Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Obama presidency post-mortem

You read that right. This entry is a post-mortem of the Obama presidency.

He will still be in office for at least three more years and could be re-elected, but in an important way, his presidency ended earlier this week when he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

What has ended is any idea that his presidency will lead to radical change. Many people have hoped—or feared—that Obama’s election would lead to some sort of revolution, although the substance of that revolution differed with each person you asked.

I voted for him. My wife and I cried at 11 p.m. on election night when he was declared the winner. But looking back, I think that all the people who thought that his election would lead to truly drastic changes in this country weren’t looking at his resume close enough. Revolutionaries aren’t given the opportunity to edit the Harvard Law Review. Hell, revolutionaries aren’t allowed within 300 feet of the Harvard campus!

Obama may be sincere about change, but he is also a political careerist, like many others in Washington. He has spent most of his life being schooled in, among other things, the art of compromise, and he knows that alienating too many people would be damaging to the career that he has devoted his life to developing.

In the (allegedly good) old days, politics was a sideline for most of the people involved in it. Look at this list of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Do you see anyone whose occupation is listed as “politician”? Many lawyers, but, as in our time, most lawyers are not politicians. People got into politics because they cared about the way the government was being run, but they did not see politics as the primary way to feed themselves.

Somewhere along the way, the laws became more sophisticated and harder for the average person to understand. The complexity required that public office become a full time job.

Lincoln’s proverbial one-room schoolhouse became no longer adequate to train a President. Neither were the public schools and state universities that do all right by most people. College programs became devoted to public policy and began to turn out a new breed of student princes, such as Obama, as skilled at the political game as a brain surgeon. While most of them are attorneys, few have any experience in an area of law that is not related to politics.

What does this have to do with sending troops to Afghanistan? Obama has made this decision after careful consulting with his military advisers. He is not about to make a decision that will step on the wrong toes. If he alienates too many important people, the career that has become his life will be over. Seriously—if he weren’t a politician, what would he do? Write people’s wills? Work for Edgar Snyder?

It is not a partisan problem. There are just as many political careerists on the Republican side. While it’s good that politicians have been well trained in the nuances of creating laws, something has also been lost. There is a certain hesitancy to be decisive if it means being unpopular.

When President Truman fired the popular General MacArthur at the height of the Korean War, it was political suicide. While Truman has been resurrected as a folk hero, people forget that he left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history. Similarly, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legend has it that he told an aide, “We [the Democratic Party] have lost the South for a generation.” And they did. In both cases, Presidents weren’t afraid to stick their necks out to do something that they thought was right, even if they knew it would hurt their careers. It’s hard to see anybody in Washington being that brave today.

Barring the faux-Mayan apocalypse that some people believe in (which wouldn’t happen until after Election Day, anyhow), I will vote for Obama again in 2012, mainly because I think the balance on the Supreme Court is too precarious to allow a right-wing President to appoint conservative judges to that body. But that’s another blog entry.

Meet the new boss. Not quite the same as the old boss, but maybe not different enough to really matter. It may not be change we can believe in, but it may be the only type of change that’s believable.

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