What galls the most, what infuriates and confounds, is the brazen clarity of the situation at hand. Mr. Obama has not been losing policy arguments to reasonable people. He has been losing policy arguments to people who are, in many instances, absolutely and unabashedly barking mad. He is losing policy arguments to people who sought elected office in government in order to denude and destroy that very government. Listen to them talk and the matter is plain: they got the job to destroy the job, and are so blinded by the fervor of their political catechism that they cannot be reasoned with under any circumstances. They are destroyers and usurpers, but Mr. Obama has time and again bared his neck to them, and we have all suffered with their sundry victories, and his sundry defeats.
They cannot be reasoned with, but can only be defeated, and after two and a half years, it is the President of the United States alone who appears to have not received the memo.
Yes and No. I think this kind of analysis, while I'm sympathetic to it, takes what happens in the public arena that we hear about on TV too seriously--as if all the congressional clowning and posturing and stupidity was the main act. It's not; it's a sideshow. It's kept in place because it's entertaining, the way sports and survivor shows are. And it diverts our attention from the main act, which is happening behind the scenes. Most of us know as little about how real power works in the U.S. government as citizens of the Soviet Union understood the goings on in the Kremlin.
Why would any serious, sane person want to be a congressperson or a president? I think it's best explained by the old Roman cursus honorum in the late Republic. The positions were mostly honorific, and so the game for those who played it wasn't really about governing for most these bloated, petty, infighting, short-sighted senators; it was about ego, personal advancement, and social status. It's about winning and beating the other team. If you understand the cursus honorum and how it played out, you see the basic script for what's going on within the Beltway, and why it makes no sense to anyone outside of it. It's not about getting anything done; it's all about protecting one's turf and prerogatives. Ordinary people outside the Beltway are not in the game the way Beltway lobbyists, media types, pols and their staffers, and the entrenched bureacrats are, and so we cannot understand the game's Byzantine logic. And if you're inside the game, anybody outside the game is irrelevant--at most a bovine herd that must be pushed in one direction or the other as the election cycle dictates.
But back to the question of governing: a president has to have real power to make things happen, and Obama just doesn't. I'm not saying that there isn't enormous power in the executive branch of the American government, but I am saying that power does not reside with the individual personality who plays the role "president".
What he wants or thinks is not all that relevant because he, personally, has no real power. If he had real power, where would it come from? From simply having a desk in the oval office? Clearly not--a president cannot just snap his fingers and stuff just happens. Where else might he get it? From his long-term experience as a bureaucratic in-fighter with a cadre of insider allies? Clearly not--he's an outsider from Chicago. Well, then, from his electoral base? Clearly not--it is disorganized and passive. The base elected him, and probably will again, but it cannot help him to fight the insider battles where it's all about having real power and knowing how to wield it.
The problems are structural, not personal. It's not that I expect it to happen, but if any one individual could make a difference, it would be a long-time insider--as Cheney was, but who defects--as Gorbachev did. Somebody who is an experienced, effective bureaucratic in-fighter with strong credentials in the national security area, somebody who understand how unelected bureaucratic power works. And somebody who sees it as his patriotic duty to dismantle the insider centers of power in order to return that power to . . . ? Well who are the grownups these days to whom real power should be given? What faction within the political sphere is talking sense and sanity? I don't see it.
Clearly there is no relief in the short run. The best we can hope for is to muddle through. We just have to cycle through this, and we will. But for now at least, I can no longer bring myself to pay attention to all the clowning. It's probably time for all of us to start paying more attention to what's going on locally. Wisconsin has shown us that what happens in the state legislatures matters. And for most of us it's an arena where we can have a more significant impact.