, planning a lot of projects he knows will never get done. If work actually begins on a comprehensive high speed rail system before gas costs $15 a gallon I’ll strip naked and dry hump the Washington monument in broad daylight. Like campaign finance reform, nationalized health care, cap-and-trade regulation, or government transparency, high speed rail is just an issue to get Americans thinking work is being done. A bill is introduced, maybe even passed in the House, and Obama gets on YouTube to tell the nation how he’s changing the world. A month or two later part of it is repealed, or defeated in the Senate, or reworded, and the whole thing quietly dissolves into thin, meaningless air. Then it’s on to the next one, one to next one, on the next one…
And it hurts. It really, truly hurts this time. A lot of people, myself included, pinned Obama as our last hope. A final stab at turning this whole sordid mess around. Watching this president’s veil drop is like finding the last remaining lifeboat on the Titanic and realizing it’s welded firmly to the deck.
Hope. It was all about hope with this one, and before we’re even halfway through next year’s election season there will be absolutely none left. Then, even the desperately optimistic among us will have to admit he’s more Democrat than savior, more politician than populist, more talk than walk. And all we’ll be left with is the cold, unsettling question: Who next?
Keith Heumiller: He’s just a lowly pawn in a centuries-old partisan chess match, a rank-and-file Democrat who shocked party leaders into proving that he could speak