…how can a bright-enough president repeatedly miss the key ingredient for greatness, even popularity? How can his entire staff dismiss the two irrefutable lessons from a dimwitted predecessor: 1) never diss your base in your first term (goodbye, re-election); and 2) never forget legacies are rarely about what you do, even say, but how aggressively you tag your generation’s most pernicious enemy?
Written by Robert Becker
How quickly the meteoric prince has fallen to earth, with a thud. The splashy campaigner has morphed into a cross between Neville Chamberlain, England’s Nazi appeaser, and George Armstrong Custer, rushing into an ambush at the Little Big Horn. Few recall Chamberlain, whose compromises to belligerent Hitler spurred, rather than deflected war – not that I am offering absurd Nazi parallels. And yet, appeasing bullies is a curious strategy for a newcomer once rich with political capital.
Everyone knows Custer, the forerunner George (to our W.): he simply thought the world of himself, presumed invincibility, ignored intelligence, and was wiped out by indigenous guerilla-warriors, latter day insurgents. Certainly, no comparisons apply: our Big Little W. had better PR, nailed a $7 million book advance, and triumphs today, in Dick Cheney’s welcome absence, as America’s top career liar. In contrast, the young Custer died having served his country with a brilliant, military career, was literate and educated, even showed courage when cornered at his Last Stand. W.’s idea of heroism is torturing untried suspects while sending other people’s children to die in brutal wars that kill millions of civilians.
‘Age of Rage’ Demands Enemies
Back to Obama, whom you can’t fault for mimicking a bevy of corporate-friendly White House precursors, successfully passing high-sounding legislation that leaves entrenched systems intact, broken or otherwise. Old news, but mysteries endure: how can a bright-enough president repeatedly miss the key ingredient for greatness, even popularity? How can his entire staff dismiss the two irrefutable lessons from a dimwitted predecessor: 1) never diss your base in your first term (goodbye, re-election); and 2) never forget legacies are rarely about what you do, even say, but how aggressively you tag your generation’s most pernicious enemy?
Today, in the Age of Rage, politics 101 demands re-electable leaders understand that: 1) establishing formidable enemies trumps making (or not making) friends; and 2) since bad-enough evil-doers don’t appear on schedule, you must invent them, inflate their menace, and show populist anger, notably by breaking the budget and threatening national bankruptcy.
Smirking W. gets this, thus his unapologetic, transparent lies: many historians will overlook his dismal showing by selling his epochal role — searching out, defining, and facing down the era’s great nemesis — terrorism. Forget few shadowy top terrorists were fought or dispatched in absurd wars: W.’s historic gift to the west is declaring unilateral, pre-emptive war against the most ill-defined, undefeatable, and indefatigable of enemies.
Bush’s masterwork dramatizes what ails Obama Democrats — approval depends not only on mere personal qualities (you know, “character,” per Sarah Palin) but the awfulness of your declared enemy and the ferocity of your fight, theatrical or otherwise. Bush-Cheney-Rove should be recognized for achieving a virtual miracle, elevating obscure, cave-dwelling, stateless murderers alongside Hitler or Stalin or Satan. What Obama desperately needs, but won’t, or can’t, establish is a dire enemy worth his salt, menacing enough to retouch his badly-tarnished rhetoric. What memorable hero survives without a fitting nemesis — did David not slam Goliath, Lincoln the Rebellion, and FDR both Germany and Japan?
Foreign-born Fits the Bull, or Bill
Certainly, presidents favor culturally-alien foes, the further away and more “foreign” the better, ideally a blank slate on which to project whatever evil justifies crushing invasions. Good enemies should be covert, sneaky fanatics eager to massacre innocents, especially Yanks, in bloodcurtling manner, say, beheading. Sometime fanatics help with the details, tragically.
How else does this Age of Rage drive American Tea Party politics – overflowing with frenzied whining and ignorant outrage? Who cares if rancor is misdirected from real adversaries (billionaires, reactionaries, fear-mongers) to hapless, “colonial” presidents born who knows where? Why else does Michelle Bachmann harp on Obama’s “anti-American” biases, or Palin hiss he lacks faith in America for not invoking “American exceptionalism” every ten minutes?
Enemies are Made, not Born
Look, securing the perfect enemy is no easy task, more daunting even than passing diluted health insurance reform bills, or financial reform absent all-important, regulatory details. Audacity untethered, or demolishing your base, is dicey, and Obama doesn’t lack gall. Of all people, Ralph Nader scribes a brilliant satire, “My friend Barack,” a thank you note from W. appreciating not just the continuity but audacity to go where even Dick Cheney feared to tread.
Appeasement aside, what really sets Obama apart — from Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton –failing to cement an unambiguous, global enemy — like Russia, communism, Saddam, terrorism. Bad luck, in part. Energy planning or climate change might have worked, but not nationalistic enough and too dependent on statistics and science. Sadly, domestic dinosaurs are not the best targets. First, they’re not foreign enough, and they avoid beheadings. How long can millions hate a mere Bachmann, tiresome attack dog Palin, or dusty John Boehner? Cripes, they claim to be pro-American, banish the thought. Frankly, the entire fringe is already packed with crude self-parodies, so dangerously vacuous they’d feed on direct assaults like mutating bacteria .
What worked so well for candidate Obama — depict W. as king-sized, imperial, American dunce, both dense and dishonest — evaporates against many extremists, whether FOX nincompoops or pipsqueak losers like Christine O’Donnell sent to the showers. Where’s the leverage in demonizing Mitch McConnell, a cross between a dyspeptic pharmacist and a chinless, Pillsbury Doughboy?
Take No Prisoners?
The best ploy is putting forth a ruthless, dastardly enemy who broaches no compromise, thus impeding more appeasement. I nominate the obvious — GOP regressives who want to explode the deficit with continued tax relief for the richest while stripping everything else but defense, including Medicare. Is this rocket science? But Obama’s addiction — never refusing to seize a mushy compromise — shows little care to establish over-riding principles, even that he has any. What Obama needs is a full dose of Harry “give ’em hell” Truman – and a PR genius invoking some new Saddam, or new Stalin. Fat chance.
Unhappily, Bush again shows the way: never compromise, just find some entity millions can hate, week after week. Perhaps Bush lucked out on the prime “Them” vs. “Us” gimmick for a decade, but even then, strong implementation demands killer political instinct invisible in this president. My worst audacity of fear is Obama, like Bush, believes re-election hinges on upping his war presidency status, for that means a new or amplified conflicts overseas. That also means big new Big Lies to fuel a Big Enemy.
This president may already be the most premature lame-duck in our history — half-way done and done for. Time isn’t on his side as the Party of No (ideas) has won a midterm by linking anti-American Obama to its mainline enemy: government in the abstract, and federalism in the specific. Against gutter fighters, the smiling guy talking conciliation doesn’t stand a chance, less so if the unlikely Palin gets the nominee. Yet even against a bigtime, loudmouth quitter like Palin, who looks the fighter because she spits fire, a passive wimp will hardly impress boisterous, angry Americans who value belligerence and nerve above knowledge and sense.
Robert S. Becker