Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sunday Reading

What Happened? — Drew Westen wonders why Barack Obama has not risen to the passion he came to office with.

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

[…]

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by 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. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars — in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars. When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

More below the fold.

Perhaps Leonard Pitts, Jr, has an explanation for Mr. Obama’s reluctance to counterattack.

Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, “your boy,” that “tar baby,” the president of the United Sates, Barack Obama:

Ahem.

The first title was bestowed upon Obama by political commentator Patrick Buchanan on Tuesday, the second by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn on the Friday before last, the third by the American electorate in November of 2008. If the first two seem to cancel out the third, well, that’s the point. One hopes they will help the president understand something he has thus far refused to grasp about his political opposition.

Namely, these people don’t want to be friends. They don’t want to compromise for the greater good. They don’t want to solve problems unless by problems you mean his continued tenancy in that mansion on Pennsylvania Ave.

They have not been coy about this. Rush Limbaugh said it (“I hope he fails”) when Mrs. Obama was still picking out a dress for the inauguration. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in November that, in a time of war and recession, his number one goal is to deny Obama a second term.

Yet somehow, the Obama brain trust, a term herein used advisedly, always seems caught off guard by the ferocity, velocity and fury of the response to him. They were surprised at the verbal and physical violence of the healthcare debate, surprised at the hardiness of the birther nonsense, surprised by the stiff defense of the Bush-era tax cuts.

Now, they are surprised the GOP would rather see the U.S. economy go off a cliff than surrender the aforementioned tax cuts for rich folks. So the debt ceiling gets raised in exchange for cuts to services for the poor, who shortsightedly failed to hire lobbyists.

It is time Obama quit being surprised by the predictable, time he understood this is not politics as usual, not Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill snarling at one another by day and having drinks by night, like that old cartoon where the sheepdog and the coyote punch a time clock to signal the beginning and end of their hostilities. It is not Bill Clinton living in a state of permanent investigation, nor even George W. Bush being called incompetent all day every day.

No, this is a new thing, repulsion at a visceral, indeed, mitochondrial, level. Obama’s denigrators are appalled by the newness of him, the liberality of him, the exoticness of him and, yes, and the blackness of him.

“Your boy?” Really?

Sure. Why not. Didn’t Rep. Lynn Westmoreland call him “uppity?” Didn’t the ex-mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif., send out an email showing the White House with a watermelon patch?

See, here’s the thing: If, as is frequently said, Obama represents America’s future, what do they represent?

You know the answer. Worse, they do, too.

Still, what matters here are neither their feelings nor his. No, what matters is homeowners dispossessed of their homes, workers who can’t find work, sick people who can’t afford health, American soldiers on patrol in hostile places.

The president is a basketball fan, so surely he knows it is sometimes necessary to throw an elbow on your way to the goal. This is one of those times. His instinct to compromise, to work with the opposition to solve problems, is admirable.

But Obama needs to understand: As far as they are concerned, they have no problem bigger than him.

The Circus Comes to Town — Zoe Gorman at the Toledo Blade reports on the lasting legacy of a small touring circus.

MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio — Steve Copeland sits in his trailer and rubs a thick coat of white paint all over his face. He dabs on red and black makeup and steps outside to plaster baby powder all over his face. He puts on a bright red nose, a ridiculous suit, and enormous shoes.

He’s ready to go.

Unlike the average male, Mr. Copeland is accustomed to putting on copious amounts of makeup. As a clown with the one-ring Kelly Miller Circus — the only circus owned by a member of the famed Ringling family — he enjoys living life off the beaten path.

“I wanted a job where nobody respects me,” he joked.

Circus life is not for everyone.

The performers of the Kelly Miller Circus wake as early as 5 a.m. to pack their gear and head to the next small town, where they give the same performance twice in a day.

The circus recently traveled from Corry to Meadville in western Pennsylvania and into northeast Ohio’s Amish country.

With its assorted trucks and trailers hauling everything from tigers and elephants to jugglers and assorted clowns, the troupe brings excitement and summer entertainment to small, obscure towns — a form of amusement more common in the late 19th century than it is today.

And that’s really the appeal. In an age of YouTube, X-Box, and Twitter, the Kelly Miller performers are hanging onto an old ideal — live talent.

Ringmaster John Moss III remembers the day when whole towns would shut down on circus day. Now most major circuses perform in cities inside arenas. With increasing entertainment regulations and permits, the world is becoming less circus-friendly, Mr. Moss added.

The Kelly Miller Circus, which bills itself as “America’s one-ring wonder,” is one of a dwindling few small circuses that set up the big top every morning, bring an extravaganza to life underneath it, and tear the whole operation down with a ferocious gusto — within 45 minutes. The traveling circus, Mr. Moss said, might be the townspeople’s only opportunity to come face to face with a tiger.

Doonesbury — Up on the roof.