Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Obama’s first stumble or my chance to say ‘I told you so’
Did I or did I not say that those cheering for Obama will be the first to criticise his inability to magically fix the world and ensure we all live happily ever after, like in the fairy tales, with royalty in our beds and white stallions in our stables?
I said it, of course I did. I told you so and I was right. And much as I love being right (and saying ‘I told you so’) this one is annoying me.
And it’s annoying me because Obama screwed up as much as because people somehow expect Washington and the entire political establishment to be new, fresh and clean ‘now that Obama is around’.
So today we wake up to banner-sized headlines – ‘Obama admits: I screwed up’. Why? Well, because he said it, obviously.
And why did he say it? Because being able to hold his hand up and say ‘mea culpa’ is part of the persona he’s projecting, part of the reason we liked him in the first place.
But did he screw up? Yes, of course he did. And I’ve got news: he will again. And again. And again. Because he’s human, because politics is a dirty game, because Washington is a tricky bio-system with its own rules of engagement. And because (oh blessed subjectivity) some of us will forever disagree with what he chooses to do.
But back to today. The man promised to clean up politics in Washington. That is a hard promise to keep for anyone without the magic wand I’ve been going on about. So what does his promise entail?
Effort. Relentless effort.
Well, he’s already not trying hard enough.
Tom Daschle, a former Democratic leader in the Senate and Obama mentor, had to withdraw as cabinet nominee because he had not paid his taxes.
I know places where no-one would blink at this, but America is not one of them and that is as it should be.
Obviously, this is embarrassing. Particularly because this is the third Obama appointee with tax problems. And that’s not counting one confirmation that went through despite the tax problems… One person is an accident. Four is a trend.
But does this trend say more about Obama’s insincerity or the pool of people he can pick from?
I’m not suggesting all politicians and politicos are tax evaders. But I am saying that angels don’t do politics. They leave it to humans. And humans err. A lot.
But to make matters worse, tax is not the only problem with Daschle, who has been making his living since leaving the senate in 2004 through informal lobbying and advisory work. Doing, in other words, exactly the sort of thing that Obama castigates as damaging to the political process.
As I was saying, embarrassing.
But I would not say Obama is insincere – at least not yet.
I’d say the first reality check has hit him and when it did, to use his own words, he screwed up.
Obama campaigned on the loftiest messages, he promised big, as people do during campaigns. But he’s not campaigning any more and the collision with the real world was inevitable and, considering, quite mild.
Obama must realise the real work begins now and his message needs to be tailored not to what he’d like to do, but to what he can do.
A steep descent but a necessary one.
Meanwhile, the rest of us need to come to terms with the fact that he hasn’t got a magic wand, he can’t just do away with the bad stuff and he can’t operate in a vacuum – past policy and the Washington political nexus will constrain him every step of the way. That’s how it will be and don’t say I didn’t tell you so because I’ve been saying it since before his inauguration. You just haven’t been paying attention.
So he screwed up. Big time.
He screwed up by over-promising. And by trying to brush this one under the carpet (saying that tax lapses are mistakes that should not stand in the way of confirmation) before deciding to come up and say I screwed up and let's move on. And by picking the wrong people to work with. Assuming that the right people exist in the first place.
No matter what he does, Obama will be better than Bush. But the gulf between ‘better than bad’ and ‘miraculous’ is huge and don’t tell me I didn’t tell you so.
Some of the questions facing Obama now have no good answers. Only different degrees of bad.
Some of the decisions he will make in the future, will be driven by political expediency and not lofty ideals.
Because he’s a new guy in the same old world with all the baggage of the other guy still on his back. And because angels don’t do politics, they leave that to humans.
And humans err. As Obama did and as Obama will.
And when he does, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.