Jan 122010

Via CNN I see that President Obama has considerately taken into account the date of the season premiere of LOST in deciding when to hold the annual State of the Union address:

Fear gripped the hearts of fans when it was announced that the president wanted to push back the annual State of the Union address – typically held in late January – to February 2, which everyone should know by now is the premiere of the ABC drama’s final season.

Crazy talk! Doesn’t he know people have been dying to find out what happened to the castaways?

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured viewers Friday he “doesn’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”

This non-news was not, I confess, particularly interesting to me, until I started reading the comments beneath it.

And boy, is America unhappy.

Remarks seem to be conforming to the following general categories:

(1) “Americans are pathetic. I can’t believe LOST is more important to some people than what the president has to say.”

(2) “Obama is pathetic. I can’t believe he’d change the date of his speech to suit a bunch of sheeple LOST fans.”

(3) “Politics and politicians of any stripe are pathetic. LOST will be more interesting and more factual than the heard-it-all-before SOTU.”

(4) “You’re all pathetic. Ever since the SOTU has been televised, presidents have taken into account conflicts with the normal viewing timetable.”

(5) “Everything is pathetic. LOST? State of the Union? Who gives a shit.”

The general malaise and negativity displayed in these 470 (yes, 470 comments) is breathtaking. In full awareness of the fact that this is anecdata, I’m still going to postulate that the Change which Obama hath wrought has been, on the whole, not so good. By far the most illuminating of the comments are the ones that express a deep and weary scepticism about why the date of this regular address is in question in the first place. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered in late January; the suggestion of postponing it until February (and thus creating a conflict with the LOST premiere) has led many people to believe that Obama wishes to be able to extol a successful healthcare reform bill therein. As far as I know, this sort of manoeuvring is rare; the whole point of the SOTU is to describe, duh, the state of the union at regular intervals. It loses much of its impact if the president gets to decide to describe the state of the union whenever he judges that state to be most positive.

Not to mention that Obama has been, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most speechifying presidents I can remember, having addressed the nation in this way at least three times that I can think of already in his first year of office. I realise these speeches have been topical, rather than holistic, but when you put them all together, we’ve had his words on education, healthcare, and the on-going wars in the Middle East. Possibly the economy as well, though I don’t remember that specifically. I think Americans are pretty up-to-date on the state of their union.

I suspect that much of the negativity and cynicism stems from the fact that Obama has gone about his presidency in entirely back-asswards fashion. Having campaigned on a platform that consisted largely of reversing the mahoosive mistakes of the Bush administration, once in office, he immediately set out to… not reverse any of them. Patriot Act? Still there. Guantanamo? Still there. Wars? Still there. Bailouts and stimuli? Still there. Discontinuing these things, while difficult, would have been popular on both sides of the political divide, as well as with the mythical ‘independent’ voters. Obama would have been seen to be cleaning up the mess and providing himself with a fresh slate, correcting the massive loss of civil liberties and doing his best to get the country back on its economic feet.

Instead of pursuing these popular campaign policies, however, he has spent the vast majority of the last year shilling for his Congressional party members and their ridiculous healthcare reform. A task as huge as the overhaul of the nation’s health infrastructure should have been begun cautiously, slowly, and thoroughly, with cost/benefit analyses, input from providers and consumers, multiple scenarios of best practice, and above all, genuine bi-partisan contribution. What Obama has allowed to happen, however, is the creation of a massive, cobbled-together bill based on the barest minimum of research into the health market, the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole, and containing almost innumerable lines inserted solely to get this or that special interest group onside, or this or that senator. The legislation is a gigantic fucked-up mess that appears designed, not to represent a unified vision of healthcare or emulate best practice elsewhere in the world, but to prove that the Democrats in Congress have done something, dammit, and it looks plausible if you stand back from it and squint a bit.

And Americans are not impressed. Yes, healthcare needed reform. Yes, Obama promised to do it. But did it have to be done so quickly, and in so slipshod a fashion, and at the expense of so much good he also promised?

Few presidents have had as unsuccessful a first year as Obama; even fewer have been almost the sole authors of their own failure. I do not envy the man, but I do not pity him, either. If Americans are unhappy, it is because Obama misjudged them; it is because he believed his initial popularity meant he didn’t have to conform. Ultimately, I think, Americans do not want a cult of personality. They want what they have always liked best: a competent, steady leader, with a sure hand on the helm and an appropriate sense of solemnity for the huge responsibility he bears. Obama has lurched from crisis to panic to embarrassment, and while he’s handled it with fairly good grace, he may at last be discovering that, to Americans, only Mr President deserves respect and confidence. Barack Obama will receive the same when he remembers that they come, not in response to his personal charms, but by grace of the office he holds.

  12 Responses to “Unhappy America”

  1. Hah, yes. In retrospect, “Change we can Believe In” takes on a somewhat sinister air.

    Yes, these changes are very believable.

  2. “the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole” – this means industry sans lobbyists, I assume. I was under the impression that another perceived failure of the Obama administration was its continuation of business as usual with regard to policy manipulation by the healthcare (well, health insurance) indistry.

    • I didn’t mean so much ‘sans lobbyists’, just that the ‘consultation’ has not been the sort of questions one might have expected. Rather than asking the industry what they think the main problems are and what solutions they might be able to suggest, Congress has made up its own solutions and ‘consulted’ the lobbyists about how best to make them go along with it. I would not characterise that as proper listening to people on the front line.

  3. Cato had a podcast a few months ago that predicted he would become one of the most unpopular presidents ever. The reasoning was that expectations were so high that it would be impossible to live up to them and that he would be overtaken by events, dear boy, events. This would lead to a massive backlash that he would find difficult to turn around.

    Having followed the health care debate fairly closely (for a Brit) I’m surprised he has any credibility left at all. They seem to have taken the worst parts of the NHS, medicare, medicade and the existing and added multiple layers of bureaucracy.

    Gitmo has been an introduction to real politik and it was obvious during the the election that he was setting himself up on this one. I suspect, though, that he has also been let down by EU and other countries. During the campaign they all made noises about how they want to help the new messiah overcome the wicked, evil, neo cons but nobody pointed out to him that they were all lying to bathe in his reflected glory, but there was no way they would take any of the terrorists and make themselves unpopular at home.

    This is a good piece: http://thelibertypen.blogspot.com/2009/07/obamas-waterloo-by-wayne-allyn-root.html

    It looks like he’s going through a faster rise and fall that St Tony, that’s some achievement.

    • Yes, he is certainly discovering just how much the president cannot do, as well as how difficult it is to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Now that Gitmo exists, there are all sorts of problems involved in making it un-exist. But still he could have given it a go, and explained to the American people why it’s such a thorny issue.

      But this healthcare reform – not the right priority at all. Fighting battles on many fronts is a textbook mistake. When at war, we should focus on the war; when in recession, we should focus on the recession; when the immediate problems are dealt with, then we can focus on the reforms – as long as we’ve done our research. Which nobody had bothered to do about healthcare, thus borrowing the worst bits from other countries while simultaneously retaining the worst bits of the system already in place. Argh.

      • Fighting battles on many fronts is a textbook mistake. When at war, we should focus on the war; when in recession, we should focus on the recession; when the immediate problems are dealt with, then we can focus on the reforms– as long as we’ve done our research.

        I like that, is it yours or are you quoting someone?

  4. Excellent commentary and analysis–well-written and insightful. It is a far better piece than I could have written, and exhibits far more restraint than I could have mustered in the event.

    • Thanks! Restraint is easy from a distance. You should think about expatting to Mexico with Hrothgar!

  5. You can probably track back to where Obama started going wrong when he did that bow to the Saudi King.
    Americans were certainly NOT impressed with that. The President of the Republic does not bow to anyone.

    With the rise of the Tea Party movement during the summer, you can argue that Obama has kept at least one pledge – “change you can believe in”. And by golly are the Tea Party activists about real change when it comes to rolling back the federal government.

    • I’m puzzled by the whole bowing-to-the-Saudi scandal. It’s not been that long since Obama met Queen Elizabeth – did he bow to her, as is the protocol? If so, then bowing to the Saudi king is no worse. If not, well, then it might be a problem.

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