There can be no transformative leader in a paralyzed government
I feel sorry for Matt Bai. It was just three years ago that he sighed over the wasteland of the Clinton era and pondered aloud, what was it all for?
Even without the allusions to the old days, his speech seemed strangely reminiscent of that first campaign, and not necessarily in a good way. Listening to him talk, I found it hard not to wonder why so many of the challenges facing the next president were almost identical to those he vowed to address in 1992. Why, after Clinton’s two terms in office, were we still thinking about tomorrow? In some areas, most notably health care, Clinton tried gamely to leave behind lasting change, and he failed. In many more areas, though, the progress that was made under Clinton — almost 23 million new jobs, reductions in poverty, lower crime and higher wages — had been reversed or wiped away entirely in a remarkably short time. Clinton’s presidency seems now to have been oddly ephemeral, his record etched in chalk and left out in the rain.
Yeah, what’s up with that? Why does America seem to be forever spinning its wheels, and why has politics been reduced to a series of empty promises and arguments about abortion and gay marriage?
Apparently, Matt has been asking this question for three years because he has yet to find an answer.
Throughout his first year in office — perhaps out of necessity, given the near depression he inherited, but also under pressure from older leaders in his own party who spoke openly of another New Deal — Obama tilted toward progressive revival. Since the Massachusetts vote, however, Obama seems to be pushing back in the other direction, moving to reclaim his reformist appeal. In recent months, he has renewed his overtures to Republican lawmakers, thrown his support behind nuclear power and, most significant, established a commission on fiscal reform — all of which probably amounts to an acknowledgment that he can’t continue to hemorrhage confidence among the independent voters who were an integral part of his election.
This is a very generous way to say, “He gave the impression of being a progressive, but now he’s leading conservatively.” If you feel like being less generous, you could drag out the dreaded “flip flop” whoopie cushion, but I don’t want readers killing themselves en masse.
Matt is obviously a very smart man, so I don’t believe he stumbles throughout his work week, perpetually mystified by the strange inner workings of the Village. However, it’s tough to bring a fresh angle to these kinds of stories especially when they’re obviously extremely similar to each other, so Matt has to massage the premise a little bit. He has to pretend that Obama is using a new, revolutionary tactic called “Being A Fucking Politician” in which he pretends to be one thing, and then turns around and acts like an asshole to his base.
The Clinton Story is The Obama Story precisely because a real progressive is incapable of storming the White House and seizing the reins of power. Matt knows this. He was one of the first journalists to really explore the whole “triangulation” strategy employed by the Clintons to sell out their liberal base for the sake of securing Republican support, which is exactly what Obama did on healthcare.
The results of triangulation have been exactly what anyone with even the smallest degree of intelligence would expect. The presidency (and other facets of the government, especially the Supreme Court) have grown more conservative. A huge injection of corporate money into politics has also motivated presidents to act sympathetically toward Big Business, which tends to favor conservative ideas (deregulation) over classic liberal ideologies (like workers’ rights).
The idea of a transformative leader, who will ride down upon his steed from Mt. Olympus to sweep everyone — Maureen Dowd, Peggy Noonan, Matt Bai — off their feet, is pure fantasy. Real change cannot possibly come from The Leader because he stands atop the pyramid of the paralyzed government, and is merely the sum of the system’s broken parts.
The endless hours spent pouring over Obama’s demeanor, his past promises, and his “brilliant strategies” that are just rehashed bullshit from the Clinton era, (which by the way, totally didn’t work – unions are dying, corporations shipped jobs overseas, the minimum wage is stagnant, etc.) are a waste of valuable time. The Leader will never bring real change on his/her own. Even FDR needed a huge public mandate for the New Deal, which he got because people were starving and desperate. Without Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters there would have been no civil rights movement.
These things always start from the bottom, and grow upward. However, the professional media loves to cover politics like Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous by profiling a single celebrity and his entourage (including the “boyish-looking” Plouffe) as though they somehow run the country themselves. The media asks about their fears, their dreams, and what makes them tick as if Obama could have ever single-handedly reformed healthcare, or stopped the wars, or regulated BP.
Of course, I don’t want to unduly pick on Matt Bai. Like I said, this trend is almost universal in the mainstream media. I just happened to read Matt today, but his piece in the Times perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with politics and the media. We have The Leader, who like all Leaders before him, represents the interests of the wealthy. We have The Media that — instead of pointing this out — obsesses endlessly over how a politician is engaging in the strange behavior of “politics,” and isn’t that weird?
And in closing, Matt assures us Obama is a very special leader, who “seems to exist on a separate plane from his party’s other elected leaders.” How fresh! That doesn’t sound at all like a young, charismatic Democratic president that sold his party’s soul for the sake of a few Republican votes right before the opposing party tried to impeach him.
Later, the pundits will all gather in confused aggregations where they’ll muse over “popular rage.” Why does it exist? Who is directed at? Why is the system broken?
Update: Also, what digby says.