2010-02-05 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

By Jerry Armato

A letter appeared recently in a local paper saying that it’s time to cut the President a little slack, give the man some elbow room to set things in order. He is, after all, only one man. Well, the uproar against this letter was instantaneous. Both the political right and left pilloried the author for her blind support of Obama. The left is mad at the President for the War in Afghanistan and broken promises of open government. The right is mad at him for being President in the first place. What seems odd is how so few commentators are rising to defend Obama at all. Here are three reasons why:

Reason One: For Republicans, it’s payback time. Democrats relentlessly attacked President Bush for a now-familiar list of reasons: The way he used 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq, the way he lied about weapons of mass destruction, appointed opponents of regulation to oversee regulatory agencies, politicized the Justice Department, squandered the Clinton-era surplus, and ignored the economy as it began to falter. Democrats deeply despised the actions of G.W. Bush, and said so whenever possible. Today, the tables are turned, and if you open Google and type in any phrase that Obama ever said, you’ll first see pages and pages of criticism, and finally, links to the source of the President’s real words. Based on the Dems treatment of Bush, Republicans consider their virulence to be fair retribution.

Reason Two: Many acknowledge that Obama has a full plate, that he’s called upon to fix health care, the economy and security issues simultaneously. However, he also made many promises about transparency in government. Indeed, Obama’s most soaring campaign speeches were about the end of backroom dealing, the end of “old” politics.

The “open government” promises went down much easier than acknowledging one obvious fact: Whoever ended up as President in 2008 would have to make long-avoided choices that would make everyone mad (that’s why those choices were long-avoided). OK, fine, but so what? Why should the Prez have to defer his promises of transparency till later, just because the job is hard? Can’t he tackle everything at once, and be in the open as well? Probably not, and here’s why: Although we all agree that the economy, security needs, health care spending and the environment need immediate attention, no congressional representative wants to bear the burden of that immediacy. What if something is good for the nation, but not popular with the folks back home?

A congessmember might support the Prez at such times, might choose conscience over expediency, but only if the Prez is popular. Such two-mindedness is nothing you want shown on camera, but it is, honestly, the way the political world turns. We have a word for politicians who put what’s good for America ahead of what’s good for their district: “Unemployed.” Unaligned congressmembers who are on the fence about things, are simply not going to nail down unfettered support for a President’s goal, with the CSPAN cameras running. True political haggling over long-term and short-term national interests, striking a balance between local bread-and-butter issues and broad policy decisions, is never going to be shown on TV. That’s just human nature.

Try going up to your boss in public and telling him you’re sick of him hiring his relatives. If you feel a need to say such a thing, you’ll do so in private. And Obama, well, he’s a nice guy, and I’m sure he meant all that transparency stuff, but he has very little to do with the nature of cautious political public posturing.

If we really want “transparency,” here’s what we have to do: If we want congressmembers to publicly stand by what’s good and right and proper all the time, then we have to make it so they’re not afraid of every blip in the opinion polls. The only way to do that is to elect them for longer terms. But of course, American mythology teaches that all politicians are corrupt and should have every action scrutinized and criticized. Well, if that’s how we want it, then don’t expect them to say what they really think in front of the cameras. Since Americans believe that, by definition, you cannot trust elected officials as far as you can throw them, then they will not govern as if we have confidence in their true scruples and decision-making power. Instead, they’ll govern according to the polls. Politicians will not be transparent, and they will not be candid about difficult decisions.

If you want to fix the trust issue, then pay serious attention to whom you elect in the first place, and show your trust by leaving them in office long enough to get something done.

Reason Three: As President, each time you stick your neck out and make an executive decision, you’ll get criticized, which is one reason why Republicans tend to govern by not governing. Note the Republican slogans, “Let the market sort it out,” or “Further regulation makes things worse.” Now back in 2008, there was one candidate who trudged up and down the country with stories about the bad things that happen when you let insurance industries sort it out, what happens when you let mortgage lenders and banks sort it. We agreed with him, and elected that candidate by the largest margin of victory since Reagan.

We did not elect the guy who said everything could be fixed by lower taxes, and that government should stand aside and allow losers to lose and winners to win, regardless of the social consequences. We sent that guy home, and we elected the guy who said he’d aggressively try to fix the economy and health care. Trouble is, there’s no template for how to repair America’s portion of the global economy, or how to make it so middle-class households don’t lose everything they own when they face prolonged illness.

This is new turf for a President, and Obama will have to get his hands dirty proposing and modifying various solutions.

But a funny thing happened last year: We’ve learned that such a process does not make a President look “Presidential.” We’ve learned that a President who stands aside and does nothing looks a little classier, more “in charge,” more confident, a bit like he knows what he was doing, even if he’s doing nothing. Perhaps that’s because we could make believe that President Bush was doing a “strategic” nothing, rather than a “clueless” nothing. What we’ve learned in Obama’s first year is that it’s easier to appear “in charge” by sitting on your hands and professing faith in the American spirit and the robust economy to eventually rebound. If a Republican President plays it right, doing nothing can look cautious and deliberate, not callous and indifferent. You can do nothing in the face of a crisis and appear unflinching and steely-nerved, whereas Obama looks like he’s racing against the clock to find solutions that work.

Of course, the reason why he looks that way, is because that’s exactly what he’s doing. It’s because we all are. Obama’s actions reflect America’s genuine state of affairs, and it gives us the creeps to watch it. Seeing him scramble from crisis to crisis like a short-order cook makes you realize why both Bush Jr. and Sr. simply repeated “Stay the course” as often as they did. They made us believe that perhaps, just maybe, we could once again push our problems forward a generation or two.

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