What is hard to take in at a glance is the extent of the change in the political description Obama has dedicated himself to earning over the next two years. All his general pledges now bear the stamp of the corporate ideology. This ideology assumes that the energy, initiative, and technical knowhow that contribute to our society the objects and experiences most valued by Americans originate in the private sector and are generally stunted, impaired, adulterated, or degraded by public supervision. The favor shown to charter schools by the president and his secretary of education Arne Duncan, in their endorsement of the testing regime of Race to the Top, draws on that ideology without much skepticism; and as Diane Ravitch has shown, it has encouraged a broad disdain for the supposed lack of "results" in public education that is not supported by facts.
Obama's model for sentiment, far more than Clinton, has now become Ronald Reagan. His manner in his first two years was burdensome, grave and oratorical; but in town halls and talk shows, he was experimenting with a different style; this was given a formal trial in Tucson and it became official in the State of the Union. Obama has copied the manners, the speech inflections, the kinetic rise and fall of the voice of TV talk show hosts, with as much application as Reagan brought to the study of 1930's radio announcers and the faces of the talkie stars who came before him. But there is a dimension beyond style in the choice of Reagan as a model for tone and surface. As Reagan, to clinch the Republican hold on the South, made common cause with racists -- a step his predecessors had refused to take -- so Obama, to move Wall Street reliably into the Democratic column, will be tempted to weaken or destroy unions, to dissociate himself from peace activists and defenders of civil liberties, and to lose what he can afford to lose of the base that brought him to power. (There were hints of this as early as August, in Robert Gibbs's comment that Obama's left-wing critics "ought to be drug tested.")
Like Reagan, Obama now cultivates a style of deliberate platitude. "Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age." There are times when the strenuous blandness passes finally into a vacuity of non-meaning: "We can't win the future with a government of the past." What is a government of the past? And what could it mean to win the future?
A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts. There were signs of this pattern in the group of former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, whom the president brought in to endorse the START nuclear pact; in the generals who were called on to solidify support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; and in Bill Clinton holding a presidential press briefing on the economy. Obama, on such occasions, serves as host and introducer; he leaves the podium to the experts. The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.
The obvious conclusion is forced on us. Barack Obama, starting in 2002 -- the year he declared at a Chicago rally his opposition to the coming war against Iraq -- had a keen eye on his political rise, but he had slender experience and a narrow focus disguised by inspirational special effects. In earlier years, he was protected by the Chicago Democratic machine; after 2004, he was shepherded by leaders of the Democratic party who disliked the Clintons or feared that Hillary Clinton could never win a presidential election. His apparent convictions -- on the environment, on the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation: matters of more concern to him than health care -- were resonant and sincere but they had never been brought to a test. It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were.
"We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America," said Barack Obama shortly before the 2008 election. "I am absolutely certain," he had said in St. Paul when he clinched the Democratic nomination, "that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."
In retrospect, that messianic fervor is shocking. Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
A Corporate Ideology
David Bromwich, Yale professor and persistent Obama critic, has some insights that are similar to my own: