Letter to Obama | You coulda been a contender

Maybe you still sleep easy. Who knows what dreams you had back in 2008, or how they stack up alongside today’s reality. All I know is the dreams you peddled.

Maybe it was just a pitch. Maybe, like the best salesmen you managed to convince yourself too. For a while, anyway. If so, it was a nauseatingly good one.

On the other hand, maybe you believed some of this stuff. You know: openness; transparency; the rule of law; a smarter, friendlier, more cooperative America that the rest of the world might be able to fall in love with again. If so, I guess you’re kind of disappointed.

Back in those early, heady days, you must have felt just how badly people wanted to believe. Not just because of what had gone before but because the times suddenly felt pregnant with possibility. I was one of them, despite my scepticism about politicians. I managed to convince myself you were for real.

It was a unique mandate. No president ever surfed in on such a wave of hope and openness. And not just in America; people damn near everywhere wanted to believe.

You’ve been standing in Martin Luther King’s footsteps in recent days, saying some of the right things, maybe basking a little in the reflected warmth and veneration. In a generation or two, you think anybody will feel anything like that about you?

Yeah, yeah . . . . you’re right, I don’t know what a tough town Washington is, how impossible it is to get anything good done. The vested interests, a Congress that’s fractious when it isn’t supine, the incessant buzz and rattle of hyperambitious climbers and players. All that’s true, I’m sure.

On the other hand, you didn’t exactly do much winnowing, did you? For me, doubts crept in before you even took the oath. That first economic team. God. And it’s not like you didn’t have some experienced insiders, like Volcker, or quality outsiders like Buffett to help you choose. Instead, you plumped for B-grade players from the mob who helped to drive the financial system onto the rocks. You were basically buggered from day one on that front.

Nor have things got much better. Your National Security Council now includes, by the looks, overenthusiastic escapees from a high school debating team who, amongst more grievous sins, pursue policy by tweet. It would be bad enough if Rice and Power dashed off tiny literary gems but sadly, no. You surely must see there’s no gravitas in such behaviour.

Then there’s the whole surveillance business. Even leaving aside its propriety, and effectiveness, could the fallout have been handled any more clumsily? Whether you’ve been in the driver’s seat or just along for the ride with Clapper, Alexander and co, the wreckage still ends up in your backyard.

And so on ad nauseam.

Anyway, all that’s pretty obvious and by the by. What I’d really love to know is how your legacy seems to be shaping up from the inside. Do you wake up sweating and puzzled at three in the morning, or was becoming president enough in itself to assuage your ambitions and hopes?

If you’d acted more or less in accord with the dreams you sold, eventually you’d have been up there with MLK. An icon, a beloved (and hated) man who rose to the occasion. It’s hard to understand what could lead a man to squander such an opportunity. Money? Surely not. Political pressures we on the outside simply aren’t aware of? Well, maybe, but if so mightn’t your best course have been to make the wider world aware of this profound dysfunction? If things really are that impossible, lifting the lid would alone have been a service worthy of King.

Instead you’ve hastened America’s ongoing decline. Respect seeping away around the world, the constitution carelessly flouted, and of course the acid evisceration of the hope you summoned into being. Even if it mostly was a pitch back in 2008, couldn’t you at least have kept up the front a little better?

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2 thoughts on “Letter to Obama | You coulda been a contender

  1. I think you are exactly right that things were doomed for this Presidency by the selection of the right-leaning part of the Clinton economic team. When he was running against Hillary he had better instincts on such matters, and that, I must conclude, was partially the result of better advisers. Why he always talks like a Social Democrat and picks like and picks associates like a Christian Democrat, I’ve never figured out. Perhaps it’s the essence of his quest to bring everyone together. Or maybe because he truly has no abiding interest in policy content.

    It certainly is true that he had everything at hand to make a highly successful, perhaps historically important administration. The “mandate” (which only asked him to not be Bush, a simple request that he keeps violating) was there, as were the political composition of both houses, the expectation of “change.” He had the choice of forward-thinking movers and shakers in academia, business, think tanks and unions. But instead of even dipping his toe in policy thought, he took the lazy way: He thought he could create the best policy by getting Republican and Democrats to act like the lion and lamb in Paradise. Instead politics today seems more like anothr part of the Apocalypse. And still an interest in policy is not even faked by this President.

    And now we have the final spending of that immense political capital on the crap shoot in Syria. When the dealer collects those last chips we aill have three years of a rudderless government.

  2. Lovely comment, DK. You turn a mean phrase.

    On substance, I agree, with the possible exception of his economic team’s “right-leaning” aspect being the main problem. To me, it was their commitment to bailing out banks and, in particular, the banks’ bondholders. That not only perpetuated a largely dysfunctional structure but also sowed the seeds for a bitter harvest of distrust and social division.

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