In June 14th New York Review of Books David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, considers the conundrum of Barack Obama’s Presidency so far, resulting in a shellacking as comprehensive as any delivered by the polls or the pundits.
Walter Bagehot divided government into two elements – The Dignified and The Efficient. The Dignified concerned itself with ceremony, majesty, foreign affairs and state occasions, be they happy or sad; The Efficient with making laws, striking bargains between factions and party business. ‘Barack Obama from the start of his presidency has exhibited an almost exclusive taste for the dignified.’ He is slow to react, be it the Gulf oil-spill, the Fukushima disaster, the management of legislation such as Health Reform and even personal insults such as the Birther long-form distraction. It also provides his opponents with swift victories in the court of public opinion – the Netanyahu entanglement is a prime example.
The spat between President Obama and Congress over the War Powers Act (1973) in regard of Libya shows the first sign of opposition to the aggrandizement of executive power begun by Pres. G.W.Bush. Obama’s response shows a ‘mixture of arrogance and disregard’ as well as highlighting the problems that arise from his propensity to be specific when he would be served to be vague. Libya was promised to be ‘days’ not ‘weeks’, it is now ‘months’.
Obama was in Brazil when he announced the military action against Libya – in keeping with his propensity to stay ‘away’ from Washington and present himself as a statesman above the ‘disagreeableness’ in Washington, in doing so he plays the ‘outsider’ card of Carter, Reagan, Clinton and G.W.Bush. Bush Snr knew he would never have been able to play that ‘role’.
While it was successful for Clinton and Regan it made Carter and G.W.Bush seem incompetent and disengaged. The latter seems increasing applicable to Obama. ‘He retains the wish to be seen as a man above party; and a more general distaste for politics is also involved.
But what is Barack Obama if not a politician? He seems to suggest organizer, pastor, principle, values-counsellor or ‘moderator’ of national concerns. He has shifted from tours of town halls to televised speeches – Tucson Memorial (Jan 12), State Department (May 19) saw him move from the ‘problem’ of antagonism in national debate to the problem of the middle east: Being President of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barrack Obama than being President of the US.
This taste from global travel, being outside the Beltway and grand address matches his preference for symbolic authority of grand utterances over actual authority of directed policy. Is speeches cast him as a ‘holder-forth’ and yet ‘it is never clear what follows for him from the fact that the world is listening’.
His grand rhetoric on the modern world also sits ill with his bouts of spasmodic engagement and his vagueness in defining a policy jars with his wish to embrace a challenge. The Arab spring has shown his universal rhetoric inapplicable to specific places such as Bahrain. However his Arab spring language shows his understanding of the American example of democracy as unique and the conception of the USA as ‘the most grown up country in the world’ and it has led him to several commands (Qaddafi must go; Egypt must begin (transition)) of dubious authority save that of belief in ‘the uniqueness of America’s example. He constantly endorses non-violence but regularly cites the American Revolution and the Civil war – both instances of the need for violence – as well as championing a violent rebellion. The point is worth making only because the contradictions – which seem to have passed into his thinking undetected – must have been instantly obvious to his Arab listeners’.
As well as ‘American Uniqueness’ he also espouses the rhetoric of ‘American generosity’ – his Nobel speech was an example of this and oddly mismatched to the event. His portrayal of WWII, Korea and Kosovo as America willingly bearing its burden to help the world recalls William Gladstone’s portrayal of the British Empire:
- “The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity”
- “The high office of bringing Europe into concert, and keeping Europe in concert, is an office specially pointed out for your country to perform. That happy condition, so long as we are believed to be disinterested in Europe, secures for us the noblest part that any Power was ever called up to play.”
Both suppose ‘a policy of national self-interest will prove identical with a policy of international nobility and self-sacrifice’. It also assumes the whole world wants ‘commercial democracy’ (as far as it adheres to US interests).
Obama’s style has made him vulnerable to his opponent – The State Dept. speech on Israeli being an example – his general terms coupled with specifics such as reference to the 1867 boarders (with the caveat of ‘swap deals’ around such geography) was met by Netanyahu’s immediate rebuke of the ’67 map (with no mention of the swap deals) despite it being the basis for US-Israeli-Palestinian discussions for years. The moderate Professor was in conflict with the immoderate street-brawler.
This altercation then aggregated over a series of public meetings – Obama’s further detailing of his policy to AIPAC 2011 Convention, Netanyahu’s repost to the same audience the next day and then, on the eve of Obama’s departure to speak to the Irish about the ‘O’bamas’ and ‘hope’, the skewering of he received by the rapturously received Netanyahu on Obama’s home court: Congress. Netanyahu ramped up his opposition to any of the Presidents subtleties and portrayed himself as the (all but) All American hero – his subtext was ‘we are the home of freedom and wisdom among the ancients, just as you Americans are among the moderns.’ His mix of ancient biblical language, American-Israeli machismo, laudatory salutations to the USA and personal tales of time spent in both lands received an impressive twenty-nine standing ovations. ‘(Obama) was utterly overmatched by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. It is an unhappy fact of politics that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up. Netanyahu’s belief in his immoderate purpose is stronger than Obama’s belief in his moderate purpose’.
The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. The moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling and not to do anything very fast. Obama is caught in this contradiction and keeps getting deeper in, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still.
Netanyahu by Larry Roibal
Quote: It is an unhappy fact of politics that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up. David Bromwich.