Paul Nitze: Where are the Late Greats?
August 12, 2011
“The best band will never get signed/K-Settes starring Butcher’s Blind/Are so good, you won’t ever know/They never even played a show/You can’t hear ’em on the radio.” So sings Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in “The Late Greats,” a wry meditation on nostalgia.
By the time Tweedy wrote those lines, some of his fans were already complaining he could never live up to his old band, Uncle Tupelo. And Uncle Tupelo was itself consumed with nostalgia for the Carter Family and other Depression-era acts it lionized.
So it goes, particularly during bleak times. It’s just never as good as it once was. Which may be the best lens through which to view the hammering the president is taking from all quarters. Our summer of nostalgia has Republicans dreaming of Reagan and Democrats dreaming of a young candidate named Barack. For wildly different reasons, both sides deem the current incarnation of the president a “loser.”
Drew Westen captured the zeitgeist in his op-ed in last weekend’s New York Times, titled “What Happened to Obama?” Westen, a political scientist and ardent Obama booster, tells us that the bloom is off the rose. We’re stuck, in his opinion, with a “president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.”
This take on Obama as cynical and rudderless is fueling a lot of the current wave of progressive agony. Funny thing is, most Republican critics don’t agree. They don’t think the president is spineless; they think he’s stubbornly committed to growth-killing liberal dogma. Which should tell you that while much has changed in the last two years, the president’s temperament has been a constant. He was never as good as you thought he was back then, and he’s not nearly as bad as you think he is now.
Barack Obama is protean, a cool cat, all things to all people – he’s the protagonist in Robert Musil’s novel “The Man Without Qualities.” At least so far as his political style goes this is true, and if you didn’t know this when you voted for him, you weren’t paying attention. Which makes the wave of current criticism seem laughable, if it weren’t also weakening White House resolve in the real world.
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Nothing suggests that the debt ceiling debacle would have turned out much differently under a different Democratic president. The current House majority wouldn’t accept a larger victory, in which steep spending cuts were exchanged for a modest tax increase. And no Democratic president would send the economy into a tailspin to hold the line on a better deal.
The president made a tactical decision to forestall a showdown to next year, when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. We won’t know if he’s made the right decision until then, when we’ll be in the heat of the presidential race and Congress will be fighting over an extension package. Those who think he’s spineless because he didn’t veto last year’s tax extension or this year’s debt compromise mistake tactics for character. It’s not as if a different approach would have made an historically recalcitrant Congress more malleable.
None of this is to play down the cynical side of the president’s behavior. He badly wants to be reelected, which led him to leave the recommendations of his own debt commission twisting in the wind, and to offer no meaningful alternative to Paul Ryan’s budget. His failure to tell the American public where he stands, in plain and forceful English, hamstrings his chances of getting what he wants when a showdown materializes. This failure to message, also identified by Westen, is one critique that rings true to my ears.
But what Westen identifies as a trait missing in our president, a lack of conviction, is really a lack of capacity in our political system. And as we muddle through the next few years, we may find ourselves glad to have someone in the White House who has a deep capacity to learn on the job, and who won’t let ideology stand in his way. It’s why we elected him in the first place.
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