The Real Obama
by Alexander Cockburn, September 1, 2011
The White House that shook in last Tuesday’s earthquake has been home to its present incumbent for 32 months. Obama wasn’t around to watch the furniture shake. He’s up on Martha’s Vineyard for the third year in a row, with Michelle and their two daughters, bunkered down in a $25,000-a-week holiday rental of a lush 28-acre estate in the little town of Chilmark.
He’s keeping a low profile. Words like “standoffish” roll petulantly off the tongues of the island’s liberal elites. They were spoiled by Bill Clinton who spent six presidential vacations on the Vineyard. No renter he. Bill free-loaded on rich pals and party donors, mostly synonymous. No one could ever accuse Bill of being standoffish, though he confided to Vernon Jordan that he preferred Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Martha’s Vineyard as a vacation spot since it was impossible to get “pussy” in the stuffy Massachusetts resort.
Obama’s standoffishness includes — I am informed by one knowledgeable Martha’s Vineyard local — failure to show at an exclusive fundraiser, also to a party of his friend Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard prof whose July 2009 spat with the Cambridge police prompted the normally hyper-prudent Obama to say the cops had acted “stupidly” — probably the most vivid off-the-cuff judgment of his entire presidency. Perhaps the hyper-prudence accounted for his failure to appear chez Gates last week.
The president did show up for one event, hosted by Harvard Law School prof Charles Ogletree, but without Michele. The presidential excuse for her no-show was that he and Michele didn’t “want to leave the kids alone.” Alone? One of the houses on the Chilmark estate is occupied by the Secret Service; another by close aides. You’d think at least two could have been press-ganged into child-minding duties.
Like many presidents trying to have a holiday, Obama has drawn fire for lounging about on the Vineyard for ten days while ordinary Americans battle hard times, and Hurricane Irene menaces the Atlantic seaboard. So, as with other presidents, his press secretary claims 50% of Obama’s time is spent doing the nation’s business, much of it hunkered down with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. Presumably, they are reviewing intelligence reports that Al Qaeda is planning something really big to mark the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Trade Towers.
As president, Obama is not doing well. It’s not just a matter of his 53% disapproval rating, reported Wednesday by Gallup. After two and a half years, people are beginning to come to settled opinions about their president, and many of these aren’t flattering. In 2008, liberals and most leftists were deeply in love with Obama and genuinely believed the promissory notes about a better America that he strewed along the campaign trail and has since welshed on at a rate of well over 95%.
The face-off over the debt ceiling at the start of this month was the final straw. Take a man I have known for many decades, William Broyles, former Marine, lifelong Texan Democrat, speechwriter in the Carter White House, former Newsweek editor, co-creator of China Beach, Apollo 13 and Cast Away.
Ten days ago, Bill wrote a furious Newsweek/Daily Beast column, headlined The Oval Office Appeaser. Bill is normally a courteous man, not one who likes to hurl moldy cabbages from the balcony. I’ve never known him write more bitterly.
“After each betrayal, after each terribly bad bargain, Obama comes out waving a piece of paper, a one-sided agreement to appease the Republicans — peace in our time. … A despair grips America today, a cold fear that our best days are behind us, that we are adrift and powerless. Yes, the Republicans are to blame. But so is a president who treats core American values as bargaining chips, who won’t fight for anything, who refuses to lead. It turns out hope does matter. … Americans aren’t inspired by well-meaning weakness. We like strong leaders, particularly in desperate times.”
Obama is a very curious fellow. I don’t think any writer thus far has got the measure of the man. Take the Obama White House. From the news-leak point of view, he presides over the tightest ship in living memory. Leaks, corridor gossip, my-side-of-the-story confidences of policy-makers battling for the president’s ear, depth charges planted by such powerful cabinet members as Hillary Clinton? None of the above. This is the White House of a man in total control, contrasting markedly with Clinton’s fitful supervision of the shambolic White House of his two terms.
But yet Obama, where it counts, isn’t in control at all. Republicans, regarded as nuts by a lot more Americans than disapprove of Barack Obama, face him down and he leaps to do their bidding, even as they kick him in the teeth for not doing more. He tugs his forelock to Wall Street, the defense industry, the oil companies, Monsanto, the ag industry, Israel. Appeaser, as Broyles charges. When the dust of battle rises, he cuts and runs.
Last week, the Democrats got a nasty shock when the New York Times ran a story reporting on the battle for Anthony Weiner’s Brooklyn district. Weiner resigned June 16, done in by Twittering photos of his penis to women, none of them his wife or even a constituent. The Republican challenger is apparently making a strong showing in this traditionally Democratic district. The Times quoted life-long Democrats expressing their discontents in virulent terms.
There are plenty of Obama loyalists out there. I know leftists who still forlornly try to make a case for the man and will stay true to the end. But if they vote for him next year, it won’t be for any positive reason, such as the one that sent them delightedly to the polls in 2008, in search of hope. They’ll gesture to Rick Perry or some other Republican challenger and fall back on the “lesser of two evils” argument. But will this work with the sort of blue-collar union people and independents who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 because they thought Carter was a wimp who couldn’t handle the economy?
Bill Clinton survived incompetence and scandal because enough Americans felt like somewhat disillusioned brides after two or three years of facing the Real Thing across the breakfast table. “Dump him? For who? Anyway, he’s promised me he’ll try to do better.” He’s a flake and a liar, but he’s our flake and liar.
No one feels like that about Obama. The object of mass adoration in 2008, he’s not a man who elicits mass affection. People whose vote he courts are genuinely confused. Does he believe in anything beyond raising a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign? Now he’s on the trail again, assuring people without jobs that he’ll put them back to work. Reasonably, his audiences aren’t convinced. His sell-out in the face-off over the debt ceiling is a noose around the neck of any Democrat in the upcoming campaign arguing that Obama and his party are the last best defense against ongoing destruction of the safety net. Of course, as one reader reminds me, being a black man in authority carries great danger in itself. Too much fight, and people start showing up with guns at your meetings plus signs about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. Too little fight and you’re a weakling. It’s never right.
Meanwhile, the Texas Governor, Rick Perry, who entered the Republican race a week ago, is surging against his opponents. A Gallup poll now has him in a commanding lead over the “moderate” Republican Mitt Romney, with 29% saying they are most likely to support Perry. Former front-runner Mitt Romney (17%), Ron Paul (13%), and Michele Bachmann (10%) are next, with four other candidates at 4% or less. In the east Romney leads Perry by one point and lags everywhere else in the country.
The conservative Perry’s done this by staking out fierce positions, just as Reagan did against Carter. It doesn’t matter that the opinions grate on the sensibilities of the liberal commentariat. He’s not after their approval. Perry’s a tough campaigner, not like Bob Dole, whom Clinton had the luck to face in 1996. His record as governor of Texas is freighted with scandalous paybacks to big contributors, but in scale they scarcely match the huge pay-off now being promoted by the White House with the drumbeat campaign by Obama, Obama’s Attorney General, the Secretary of HUD, the Fed and the attorneys general of 49 states to guarantee the banksters permanent immunity against both civil and criminal lawsuits for any of their recent fraud, perjury and grand larceny. Once again, a New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, is gumming up the cozy deal. But as CounterPuncher Pierre Sprey writes, “we can predict a short public career for poor Eric, ending soon in another wiretap-fueled scandal — or, since we are now a banana republic, a regrettable accident.” And guess what, Warren Buffett did just drop $5 billion into BoA and then held a $30K a plate fundraiser for Barack Obama.