Who’s In Charge Here?

by Alexander Cockburn, June 11, 2010

Americans don’t care to have a wimp in the White House. They’ll take almost any outlandish vulgarity from their commander in chief and give him a positive job-rating. But wimpishness? No. Until Obama, the last president to earn wimp ranking was Jimmy Carter whose chances of reelection 30 years ago expired when he gave wimpish speeches about America’s “malaise” and was photographed beating off a rabbit that swam up to his canoe and tried to board it.

Obama isn’t in that sort of trouble yet, but he’s drifting close.

The fates soon sniff out wimps and deal them bad cards. Obama was all set to make a big speech in Chicago on Memorial Day. Not only was the speech rained out but he started quavering to the crowd about the danger of lightening before scuttling off with his Secret Service guards and getting bogged down in a traffic jam.

One of America’s greatest heroes is Ben Franklin — featured on that symbol of optimism, the $100 bill — who made a sporting effort to fry himself, courting a lightening bolt with his kite.

Wimps can’t emote convincingly because they’re worried about going too far.

The White House press corps — until recently without a presidential press conference for ten months — quizzes Obama’s press secretary about Obama’s evident inability to project anger about BP’s oil spill, now bidding to be the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history. Obama’s flack claimed his boss was “enraged” at BP. “Can you describe it?” asked Chip Reid of CBS. “Does he yell and scream? What does he do?” The best Gibbs could offer was evocation of Obama’s “clenched jaw.”

At least half of any US president’s job is play-acting, pretending to be in charge, on behalf of We the People. Most of what actually happens in America is beyond any president’s ability or political inclination to control.

The banks run the finances. The oil companies and Israel vie for control of US foreign policy. The arms companies arrange the wars. The insurance companies figure out who should live or die.

Bill Clinton was so servile to big business that he took a phone call from a Florida sugar baron, even though Monica Lewinsky was giving him a blow-job when the call came in. He surely shocked the feisty intern with his obsequious manner as the baron issued a crisp command to kill off Al Gore’s impertinent talk about environmental clean-up of the Everglades. But Clinton could still scream and throw his weight around in the manner expected of a president.

The all-time presidential champ at bullying was Lyndon Johnson who once lifted up the Greek ambassador by his lapels and snarled at him, “"Fuck your Parliament and your Constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk. Whacked good…”

But Johnson was as servile to the Texas oil kings — most notably the Murchisons — as Clinton was to the sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul. LBJ would delightedly unwrap the bundles of cash Murchison regularly sent up to him.

Obama isn’t into lifting anyone up by the lapels. It’s the other way round. Week after week he’s being hoist off the floor of the Oval Office and thrown against the wall by everyone from Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan to Benjamin Netanyahu. When Obama tries to bark, it comes out as a yip, like a Chihuahua aping a pit bull.

A year ago Obama gave his famous speech in Cairo, addressing the Muslim World in a constructive manner. He vowed “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” declaring, “Islam is a part of America” and “is an important part of promoting peace.”

It was a great act, but one utterly disconnected from the realities of American politics. Wimps love to be crowd-pleasers. But a year later the crowd — world opinion, in this instance — is remembering the speech as one betrayed commitment after another.

It’s clear enough the White House knew of the impending Israeli attack on the relief flotilla and contented itself with a private, purely pro forma call for restraint. In other words, a green light. It may even encouraged the lethal violence, as its own signal to Turkey that its initiative with Brazil to defuse the Iran crisis had not found favor with the US government.

The public White House response to Israel’s international piracy was comical in its wimpishness. “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy,” deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton demurely declared in Chicago.

There’s a political price to be paid for manifest wimpery. Obama is running up a hefty bill.

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