The People Our Parents Warned Us Against

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The Obama campaign refrain, “We are the people we have been waiting for” was meant to be a revelation of responsibility – not to wait for others to shape the world the hopeful want, but to do it themselves. Obama’s political enemies (let’s be straight: they’re not critics – they’re enemies) represented the call as narcissistic self-regard. Funny, how people see things differently, and so unpredictably too.

The Boomers have all their lives been criticized for narcissism too. (Do you see a pattern in these conservative critiques? Sometimes they emerge quickly.) But along with Americans by the rest of the world, Boomers are probably the most simplistically generalized group of people in history. Most recently in this vein, Michael Kinsley, a writer I generally admire, offered up in The Atlantic, about the Boomers, one of those metanoiac pieces in which the writer puts forth a thesis and then, over the course of the essay, proceeds to qualify it so dramatically as to practically withdraw it. It helps to sell copy, though: “Self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing.…” One frequently overlooked truth about the Boomers early on – one segment of them – was that the hopeful world changers had a dark side. Hippies, quickly transformed into self-described freaks, well aware of their horrifying assault on the sensibilities of their elders and the world of bourgeois comfort and safety those elders had struggled so hard to create, used to write on bathroom walls: “We are the people our parents warned us against.” Then they dropped a dose.

It may well be that many younger people, and the congenitally optimistic and hopeful, received Barack Obama in an ecstasy of transformative yearning, but the leagues of the harder edged, even among liberals (where, too, the skeptical and caustic are found to reside) imagined no such silliness. Of course, they anticipated political change, yes, they did, and political change to one’s liking is always easily cast as transformative, even if human nature and the systems it creates remain stubbornly the same. The more worldly weary, then, recognized the flights of inspirational campaign rhetoric when they heard it. It was, as it always is, aimed at those by nature or experience susceptible to it, even as those tougher cases dreamed in their more nuts and bolts fashion of universal healthcare and paused with some emotion that a black man had been elected President of the United States. Does this sound cynical? Well, yes, it is. Politics – here’s a revelation – is a cynical business.

Of course, there are people who enter politics with good intentions and worthy goals. And it happens that they encounter other people – in addition to the opportunistic and the corrupt – who also have good intentions and worthy goals, but which are different from theirs. Amazingly, these people do not change each other. They each, frustratingly, believe just as fervently. They may work out deals where possible and when absolutely necessary. But they are mostly in contention, perennial, unending, how-can-I-defeat-you-to-get-what-I-believe-in contention. This does not end – not in any stage of evolutionary development of which we can conceive.

There are people who see the world and politics this way, and those who don’t. Many of those who see the world this way are actually – wouldn’t you know it – in politics. They also know about the other kind of people. They know those people want to believe. Yes, even Barack Obama. So the pols give them something to believe. While the pols play politics to achieve their ends.

So The New York Times gives us this morning Democrats Outrun by a 2-Year G.O.P. Comeback Plan, a fine, fascinating piece of reporting by Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny that would have been finer and more fascinating, and more meaningful, had it been published in February or March of 2009, let’s say, rather than now. It begins by reporting on

a strategy session held 11 days before Mr. Obama’s inauguration, when top Republican leaders in the House of Representatives began devising an early blueprint for what they would accomplish in Tuesday’s election: their comeback.

Get that. The crowning of Obama’s and Democratic victory had yet to take place, but the defeated were already plotting their return. That is the resilience of the true political combatant. Nixon knew it after 1962, and again after ’74. Bill Clinton knows it.

At the strategy session there was a presentation.

“If the goal of the majority is to govern, what is the purpose of the minority?” one slide asked.

“The purpose of the minority,” came the answer, “is to become the majority.”

The believers, the more idealistic might think, “Shouldn’t the purpose of the minority be to help the majority govern, working together when they can, advocating otherwise for what they think are the better policies?” That’s sweet, isn’t it?

At that Republican retreat in January 2009, gathering inside a historic inn in Annapolis, Md., the group — led by Representatives John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the whip — did not tolerate the hand-wringing that consumed so many Republicans that dark winter.

Improbably, Mr. Boehner’s team turned the notion that Republicans could not afford to be the “Party of No” — or, in his words, the party of “Hell no” — on its ear, successfully portraying it as a virtue in the face of Mr. Obama’s legislative priorities. But even that team never predicted the sort of victory they experienced Tuesday night.

“I remember people laughing at me back when they thought Republicans were a lot like dinosaurs,” Representative Pete Sessions, the Texan who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview. “Our mission statement was to retire Nancy Pelosi. That was the whole mission statement.” [Emphasis added]

There was more involved, as the article acknowledges. There was the awful economy, which was foundation for it all, the effect of the Citizen’s United decision, and there was the summer of rage, high point of a virulently xenophobic and racist two-year campaign to demonize Obama.

It was generally acknowledged when Obama took office that he did so facing a complex of problems greater in scope and consequence than at any time since FDR’s presidency. He did so after waging a stunning and modern upset campaign of remarkable focus and technique against wizened veterans. What is striking two years into his term is how generally well and coolly he has governed and how badly he has managed the politics of governance. It isn’t just the effects of the two to be noted either. His presence is different.

It appears that the campaign was a kind of performance for Obama. That’s not a criticism in itself. We are all performers of the different aspects of ourselves. But it was a performance he could only maintain, it appears, when it was his sole focus. Drawn in necessarily by the work of governance, Obama has not maintained that highly energized and focused campaign persona that a successful president must also maintain. Increasingly, he appears slow of speech, professorial, and uninspiring. This was not a problem for Bill Clinton. It may well be that Obama is a more genuine person, while Clinton is the real deal: the real phony. His whole life is a performance as political player. For Obama, that was just the campaign.

Since Obama seems not have been able to govern and campaign simultaneously, he permitted, in a high-mindedness he sometimes, weakly articulated, that campaign of vilification against him to go forcefully, effectively unanswered. It is unlikely that any major American political figure has ever had his public persona so darkly altered by his political opponents over so brief a period of time. Increasingly, Obama, rather than any kind of dynamic leader, appears Carterized, both as the Right has wounded him and in the ineffectuality of his presence.

However, what the Times article reminds us of is how quickly true fighters regroup from defeat to plan for future victory. The next two years will tell much definitively about the stuff of which Obama is made. Those who talk of bipartisanship, supposedly offered by the Right at the start of Obama’s administration, or to be wisely pursued by Obama now, are best recommended to Rutenberg and Zeleny. Intelligence like Obama’s is very valuable to effective leadership. Dynamism is crucial. Wisdom is invaluable, and wisdom begins in pattern recognition.


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