2009.11.24: George Packer writes: Obama's Troubles
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2009.11.24: George Packer writes: Obama's Troubles
George Packer writes: Obama's Troubles
"The Obama campaign raised enormous hopes, and in the last days before the election the candidate seemed unusually grave, as if he knew that those hopes would be impossible to meet. Once he took office, Obama's message became less one of infinite possibilities than of shared responsibilities and sober appraisals. This commendably grown-up way of addressing the public had the effect of deflating and depressing the surge of emotions that his campaign and election created. Obamania was a risky brew to stir up. The most level-headed people are prone to investing their preferred leaders with almost mystical powers-it doesn't matter whether you belong to the right or the left-especially in times of crisis like our own. It was inevitable that 2009 would bring a sharp falling off." Journalist George Packer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo.
George Packer writes: Obama's Troubles
from Interesting Times by George Packer
At every stop on my mini-book-tour for "Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade," someone asks a variation on the question of what's gone wrong with Obama. Usually it's asked in a tone of bewilderment verging on panic, as if the aircraft's engines were shutting down one after another at thirty-five thousand feet. I don't have a pithy answer because I don't think there's a simple explanation, and, what's more, I don't completely accept the premise. But if the President is looking less commanding than he did ten months ago, these might be a few of the reasons:
The Obama movement. 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.
Outsized expectations. Related to the above. The Obama campaign raised enormous hopes, and in the last days before the election the candidate seemed unusually grave, as if he knew that those hopes would be impossible to meet. Once he took office, Obama's message became less one of infinite possibilities than of shared responsibilities and sober appraisals. This commendably grown-up way of addressing the public had the effect of deflating and depressing the surge of emotions that his campaign and election created. Obamania was a risky brew to stir up. The most level-headed people are prone to investing their preferred leaders with almost mystical powers-it doesn't matter whether you belong to the right or the left-especially in times of crisis like our own. It was inevitable that 2009 would bring a sharp falling off.
Issues. Obama won with the support of liberal, moderate, and conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, independents, new voters without ideological affiliations-the biggest electoral majority in two decades. Different voters saw in this relatively unknown politician what they wanted to see. And in his first year of governing, all of them have experienced the gap between their campaign assumptions and the realities of his decisions. For some left-leaning voters, the escalation in Afghanistan and the failure to end all of Bush's policies on detainees and wiretapping have been severe disappointments. For some centrists, the deficit has begun to overshadow all other issues. And some of Obama's key choices have left him politically exposed to displeasure on all flanks. The bank and auto bailouts remain broadly unpopular, and yet these are the main economic policies associated with the White House (the stimulus bill was too broad, and its effects too abstract, to register as sharply with the public). In a period of mass unemployment, this is a perilous political state of affairs for the governing party and its President.
Return of the right. Over the past eighteen months, I and others (e.g., Sam Tanenhaus) have written that conservatism is dead. I've been asked a few times whether I still believe it. Intellectually, absolutely: the August tea parties, the extremist language on the Capitol steps, the Palin self-promotional orgy, even the lockstep voting habits of congressional Republicans, are all symptoms of a debased movement composed of celebrity and bile. But in the past ten months I've remembered how powerful a thing it is for conservatives to have a target. Post-Reagan conservatism, with its overwhelming negativity, is back to doing what it does best-without even pretending to have a viable governing agenda. I imagined that in the aftermath of their historic defeat, Republicans would spend months, if not years, engaged in a serious internal debate between reformists and purists. Instead, the party has become more monolithic and shrill than ever. And in our constitutional system, a brain-dead minority party that spouts simple-minded slogans on TV and votes in rigid unison can be a serious obstacle to achieving anything.
The deliberator. The campaign, especially its early stage, gave the impression that Obama was a mover of crowds-that his preferred mode of communication was soaring oratory in epic settings. This was a misleading view. What writings by and about him-and also his behavior since moving to the White House-suggest is that Obama is most comfortable in intense deliberations with a few trusted intimates. He seems quite happy to go through a day talking to no more than half a dozen people-compare this with his two predecessors, or with most politicians. His drawn-out review of policy in Afghanistan shows Obama in this element: informing himself extensively, relentlessly questioning, challenging assumptions, boring down into the crucial details of the subject, and then doing it all over again. His intellectual style is that of a law professor-and we've all recently learned how much worse we could do, how dangerous leadership by gut instinct and snap judgment can be. But as President, Obama seems, very strangely, to have forgotten that his most important constituency is not his small circle of advisers but his three hundred million countrymen. Apart from a few excellent speeches, he has stopped explaining to the public what he's doing. He seems to disappear into himself for days and weeks at a time.
Afghanistan is a good example: a speech in March announcing a new strategy, and then almost complete silence, month after month, as the war continued to deteriorate; and then an extended period of meetings at the White House that (thanks to leaks and counter-leaks) were conducted in semi-public view, but without public explanation. We are now given to expect an announcement of the outcome next week-eight months after the last major speech, and three months after the new round of deliberations began. Meanwhile, you can feel the air going out of public confidence. For a White House that puts so much emphasis on strict message control, this is a curious state of affairs: a heavy-handed attitude toward unauthorized stories, a rather destructive campaign of apparently authorized leaks, and a habitually inward focus that leaves the country in the dark for long stretches of time. Of all the possible reasons for Obama's difficult pre-Thanksgiving days, this is the most perplexing and, perhaps, the most easily remedied.
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