Why Obama Failed

I imagine a lot of liberals are pretty upset right now.

The last time you went shopping, you probably noticed the way shopping carts form long, semi-pliant metal trains. Long rows of them are pushed carefully around the parking lot. Pushing a long, cumbersome, and heavy collection of carts comes with its share of resistance, especially when curbs and narrow areas hinder progress.

I imagine the governance of a legislative body, or a country, must feel awfully similar to this. Imagine each cart is a different element upon which effective governance depends: constituent representation, corporate interests, money pressures, campaign realities, data polls, and other political imperatives. That's a lot of carts, and each one connects with and hinders the rest.

President Obama is detail-oriented, and far from stupid. Consequently, his leadership style involves pushing an extremely large, extremely heavy cart train in front of him. He wants to hear all the necessary input before he makes a decision. He wants to see all the possibilities. He wants to consider ideas that have already been discussed and find ways to keep the best ideas on the table. These are admirable qualities for a legislator, and admirable qualities for certain sorts of Executive governance, but a leader cannot exclusively rely on this 'leading from behind' approach, for it can actively hinder effective leadership under specific circumstances.

One such circumstance is taking place right now. We've just witnessed a battle over who wins the 'narrative,' a battle that was dominated, and won, by the Tea Party Republicans in the House. They brought a big idea to the table, one that made sense to enough constituents to stick. The Democrats have no such corporeality. All they have are their bumbling, exasperated responses to the reality-divorced Tea Party. Eugene Robinson stated last week that, 'progressives need a big idea,' but unfortunately, all we're getting from them are sighs and shrugged shoulders.

Going back to Obama and his failed leadership - in the battle over big ideas, the time for conciliatory speeches and 'reasonable' rhetoric' is over. There is plenty of time for adult discussion, nuance and research, but the world we live in is a far cry from the world occupied by most of our previous Presidents. The White House, historically, hasn't had to double as an advertising agency quite to the degree it does now, and unfortunately, the reasonable adults in the White House still don't get to what extent they're failing in that regard.

This failure was no more evident than when the petulance, stubbornness and personal nastiness of the GOP was widely portrayed as their 'holding firm' and 'sticking to core values.' Obama, on the other hand, held his jaw too tightly after a particularly rough day of negotiations, and was immediately pounced on by members of the Washington elite press - David Brooks most notably - who went after him for 'personalizing the issue,' and 'los[ing] his cool.' This is not so much about the media taking sides as it is about the media following the narrative that both sides have handed to them, and in this case, Obama defied his own narrative, which is fine, but he did so 'in the moment' and without much context, and it came off as weak.

Obama's speeches - the content of which I think he truly believes - make much gravy over the fact that he has much faith in the American people, people who, he insists, all 'know better.' In a sense, whether you love him or hate him, you're hearing Obama say 'the people aren't stupid, so I'm not going to lower myself by telling them something they already know.' That's the gist of Obama's entire approach to the Presidency. It's full of great intentions, and seeks not to talk down to the American people, but it shows a dangerous disregard for the media landscape we live in, and the manner in which even the most sensible citizens fall prey to the machinations of modern media culture.

Leaders shouldn't just take a long view on education, on defense, on poverty and economics and health care, as I genuinely believe Obama does. Leaders also inspire with clear narratives for the people they work for, their constituents, the ones who put them in office. Obama's pragmatism and common sense are values that, outside of Washington, have no peer. Inside of Washington, however, they are qualities that can be exploited, attacked and ultimately sabotaged. In Washington, these qualities are weaknesses.

In this sense, then, Obama's leadership has failed, because the big idea belongs solely to the Tea Party, a relatively small but vocal minority who have capitalized on the carnal needs of the amoral, story hungry news media. Most in the Tea Party don't merely possess business savvy, but rather a Business theocracy exercised through the use of well oiled Corporate PR tools: press releases, shareholder coddling, the fine tuning of mission statements, press conferences and old fashioned advertisements.

The Tea Party's big idea - which has dominated the discussion - is simple: cut wasteful spending, don't raise taxes, and business - and subsequently jobs - will thrive. It's a simple idea, it's easy to follow, and - conveniently - the powerful Corporate Lobby in Washington benefits directly from it, and has a stake in constructing a narrative that magically transforms the successes of the very few into the promised gains for all Americans.

Supply side economics -the main crux of the Tea Party's big idea - may be a failed theory, but it doesn't really figure into the equation, because the media isn't working out of the Reagan idiom anymore. This is a new age for media, so as far as that goes, all slates are clean, all bets are off, facts be damned, and we have to fight our way through this discredited trickle down nonsense all over again.

The news media enables this trickle down success narrative by trumpeting the success of the few and making it a success for us all. They romanticize successful corporations and their rockstar CEOs, taking their success and tying it to the overall success of the United States as a nation. In fact, the breadth and relevance of American Corporations, particularly in the post 9/11 world, act as powerful surrogates for US global relevance and expansionism. Touting the prominence and success of businesses in this country, as the Tea Party's big idea asserts, is a way of relating the value and worth of this country with the value and worth of the Corporations who stand to benefit the most from the way our tax code is set up.

The biggest, most, prominent Corporations are pre-disposed to stunning success. Giving them a way to accelerate that success and, at least in theory, passing along the savings to the average American, is a great exercise in American exceptionalism and jingoism. It's also a whole lot more immediate and enticing than proposing we continue to invest in social programs whose success or failure does remotely follow the narrative that the success of our biggest companies gives the United States its value, and worth, and global relevance.

In short, we're falling for something that is irresistible, makes us feel better about ourselves, but isn't really true. What's worse, it's not being made clear to us who the real winners and losers even are.

Case in point: even after an exhausting abundance of information about the 'debt ceiling deal' pouring out from stolid news outlets like NPR, its still not entirely clear who serves to benefit from it. NPRs analysis - stitched together from informed, insider input from pro-capitalist, pro-business, beltway analysts and think tanks - should be the first, most obvious piece of information imparted to us as viewers and citizens. Unfortunately, it's obstructed. The message itself is an obstruction, a narrative device rife with contradictory information.

Like I intimated above, we're not getting any kind of straight talk from virtually anybody with access to Washington, and the confusion has kept us detached, disillusioned, even apathetic throughout this whole weeks-long conflict between the House Leadership and the Executive office.

Ours is a corrupt, dysfunctional system, one stemming from broken campaign finance laws and a bloated lobby representing self-serving Corporate interests. We get our information on this dysfunctional system from a self-serving mainstream media that actually enables and perpetuates the dysfunction it covers, making it a less than ideal filter through which to see Washington, and Government. Everything is not normal, and the way things are right now is far from okay, but you'd never know it listening to the nightly news. There is no sense of real outrage. Calling it 'just another day in Washington,' as I have heard many analysts do, not only legitimizes the problem, but actually aids and abets it.

Government is still, in theory, even at its most light and ineffectual, an entity that possesses the pretense, at least, of being 'by the people, of the people and for the people.' In moments throughout our history, our finest moments as a country have almost always been the moments that we put aside some of our worst corrupt influences and self serving ideologies in service of an ideal that goes way, way beyond the daily news cycle. Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks have been a textbook exercise in what happens when Government fails the people it represents and begins looking out for its own interests.


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