Monday, September 27, 2010

They Call Them The Squanderers

What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
- William Blake

There is a fearful symmetry when one compares the Bush presidency with the Obama presidency, regardless of where on the political spectrum you place yourself.

Bush first came into office amidst acrimony over Florida's hanging chads and the recounts. He and his coterie of right wing advisers were soon handed an unsought but nevertheless welcomed political gift in the form of the 9/11 attacks. Taking a righteous first step in Afghanistan, Bush was, just a few years later so far off course courtesy of the invasion of Iraq that he could never recover. Falling prey to a combination of blind anger, some sort of oedipal hangover, and shoddy or invented intelligence, his administration went on a war spending spree that was compounded by exhilaratingly unfair tax cuts for the wealthy.

The result? Trillions of dollars in public debt that a healthy financial system would have had trouble digesting, and which, as we know, an overheated, corrupt system simply could not cope with.

The lingering image of George W. Bush will be his look of surprised consternation as things began crumbling around him in 2006. He looked like someone who had just had a wet towel snapped at him in the boys' locker room. Everyone, including himself, knew he was out of his depth.

Very few people have doubted Obama's innate intelligence, his mental toughness or his high level of education. Yet, the President is turning out to be one of the most curious cases in American political history.

He, too, felt the sting of acid tongues during his campaign and immediately after. The gift-wrapped political present he and the Democrats received was, of course, the Great Recession.

He also received another present, sort of a cherry bomb in the mailbox - that is, the virulent, racist antipathy of the everyday right wing and that of the radical, shadowy Tea Party backers and its rank and file.

That kind of vitriol certainly has been of no help in helping the country recover economically. The Republicans have insulted while Rome burns.

But Obama missed a number of golden moments in the first year of his administration, as well. Instead of creating a seemingly technical "package" of health care reform measures, more urgently he needed to sell it to the nation as a way for individuals and small businesses to save money, save money, save money and be safe from the predations of big health and pharma.

The altruism of the bill is clear to clear-thinking people. But altruism wasn't a big sell to the middle and upper middle classes as they watched their home equity and savings erode before their eyes, and as they suddenly become horrified at the prospects looking their children in the eye.

For a person who was almost too absorbed in image building in 2008, Obama became absurdly aloof from such concerns once he was sworn in.

Piled on that has been a perceived lack of focus, occasionally in policy choices, and almost always in presentation of some excellent legislation and its benefits. A whistle stop tour of 50 stimulus projects in 50 states would have been a good common touch. Maybe he should have ruled from the road one week a month to personally oversee the reconstruction efforts. That goes double for the oil calamity in the Gulf.

In the cowardly new world of avalanches of web site info and solitary interaction with those data and images on a hyper-privatized screen, the political "consumer" was left on his and her own to make sense of what in god's name was happening. Imagine FDR only relying on fireside chats on radio to keep the American public's morale up in the 1930s.

Completely mystifying is what appears, to an average consumer of television news, a complete abandonment of the "youth market." While the President was on his tour of 50 projects in 50 states, he could have stopped at 50 college campuses to speak, not about our current travails, but about education and tomorrow's leaders and the Future as an American idea, which is sunnier than anyone can imagine right now.

18 to 23 year-olds would not have hammered him on his birth certificate, his faith, his family vacation choices. They would have been thirsty to have heard news about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Youth is innately narcissistic - tell them about their coming days. If nothing else, he could have shown a hearty thanks to one of the constituencies that put him in the White House.

Bush came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with little political capital and when he accidentally found the entire world behind him ready to seek a multinational way to eradicate terrorism, he reverted to 19th century jingoism and go-it-alone policies that have killed hundreds of thousands and cost a trillion dollars. It's jaw dropping how much Bush and his cronies squandered.

Obama, who came into the White House with the whole country and most of the world ready to follow us into recovery, has stumbled not so much in a material way, but in what, in the final analysis, counts the most: leadership. He has squandered time and his substantial personal appeal as he has failed to take on the right wing in a consistently tough way. (Where's Joe Biden when you need him?)

Perhaps we are in a new country, like Alice Through The Looking Glass. We find ourselves, thanks to almost ten years of mis-management and wasted money and spirit, Americans in Squanderland.

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