Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Transformative Presidencies

America is good at producing leaders who are plodders, capable only of “stewarding” the regime from one crisis to another. Bill Clinton and the Bushes, both of them, are examples. All three were of a piece in being weak on what the first Bush called “the vision thing,” though they differed in competence (on that dimension Clinton and the first Bush stand on one side, the Bush boy on the other) and, at the margins, they plod along differently because they draw voters from different sectors of the population. In this respect, the now fallen House of Bush stood as one, while the Clintons, Hillary and Bill, because they pander to different constituencies, take a somewhat different path. Needless to say, neither Bill Clinton nor either of the Bushes led “transformative” presidencies – except in the sense that George W was so god awful that, despite himself, he “transformed” many things (for the worse). It is said – for example, by Barack Obama -- that Ronald Reagan was a “transformative” President. In reality, he too was a plodder – or, rather, since, like George W, though not to the same extent, he was ignorant and lazy -- his advisors and handlers were. In the late seventies, while Jimmy Carter was still the Plodder-in-Chief, capitalism began one of its periodic crises and reconstructions. Because the Zeitgeist happened to coincide with the interests of the capitalists to whom Reagan was most accountable, he, or rather his advisors and handlers, managed to transform a few things, not as many as widely imagined, just by ratcheting up the kind of plodding they inherited.

Then there are politicians who “grow” in office. They are the ones most likely to be genuine transformers. LBJ was an example, though he threw it all away on Vietnam. RFK might have been an even greater example, had he not been assassinated before he got the chance. According to a spate of recent articles, the historical icon of the moment, Abraham Lincoln, was yet another example. The Great Emancipator was not even in favor of abolishing slavery, at first. Neither was he ever a proponent of racial equality, though he might have become one, had he too not been assassinated. Transformative presidencies are rare because leaders of this sort are rare.

Obama will probably not grow in office; he doesn’t need to – he already “knows” enough. Like the Clintons, he is a politician above all. But, unlike them, he isn’t just a plodder – if only because he hasn’t been busy pandering 24/7 for nearly as long as they have. If the Clintons, either of them, ever knew enough to do more than plod, they forgot it all a long time ago.

The problem, then, is not to “educate” Obama; it’s to force him to use what he knows. Here, the most apt model is FDR, though there are many dissimilarities. By most accounts, FDR, unlike Obama, was an intellectual lightweight; and, having been born into privilege, he lacked Obama’s experience of the world. But FDR was capable of supporting (though not always obtaining) sweeping, transformative changes when circumstances necessitated bold departures in governance. The FDR model resembles plodding more than growing, but there is a qualitative difference, and not just because the circumstances – then, like now -- were more dire than usual. It takes a special – and rare – leader to see beyond this or that crisis to a point where they become agents of a “vision thing.” FDR was capable of that, at least to some extent.

Not every President who fits the FDR model more than the others is a hero in retrospect, though they are all, in varying degrees, transformers. Richard Nixon, the most criminal President ever before George W. Bush, is an example. Nixon set in motion processes that defused an impending crisis, of potentially devastating proportions, in race relations. He transformed the scene he inherited. He did it mainly through cooptation, and so the consequences were not unequivocally for the good – a point to which growing numbers of incarcerated black males can attest. On the other hand, Nixon did make “integration” more than just a formal right, and he did qualitatively enlarge and transform the black middle class. To a considerable extent, Nixon’s transformative presidency made Barack Obama’s presidency possible. Still, the man was a crook and a war criminal – to a degree that makes even Dick Cheney seem benign.

Thanks to the neo-Hooverite policies of the Bushes, the last one especially, but also thanks to Clinton and Reagan and even Jimmy Carter, Obama faces an FDR moment. Will he rise to the occasion? The evidence so far is not unambiguously hopeful. Obama drifted so far to the right during the transition period that it is a wonder that Obamamania still flourishes on the left. Who to the left of Bob Gates can deny that Obama’s national security and foreign policy appointments were dreadful, and that his economic policy team is not much better? Nevertheless, since taking office, Obama does seem to have gotten off on the right foot – at least so far as the headlines go. For anyone who takes the trouble to read the fine print (about Guantanamo, for example), the situation is less clear. Still, by undoing some of Bush’s most egregiously retrograde and lawless policies to the extent that he is able on his own, Obama has redeemed himself somewhat, at least for now.

Thus there is indeed a possibility that the Obama presidency will be like Roosevelt’s or better – if his “base,” the masses of people who voted for him and who are still in the thrall of Obamamania, rise to the occasion themselves. Obama may also continue to get help from the Republicans – not because they’re disposed to cooperate, but because they are not. If the Greater Evil Party leadership remains sufficiently obstinate, as they show every sign of doing in the negotiations around the impending stimulus package, they may force Obama to come to his senses and abandon his vaunted, self-defeating “bipartisanship.” But no matter how stuck in their ways Republicans remain, the main burden is on us, on “we, the people.”

We should fight on every front – on Israel/Palestine, on health care, on a host of environmental issues, and so on. But there are at least two crucial areas where Obama seems adamant, so far, in resisting what is clearly urgent and right.

One is, of course, bringing Bush et. al. to justice. If nothing else, prosecuting them for torture is a no brainer. There is no question that, under both U.S. law and international law, torture is a war crime. Bush and Cheney both have confessed publicly to this crime; Cheney has even boasted of it. Should Obama not prosecute them, he’ll be guilty of even worse than complicity – Nancy Pelosi style. He’ll be an accessory to a war crime. He knows this well enough now; he doesn’t have to “grow” to find it out. We must make it clear to him that “we, the people” know it too, and that we will hold him to it.

Then there’s the Afghanistan War. Obama and his national security team are on track for escalating that failed and wrong-headed venture. So far, the so-called peace movement has given him and them a free pass on this. But if Obama, the peace candidate, keeps the Bush wars going, and especially if he makes them (or, at least one of them) worse, it will all be finished; his transformative presidency will fail. Thanks to Bush et. al., plodding is not now an alternative; and it is not in Obama’s nature anyway. Therefore the question now is: will Obama go the FDR route, or will he end up like LBJ. To a very large extent, the answer is up to us.

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