GUEST POST: IF THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS, THIS IS NOT IT

Posted in Rants on June 22nd, 2010 by Ed

(The following commentary was submitted by regular commenter HoosierPoli. Aside from being generally interesting – albeit considerably longer than you're used to on this site – it is relevant to the current BP situation among other Obama-related issues. As inexperienced bloggers stand to benefit the most from feedback, I'm sure that the author would appreciate your reactions. Without further ado, I present "Barack Obama Is Not Your Personal Fucking Santa Claus.")

Lately, there has been an undeniable trend in the medium of modern discourse in which I find myself writing. I lack a better term for it, so I am forced to call it the “Self-Righteous Liberal Bitch-o-Sphere” (Actually, I take that back; that IS the best term for it). Anyway, since you’re here, reading this, you know what I’m talking about: an endless procession of what passes in the US for leftists, saying at every turn how Barack Obama is actually a secret conservative Clintonite triangulator who’d just as soon sell out his dead mother to cash in on the old Washington games; a golden-tongued huckster who sold us on a Utopian ideal and then delivered more “business as usual”. I’m not sure what’s more distressing; that so-called educated and informed people have swallowed right-wing narratives hook line and sinker, or that they’ve convinced themselves that it’s actually of their own devising.

This “movement” seems to consist of a number of readily-identifiable groups. You’ve got your standard neo-hippie cranks, for whom any economic or political event only serves to further validate their Glenn-Beck-in-hemp-underwear eschatology, to the point that they will ignore actual facts and burn heretics at the metaphorical stake for DARING to suggest that perhaps man’s hubris and disregard for Gaia may not be, at this immediate point in time, destroying civilization as we know it. You’ve got your political idealists, whose first exposure to American politics in its most unfiltered form was the Obama campaign, and who, as a result, have a view of government functionality that can only be described as wildly hallucinogenic. You’ve got your lazy liberals, who feel that if they hit FireDogLake AND the Daily Kos in one day, they’ve done their part to make the world a better place. And you have, here and there, a smattering of people who either know what the fuck they’re talking about and/or actually get off their asses and help improve the world, one small piece at a time. This last group is so tiny that they really don’t fall within the scope of this criticism.

But what all these people have in common is this: They all view George W. Bush as something approaching the purest embodiment of evil in history, and if not, then he’s a close second to Ronald Reagan. They blame everything from Katrina and Abu Ghraib, to 9/11 (in various forms) and the current Gulf disaster on the Bush Administration, sometimes shorthanded to just Bush. Either way, in their minds, Bush was personally involved in or responsible for almost all of the terrible decisions and policy disasters of the last two presidential terms.

I certainly understand the allure of this narrative; in fact, I admit that I fall prey to it with more frequency than I’d like. However, this narrative is misleading, and I’m not here to defend George W. Bush, but to show how it is distorting people’s ideas about what Obama is, or should be.

There are two fundamental errors in the Bush as Antichrist mindset:

The first mistake is assuming Bush had anything to do with the disasters attached to his name.

Bush and Ronald Reagan were very different people, with very different backgrounds and ideologies. It’s easy to forget now that Bush was a born-again and Reagan barely even WENT to church. But their administrations served remarkably similar priorities, and this stems from their most important commonality: They were both absolutely STUNNINGLY incompetent executives.

Neither of them had any idea what their various appointees were doing, or even necessarily who they were. The picture that has emerged of the Bush administration since its merciful departure has been not one of calculated malevolence, but one of almost pitiable impotence. Bush and Reagan were both quite personable campaigners who couldn’t administer a government if their life depended on it. The consequence of that is that when they took power, the people around them who actually knew the score had a very easy time doing pretty much whatever the fuck they wanted with no consequences whatsoever. Reagan had his Ollie North, Bush had his Donald Rumsfeld, and these guys are not exceptions. The Minerals Management Service was not a case of the foxes watching the henhouse; it was a case of NOBODY watching the henhouse and the foxes just walking right in and doing whatever they pleased.

You can certainly argue that Bush bears MORAL responsibility for what happened on his watch, but that doesn’t really mean jack shit at this point. He had no idea what people were actually up to underneath him. They simply gave him some marginal decisions to make, he would Decide them, then kick back feeling good about himself while they kept doing whatever the fuck they wanted. Just look at the financial crisis. When the shitstorm hit in September of 08, if you listen to the people that were there, Bush had literally no idea AT ALL what was happening. Not only did he not expect it, he didn’t even understand it. And when it came time for him to be The Decider, who was it presenting him with the decision? The former head of Goldman Sachs, a man that I guarantee you Bush did not personally select to be Treasury Secretary, but rather was a name selected for him by some Undersecretary of Buttfucking the Taxpayer, which he signed off on and gave a nice speech and then kicked back with a nice run and an evening of reflecting on how history will validate his Leadership. So Mr. Paulson shows him a plan to give tons of money to banks and Bush says “OK, whatever you think, Mr. Smart Suit-Wearing Guy”.

The point I really want to be stressing here is that at no point is one person in charge of all these terrible fucking decisions. It’s a bunch of different people, all of them assholes, most of them on the take, doing whatever the fuck they please. There’s nobody at the top, not even Cheney, and CERTAINLY not Bush. The second mistake is thinking that if Bush could get what he wanted, and Obama can’t, then Barack Obama must either be a worse executive than Bush or he must be a secret conservative.

This is a well-worn tale: “Bush got trillion-dollar tax cuts with only fifty votes in the Senate! He got the Patriot Act and gutted regulations, etc. He knew how to bring the hammer down to get what he wanted, and so if Obama can’t get (the public option/financial reform/energy bill/whatever) passed, he must not actually want it”.

This is a steaming crock of bullshit and it should be obvious why by now. At no point during his presidency did Bush ever get a single thing he wanted. The closest thing I can think of to an actual idea that started with Bush would be either No Child Left Behind or possibly the Mars program, and he actually got neither; neither was funded, neither has had any noticeable impact, both were basically DOA. Recently Bush claimed that he believed that oil should be phased out and wind energy is the wave of the future and, call me crazy, I think he’s telling the truth. If so, then it should be pretty fucking obvious that W was not the one calling the shots in his administration.

No, what Bush got was what OTHER PEOPLE wanted. Massive tax cuts for the ridiculously wealthy were, I promise you, not Bush’s intellectual baby. It was an idea that one of his advisors said would be a good thing, and a bunch of Congressmen agreed, and Bush signed off on it. Every major piece of legislation Bush signed was something he AGREED to, not something he specifically TRIED to get. In other words, the 8 years of Bush’s presidency, that long national nightmare, was really nothing more than bland acquiescence to an murderous and insane status quo. I expect that the outcome would have been identical if there had been no President at all.

A note about the Sympathetic Fallacy.*

The sympathetic fallacy is the very human tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human things. It is the source of our unshakable belief that our computers can understand us when we curse at them. It is (probably) the source of belief in God (but let’s not go there today). But, most relevant to our topic, it is the reason that we insist upon attributing human characteristics to governments, which may be made up of people but absolutely do not make decisions or in any way operate in the way that a person does. We like to say that the government “wants” this or that, but a government cannot “want” anything, because it is not a person. Unfortunately, this fallacy is really more on the level of a basic psychological illusion: even if we know about it, it won’t go away. And because it is so pernicious, it even demands a face to go along with that personality, and today, the face of the Government is none other than Barack Obama.

And so we come back to our Criticism-From-The-Left Obama haters. I have culled just a few comments from a comment section at Unnamed Liberal Blog (see if you can recognize it!), which I have deemed to be representative (of course, the reader is free to make their own judgments):

"I've sadly come to regard Obama as a Rockefeller Republican, but maybe he's further to the right than that"

“It seemed clear to me during the campaign that Obama was more conservative than most of my acquaintances thought, and I think his actions since the election demonstrate that. He talks nicely, but he's just not comfortable with radical solutions to anything (with 'radical' defined in terms of "sudden, dramatic changes of course")”

“News flash folks — Obama is to the right of Clinton, and HE was to the right of Eisenhower.”

I could do this all night, but you get my point. It started very early on, grew to an absolute fever pitch during the health care deba(cle)te, and has stuck around like a 4pm wine-and-Jagermeister hangover. If Obama is synonymous with “socialist” on the right, on the left it’s synonymous with “sellout”. On everything from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to immigration, Obama is seen as, at best, a total pussy, and at worst, a JAP (Just Another Politician).

But let’s be brutally honest with ourselves: Our last President showed us what the status quo is. Bush, by being essentially a rubber stamp (don’t let anyone get it backwards; in the 2000s, Congress did the pushing, Bush did the rolling over), demonstrated what our modern Federal government, left to its own devices, will get up to. And yet, whenever the CURRENT Federal government comes up with something that looks unpalatably familiar, the blame is instantly and unthinkingly heaped at the feet of Obama, invariably with some intolerably clever comment involving either “hope” or “change”.

Now I’m not here to be an Obama ballboy, but I do know this: Barack Obama is not a king. Barack Obama does not occupy 535 Congressional seats. Barack Obama’s opinions and beliefs about the way this country should be going, how we should be handling gay rights and global warming and Social Security, these count for EXTRAORDINARILY little when it comes to the governing process. Forget that tripe you learned as a kid about “the most powerful person in the world”; the President has got very little power beyond the ability to nominate judges and pray that he can get the head of the Ways and Means Committee to go along with his budget priorities. Our eight years of Bushanoia have given us an incredibly distorted view of what a President can actually accomplish; we just assumed that it was Bush at the wheel, when in reality he was passed out drunk in the trunk of the car. And so insofar as our government has accomplished anything even REMOTELY progressive or positive (and, in case you’ve forgotten, it has) in the past year and a half, the credit belongs to the incredible energy and discipline Obama has instilled in his administration, both directly and through his appointees.

Of course, I can already hear the (and I borrow humbly the term of the excellent Al Giordiano) poutrage machine beginning to stir from its slumber. “Fucking Obamabot” it will begin, its wit as sharp as ever. “You’re so stupid as to believe that Obama actually wants to change things. In reality, he WANTS offshore drilling, and he doesn’t want to help out gays. He wants a weak energy bill, and a crippled healthcare bill, and watered down token ‘progressive’ legislation while he bails out the bankers and screws over the working guy. He’s just another, differently colored cog in The Machine”.

To which I say: You could certainly be right. I mean, given all the layers of abstraction and sausage-making machinery between Obama and the rest of us, there’s really no way for us to tell. But if you make that argument, you have to make one conceit. If you actually believe that Barack Obama personally supports everything the Congress and Federal government have done so far in his presidency, you really have no choice but to admit that Barack Obama is the most talented political leader to ever walk the Earth. Because for an executive to always get what they “really want” on every single issue would be an absolutely unprecedented miracle of governance. If that is the case, then Barack Obama is playing some 11th-dimensional chess on a scale that has never before been witnessed.

Or, if you’re like me and you prefer the more likely explanation, Barack Obama is probably a fairly progressive person (if you pay attention to what actually comes out of his mouth, especially before he ran for president, this seems reasonably probable) and, more than anything, a highly talented executive who has managed to wrangle an mind-bogglingly huge bureaucracy, based on a frail and nearly-obsolete Constitution, chock-full of ideological opponents, massive egos, fabulously wealthy interests, and just plain antagonistic assholes and backwoods idiots, and managed to do more good with it in eighteen months than anyone in the past forty years. And on that point, the record is mercifully clear.

So next time you start to go on a tear about how Obama wants this, or Obama did that, or Obama is ignoring the netroots, or Obama is defending this or that Bush policy, please remember the sympathetic fallacy. The government is not a person, and Barack Obama is not your personal fucking Santa Claus.

*I have borrowed this section in part from a much smarter and more insightful commentator than I, but unfortunately I can no longer remember the source. If anyone could let me know who I’m ripping off here, I would like to add a proper citation.