Navigating America's Lost Political Journey

August 24, 2009

On today’s Op-Ed page in the Financial Times, columnist Clive Crook argues that the slumping Obama Presidency does not reflect unfavorable external circumstances but rather political ineptness by the president and his advisors especially on healthcare reform.  Both mistakes of substance and tactics have been made.  The administration is not learning from its errors but instead repeating them again and again.

It’s easy to accept Crook’s assessment, but the sense of deja vu after a series of failed presidencies begs one to dig more deeply.  The Bush 43 administration left town with super-low popularity ratings and a legacy of incompetence that will be hard for revisionist historians to rewrite credibly.  Clinton will be known for a personal scandal that went to an impeachment trial.  Even positive accomplishments of his era like prosperity, peace, and fiscal responsibility may be questioned because they did not last long into the Bush43 years.  The first Bush Presidency crumbled on a single broken promise even though it is the nature of politics that no pledge is 100% certain.  Ronald Reagan was popular in his day, yet the country is now paying a price for the greed-is-good culture of his reign and the rigid view that sees government as always the problem and never a solution.  Carter couldn’t work with a Democratic Congress and showed a goofiness that offended many voters.  Inflation went haywire on his watch, and there was that humiliating hostage situation in Iran.  Johnson and Nixon are widely depicted as mentally unstable in the final years of their presidencies.  Kennedy’s life was shrouded in secrecy and not what the public assumed.

The string of mishaps and disappointments makes one wonder why the U.S. presidency is so accident-proneRather than chalking it up to Murphy’s Law, I believe the pitfalls of American democracy in action at the national level are intrinsic to the system in which presidents perform.

A sense of national unity against a common foe has unraveled.  Attending school, I subliminally came to believe that the United States was undefeated in war and would always remain so.  Then came Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — conflicts with controversial justifications and without unconditionally victorious endings.  Sixty-four years have passed since World War II ended.  Nobody younger than the age of 80 has a strong direct memory of that era.  If a genuine U.S. sense of common purpose is to  revive and to transcend internal forces of separateness, America needs to defeat an external threat where no alternative outcome would permit the country to go forward.  Fact is that the interval since the Second World War is greater than the spaces between  earlier conflicts when all the marbles were on the line, namely the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  As a nation of immigrants bringing together numerous cultures and oral histories, America needs to slay dragons that imperil the whole country to cement patriotism, and it needs to feel those events first hand, not just through books.  That ingredient is fading with time and an exponential rate of population growth.

The lack of a clear common foe has promoted the polarization of American culture, wherein perceived we-they divisions have developed internally across social and economic classes, religious and moral affiliations, geographic regions, and between city  and suburban dwellers.  Effective governance invariably entails compromise, but that is not possible if very little common denominator can be found among the nation’s divided parts.  An irony in this reality is that it discredits the main premise of the Obama candidacy that there is no red-state America, no blue-state America, only a United States of America.

The electoral process has developed in ways that distance the skills of campaigning further apart from those of governing.  Technology has quickened the pace of this evolution.  Imagine, if you will, how different elections would be if TV political advertising were somehow banned, as cigarette advertising was.  It is not by accident either that so many recent presidents came to the job with comparatively limited prior national political exposure.  Obama is the first elected senator or congressman since Kennedy, but Kennedy had worked in Congress for 14 years since 1946.  Obama had been in national politics just four years, by contrast.  Nobody anymore can survive the scrutiny of a paper legislative trail, so lack of long experience, a disqualification for most high-level jobs in this capitalist society of ours, has become a mandatory requirement for the presidency.  If a person survives the gauntlet of the long campaign, that good enough.

Opinions differ over the consequences of inaction in addressing some of today’s issues like global warming and healthcare.  The state of American democracy inevitably means that policy will err on the side of doing too little or even nothing, but not too much.  If in fact the fate of the world’s habitability in the first case and nation’s economy in the second instance depend critically on taking aggressive action now, the opportunity will be missed, and future generations will pay the price

Copyright Larry Greenberg 2009.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.


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