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.


  1. pisteuo 8a einai poli kaliteros!!etsi fainetai toulaxiston!kalo sou vradi!

  2. It's the privilege of those of us outside politics to point the finger of blame - those of us who don't have to navigate the minefield, make the tough decisions, work with the corrupt or try and repair the gargantuan f*ck ups of the guy before us. I wouldn't stand in his shoes for all the tea in China! Of course Obama over-promised on his campaign like every politician in history, but a lot of what he now has to try and live up to was thrust upon him by an ashamed american public looking for a quick fix to undo the disgrace they voted in for 8 years. Where this huge artificial promise came from though is by the by - there is a bigger problem: We can't neglect the fact that the current economic situation can't just be fixed by politicians, it needs PUBLIC confidence, consumers to spend again, investors to get their money back out from under their mattresses. So surely, Obama would be irresponsible if he did strip back all the talk of what he hopes to do to the reality of what he knows he can do because that isn't enough to break the inertia of a stagnant economy.

  3. @ Leviathan – sigoura tha einai kaliteros! De borei para na einai kaliteros. Alla den einai magos o kaimenos kai thelei ipomoni to thema. Kalimera!

    @ Lonny Transatlantic – welcome to my blog. ;-)
    If you’ve read my other posts on Obama, you’ll know I agree with much of what you said. He has the mother of all clean-ups ahead of him and his choices are limited by both what went before and the realities of the political game. I do not envy his position. But then again I did not run for his office either.
    I disagree that ‘it’s the privilege of those of us outside politics to point the finger of blame’. Not because I approve of ‘finger pointing’ but because no-one is outside politics. We are taxed, we live by the laws our politicians pass, foot the bills of their wars, fight in their wars and feel every success, failure and mediocre attempt at change on our skins. In a globalised world, we actually live by the choices of leaders in countries where we don’t vote, where some of us have never even been. But they affect us – be it through pollution, nuclear proliferation or a global financial crisis. So no one is outside politics.
    And I believe that if Obama – on whose side I am – is to succeed, we need to leave the messianic tone behind and start getting our hands dirty. He’ll get it wrong and we’ll have to stop expecting miracles from him.

  4. In a gloomy time where recession seems to prevail, the world needed a so-called fresh leader to clean up the messes.

    Obama may be willing and showing to have the drive to "Change" things - change that everyone believes in - but it was already known that there's much more to world politics and economics than a newly-elected president.

    Bush - and not only - screwed up big time. They've created an uncertainty which the US projected to the rest of the world, mainly through the banking and finance system.

    If there is someone who will truly help Europe - which is the one we should be worried about - it's each member state on its own. If all states helped their "mom" overcome the crisis, maybe the world would get over the US being a superpower, and Europe can handle its finances better instead of investing vast amounts "offshore".

    But as it seems, the US is not really ready to give up the world superpower title. And that's mostly because -as it was with the bonds and the shares - the rest of the world invested heavily in lots of jane doe companies; no-one really knows who owns what and how much.

    Anyhow. If there's something Obama can definitely change, it's the way internal affairs are handled. Which will eventually help US heal wounds, but not the scars.

    (By the way, I just really like someone else talking socioeconopolitiks. Great discussions. It seems though, most bloggers beg to differ)

  5. @ bastard – if you like talking socioeconopolitics, you’ve come to the right place. Make yourself comfortable ;-)

    I agree on the need for a fresh leader. For America and, by default, the ‘free world’.
    I agree on the messes. Oh God do I agree that Obama has on his hands a royal mess, courtesy of Bush and Clinton before him. From global finance and demobilisation in Iraq and Afghanistan, to health care, education, corruption and local stimulus packages at home, Obama has more than enough to be getting on with. But I do think that for him to get on with things, he needs to let go of the messianic tone. He needs to get his hands dirty – as you say, he can try healing the wounds but he can’t get rid of the scars. And on our side, we need to come to terms with the fact that there will be no miracles. Just hard work and slow progress. But that’s ok.