The Fastidious President

David Bromwich

The Afghan war looks as if it will outlast the Obama presidency, and if it does the largest single reason will be Obama’s choice of Robert Gates as secretary of defence. Gates worked under William Casey, the director of the CIA at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal. His nomination by Ronald Reagan to head the CIA was thwarted by suspicions of his complicity in covert operations in Nicaragua. The elder Bush later renominated him and got him through. Gates would have struck George H.W. Bush as a sound appointment because he knew the secrets and could be trusted to keep them. When the younger Bush, after the 2006 election, brought in Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld at defence, he would have had in mind that history of loyalty to the Bush family. With Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo to think of, Gates was a man to trust. Also, Gates might help to slow and muffle the incessant pressure from Cheney and his circle for an attack on Iran. It is generally supposed that Gates, together with Condoleezza Rice, held Cheney off and gave Bush the institutional backing to resist him.

Obama by all reports has become friendly with Gates – they share a certain reserve and an image of themselves as temperate and moderate-minded public men. He has shown no such signs with Hillary Clinton. In retrospect this makes her appointment as secretary of state all the more perplexing. There is no reason to believe that by appointing her, Obama removed a threat she would have posed as a senatorial counterweight against his authority. The idea that she was ever such a threat is bogus. Hillary Clinton is a party loyalist, far more than Obama himself; she would have helped him by being a distinct, contentious and credible voice in the Senate on various issues (as she was before her run for president). Abused in the role of first lady, she had come to be respected by the press as a lawmaker. Her low profile in the cabinet has been a surprise. But Obama’s extraordinary insistence on placing himself at centre stage has kept out all contenders.

We are learning now, from such sources as Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, about the oddness of some of the president’s other appointments and his treatment of them. General James Jones, whom Obama had never met, was asked to become national security adviser. Once chosen, he hardly ever saw the president alone. To head the CIA Obama picked Leon Panetta, a former congressman who had served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Panetta was a complete outsider to the world of spies: it could have been predicted that he would be overawed by the company he now kept and come to defend their actions present and past with the anxiety of someone who has to prove himself. Panetta thought there was no point arguing with the generals or doing more than a fast and perfunctory ‘review’. Give them what they want, a Democrat has to: that was his line. Hillary Clinton also backed the generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and the chief of staff Admiral Mullen, in their request for 40,000 more troops. Indeed she supported them more strongly than Gates did. Jones sought to help Obama by running interference with the Pentagon, but Obama preferred to work on his own and hardly gave him a chance.

Of all Obama’s appointments, the most damaging to his credibility with liberal supporters were Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, the chief economic adviser and the secretary of the treasury. Geithner has the air of a perpetual young man looking out for the interests of older men: an errand boy. The older men in question are the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, AIG, and the big banks and money firms. Geithner at the New York Fed had enforced – or, rather, let flow – the permissive policy on mortgages that Summers pushed through in the last years of the Clinton presidency. Summers himself, renowned for his aggression and brilliance, came too highly recommended for Obama not to appoint him. The new president credited his adviser’s belief that there were only a few persons in America who could undo the harm of the mortgage crisis, and it happened that they were the very people who had caused the crisis. The Obama economic team, with its ‘deep bench’ of Goldman Sachs executives, might have done better if mixed with economists of other views like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Obama knew little economics, however, and he took the word of the orthodox. It would have been wiser, from a merely prudential standpoint, to consult Summers behind a screen. But Obama has always craved legitimacy in a conspicuous form.

He is a president who does not like to be a bringer of bad news – unlike, say, Nixon or the younger Bush. It is a trait ill suited to the occasion, for Obama entered office at a bad time, and the first two years of his presidency have been unlucky. Afghanistan fell to pieces in his first months in office, and the return of public trust and consumer spending has come more slowly than expected. But Obama wanted to have what would look like achievements. His generalised desire seems to have been more important to him than any specific achievement. He surprised his supporters by making healthcare his first initiative. A recent story by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker showed that in the first days of his presidency, his staff debated whether to go first after healthcare or global warming (euphemistically renamed ‘climate change’). They threw both ideas against the wall, Lizza wrote, to see which would stick in Congress, and healthcare won out. Obama then shifted gear and acted as if he had been the healthcare candidate all along. His love of fame – to occupy the central place but also to perform the shining deed – is greater than anyone had estimated. Yet his political instincts turn out to be weak. A recent blog by William Galston at the New Republic pointed out that when in spring 2009 he approved the bonuses for the bankers who had destroyed the economy in 2008, he did so without any sense that the rewards could disgust anyone. He was simply following the advice of Summers and Geithner.

Here the charge of elitism against Obama finds some basis in fact. He shares with his economic advisers the view that wealth is created by the banks and money firms from the top down: a healthy economy comes from money making money, not from people making things. As for the choice between environmental legislation and the reform of healthcare, someone might have asked him: ‘Why deal with either now? Why not concentrate on the financial collapse? Guide people and draw their confidence and then see what else is possible.’ In the glow and fervour of victory, Obama never seems to have considered such a possibility. He chose healthcare for the same reason the Clintons once did: he thought it would be the easiest big legislation to pass.

From Lizza, Woodward and other sources a portrait has been emerging of a president who is curiously dissociated. This marks a contrast with George W. Bush, who knew he was not up to the job and gave the presidency away to someone else. Under Obama, nobody knows quite who is in charge. He seems to delegate as broadly as Reagan did, and though his capacity for understanding policy is far superior to Reagan’s, his distaste for the everyday business of governing is somewhat similar. His visions are grand but his explanations have been piecemeal and inadequate. He justified healthcare as a basic human right and said that the programme would help to balance the budget. Both can be reasons, but Obama gave both, at different times, as primary reasons. There is a difference between explaining one idea clearly and floating five ideas plausibly. Obama keeps a list of his achievements and – according to Peter Baker in a recent New York Times Magazine profile – judges himself to have accomplished 70 per cent of what he hoped in his first two years. Jay Gatsby, too, kept lists, and one may be reminded of Gatsby’s ‘Platonic conception of himself’. The unsettling thing about Gatsby was that he proved to have a self-image unalterable by defeat.

Since his party was badly beaten in the mid-term election on 2 November, Obama has hinted that he may allow the 2001 Bush tax cuts for the richest 1 per cent to be continued: the very thing which before the election he said he would never do. But Obama does not like to be associated with defeat. He scuttled his support for several Democratic candidates – Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas – before election day when he came to believe that they would probably lose. He allowed his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, to say as early as last summer that the Democrats might well lose the House of Representatives. This degree of self-protectiveness is unpleasant in a politician, and is bound to make his party ask itself sooner or later: should we be more loyal to him than he is to us?

In Obama’s speeches the word ‘I’ (which appears frequently) and the word ‘Democrat’ (which appears rarely) are seldom found in proximity. He is theoretically humble but practically haughty. His posture, faultless and fastidious, is always elegant but never warm, and he talks down to voters. In a September town meeting, trying to show empathy for anti-tax crazies, Obama said: ‘That’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we came in because the folks over on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation.’ Folks over on the other side. Oppressing folks. What is happening here? Obama has an obscure aversion to naming a thing by the name of the thing. In the present instance his penchant for steering free of particulars stopped him from saying the simple and useful words ‘George III’ and ‘no taxation without representation’: vivid markers of American history that everybody knows.

His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose. Obama wants credit for the highest intentions even when conceding that he lacks the will to fulfil them. The trouble is that a politician who says what he would like to do and then fails to do it leaves himself open to attack on both counts. You disappoint your supporters and at the same time give notice to your enemies that the thing they stopped you from doing was the thing you would have liked to do. Obama’s conduct towards Binyamin Netanyahu is a perfect illustration of this. But there is an equally revealing instance in Woodward’s book, when Obama tells the generals: ‘It’d be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, “You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.”’ So he blows his cover. To put it another way, he kicks at the polite pretence of a cover, with no reward proportionate to the sacrifice.

Obama weighed in with the American public on the safety of deep-water drilling on 2 April. ‘It turns out, by the way,’ he said, ‘that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.’ On 20 April the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred. On 29 April Obama made his first mention of the spill, and on 2 May his first visit to Louisiana. In his campaign for president, he had treated Bush’s uncaring response to Hurricane Katrina as an index of the incompetence of his administration. Here was a disaster of a similar magnitude, in the same state, and Obama avoided all contact with it. His address from the Oval Office on 15 June, concerning the spill, may have marked the moment when his public image finally tipped away from popularity. The pitch was businesslike, sombre and clipped:

Good evening. As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al-Qaida wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.

Thus the environmental catastrophe was placed on a level with the human disaster of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the social disaster of the financial collapse: as if all three had been accidents beyond our control, each to be faced with a rigorous stoicism and determination to assist. But the wars were caused by Cheney and Bush, the collapse (which had ‘touched the lives’ of so many) by the profiteers of the mortgage bubble and their trading partners, and the oil spill by the corporate malfeasance of an unregulated oil giant. These plain words Obama found himself unable to say. And the metaphor most evocative of war was reserved for the spill itself – ‘assaulting our shores’ as if by its own volition.

The speech ended solemnly by alluding to the custom of ‘The Blessing of the Fleet’ by ‘clergy from different religions’ as fishing boats head out to sea. ‘The ceremony,’ said Obama from his presidential desk, ‘goes on in good times and in bad. It took place after Katrina, and it took place a few weeks ago – at the beginning of the most difficult season these fishermen have ever faced. And still, they came and they prayed.’ At this point no one with an ear and a heart could forbear to whisper: Bush! Versions of the words ‘pray’ occurred four times and ‘bless’ three times in the last 150 words of this speech, and the word ‘God’ three times.

Obama sought an effect of comparable solemnity in the speech of 26 August that declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In it he announced that the Iraq war ‘has made America safer’. Doubtless he felt a need, as he called the war to an official close, to appease and comfort the soldiers and their families who had sacrificed so much, but the need to give satisfaction to any given audience is a compulsion he might have been warned against by the example of Bill Clinton. In this instance, it was a simple matter for anyone to find the text of Obama’s contrary statement of September 2007: ‘the Iraq war has left us less safe than we were before 9/11.’ What were the soldiers and families to think when they placed those two statements side by side?

I recently listened to some of John Kennedy’s press conferences, and was struck, not by his charm and easy control of the press, the usual traits that people bring up, but rather by his quickness and conversational rhythm. Kennedy’s answers are detailed and matter of fact, and though he occasionally speaks of his own views, he treats Congress as an equal partner. He sometimes shows irritation and is none the less cogent for that. He can speak a whole paragraph when a thought comes all at once without a pause. Any observer of Obama realises that, by contrast, he is always slow, always circumspect, and he has two distinct registers of diction: one for talking to very clever but abstracted people, the other for talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help. In the higher idiom he talks of a ‘critique’ of policy and ‘trend lines’ and the ways to ‘incentivise’ better care and ‘prioritise’ the next steps of government assistance to show that we are ‘doing everything we can to accelerate job creation’. It is the language of a technocrat, the man at the head of the conference table. In the lower idiom, there are lots of ‘folks’, ‘folks who oppose me’, ‘a whole bunch of folks’, interspersed with vaguely regional comfort words like ‘oftentimes’.

Obama’s largest rhetorical miscalculation – and it bears part of the responsibility for 2 November – was to suppose he could move people to admire and sympathise with government even as he encouraged them to disdain and deprecate politics. By holding himself above politics he cleared a path for an insurgent movement that put itself below politics. Obama echoes Reagan in speaking often of ‘Washington’ in a tone of assumed displeasure. The difference is that Reagan had so little grasp of the details of his administration that the disavowal in a sense showed consistency. For Obama, the same posture is transparently inauthentic. And in a democracy like the United States, as in any representative government, a contempt for politics whets the people’s appetite for sudden remedies. Even now, when Obama owes the Democrats in Congress the vote that ended the careers of many, he seeks to displace the blame for public resentment on ‘Congress’ (without specification of party). Burke gave a memorable warning against this anti-political fallacy in a letter published in Bristol in 1777. ‘Such as you are,’ he wrote to a set of constituents,

sooner or later, must Parliament be. I therefore wish that you, at least, would not suffer yourselves to be amused by the style, now grown so common, of railing at the corruption of Members of Parliament. This kind of general invective has no kind of effect, that I know of, but to make you think ill of that very institution which, do what you will, you must religiously preserve, or you must give over all thoughts of being a free people. An opinion of the indiscriminate corruption of the House of Commons will, at length, induce a disgust of Parliaments.

From any such ‘general invective’ in America in 2010, Republicans stand to benefit most. The election has proved that beyond a doubt.

Tremendous hopes were connected with Obama’s election. They will die hard; and for the time being they persist because there is no alternative. The Democratic Party has better speakers and clearer thinkers than Obama, politicians who show keener address in the making and explanation of policy: Sherrod Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse come to mind, senators from Ohio and Rhode Island respectively; another is Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, who lately with gusto referred to the Tea Partiers as ‘fruit loops’, ‘whackos’ and ‘flat-out crazy’. These lawmakers have the salt Obama lacks. But none has a glamour like his and none commands the same admiration in the mainstream media.

How might he partly recover? Several opinion-makers on the left have recommended that he model himself on Franklin Roosevelt. FDR too faced a social crisis, and led the country through it. Here a political contradiction stands in the way, however. Obama is unable to put much distance between himself and the bankers. It is too late to denounce them – the time for that was February and March 2009. Strident criticism as an afterthought would appear unseasonable and opportunistic. Unhappily the president Obama seems gradually coming to resemble is Lyndon Johnson. Large social programmes have been spun out to unite the country at home, by a grand vision of a society with a new standard of generous conduct, while, in the background, the president and his generals dutifully prosecute an inherited war which the president dimly recognises could become his legacy.

The Republicans have picked up more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives and now enjoy a margin of 239 against 185: an advantage rendered all the more reliable by the fact that they now enforce a party discipline that makes them more nearly resemble a Communist Party of the 1940s. By his commitment in Afghanistan, Obama has deprived himself of the likeliest alternative to the cuts in social programmes that Republicans are sure to propose. Why not close down a few dozen of our 800 military bases worldwide? To have left that opening might also have allowed him to hold on to some of his younger supporters, the ones who, from the Iowa primary on, took him to be an anti-war candidate. But Obama has taken an opposite course; and while in domestic policy he has governed as a liberal, in foreign policy he shows a strong continuity with Bush. The result is that to parallel the loss of confidence among independents there is now a loss of confidence in Obama among Democrats. An AP poll released on 30 October showed that 47 per cent of the party want to see him challenged in the primaries in 2012.

Part of this is exhaustion. The president has filled the airwaves and TV screens for two years, and a certain deflation might have followed even a happier November outcome. But Obama has let the Democratic Party down by failing to explain and defend its programmes with clarity and passion after he forced its members to take hard votes. He stopped because he assumes that the final vote is the settler of a question. But as we are reminded by the Tea Party influence in the Republican Party, the mere passage of a law is only the beginning. Medicare and the 1964 Civil Rights Act were ratified only by the public acceptance that followed the vote. Until the last two months, Obama’s most combative response to all challenges by the opposition was: ‘I’m waiting to see their ideas.’ Even now, if his recent statements can be believed, he nurses a renewed hope of bipartisanship after the election. He said on 4 November that he hoped the parties would give up the ‘squabbling’ of recent weeks.

The truth is that Obama exposed himself to the worst the Republicans can do by his conciliatory tone from the first days of his administration. He gave assurance when he entered office that he would not look exactingly into the conduct of the last administration. Bush and Cheney received from him a legal indulgence for any conceivable transgression, on the theory that after the bombings of September 2001, anything that public servants did was a hasty but honourable response to a dreadful emergency by well-meaning persons. To Obama at the time, this must have seemed a magnanimous deed as well as a signal of non-aggression to tamp down the savagery of the Cheney circle. Yet his decision to make justice begin today achieved a different end. It made sure that none of the people from whom Obama had most to fear would ever fear him. It also robbed of reality all his talk of a profound commitment to justice – a justice which he had suggested went beyond considerations of bridge-building for the sake of domestic policy or national expedience. By broadening the claim of state secrets to prevent the disclosure of evidence of torture and extraordinary rendition, the Obama administration has lent credence to the original claim of Bush and Cheney that their actions were dictated by necessities of state. In doing so it has foregone the only assurance the law affords against the repetition of such acts.

If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.

Perhaps it needs the audacity of De Gaulle in Algeria or Eisenhower in Korea to end this war. Such a stroke is hard to imagine for a president who lacks their military stature. But one has to weigh, against the courage that withdrawal would have required, the dangerous choice Obama made to support the military minority who pushed for escalation. He has since augmented the danger by naming David Petraeus, the general with the best press in America, as the field commander in Afghanistan and the person who will oversee the review of the war next month. Obama never believed in doing what the generals recommended. He must have glimpsed the possibility that it would ruin the rest of his term. His Nobel Prize speech, which came at the end of these discussions, was in this light a sort of consolation. It affirmed a benign view of American war policy since 1945 and of America as guardian of the world.

The next question for a president now in command of two wars, half a dozen superbases, an embassy the size of the Vatican and another that may exceed it, will be asked by Israel about Iran. Obama has been bending the way of coercive action, but has been doing it slowly. Meanwhile he has pushed the Israelis again to negotiate an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the beginning of a Palestinian state. The two engagements seem plainly related in the mind of Obama. Republicans with presidential ambitions are watching closely – in the case of Sarah Palin, last month in West Virginia, giving a clue to the depth of her concern by wearing on her lapel an American and Israeli flag-pin.

The president on whom so much depends is a peculiar person, stranger than any of us realised when we voted for him. He may be most real to himself when he is promising something.

On the LRB blog: David Bromwich on Obama's Tax Cuts.