Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 February 2009

Cutting Our New President Some Slack

While in Washington for the Inauguration, my wife and I gorged ourselves on the District’s unparalleled cultural feast. At one point, I found myself staring at an original copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I read the whole thing.

As I read it, I recalled the disappointment I had felt as a child on reading it for the first time. It is not a clean document. It did not abolish slavery everywhere in the United States, but only in parts “in rebellion against the United States.” Even then, there were exceptions: a laundry list of Southern counties near the Capital, mostly in northern Virginia.

Oddly enough, the excepted counties included the very same ones whose votes helped put Barack Obama in the White House. Noting that fact, I shivered. Was Lincoln’s political vision so acute as to peer through the gloom of centuries and see the light ahead?

Political genius is hard for ordinary mortals—even ordinary intellectuals—to understand. I and many others thought Obama was “weak” for “coddling” Hillary and Bill during the primary campaign. But he won. Most of the country, including virtually all of our political punditry, thought his race would bar him from the White House. But he won.

Those facts alone suggest that we now have in the White House the greatest political genius since FDR, maybe since Lincoln. Somehow we have always managed to find gifted leaders when we need them most.

But trust comes hard to a people as abused as we. After eight years of the worst rule in our history, we paradoxically expect swift miracles.

Politics is a messy business. Some historians doubt Lincoln’s commitment to abolishing slavery. They say he freed the slaves too late and did so only for expediency’s sake. They forget that, even today—in the age of nuclear weapons and mass murder—the Civil War is still our most destructive conflict, by far. It has left the most lasting scars on our land and on our national psyche, which every visitor to the District still can see.

When Obama won, the satirical rag The Onion headlined “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” The joke’s inherent truth made it funny. We do stand on the roughest patch of our national history since the Civil War, the last century’s world wars, and the Great Depression that divided them.

And we know the problems are not ours alone. They are global. Banks are failing and jobs are disappearing from Guangdong to Siberia. And just today pundit Tom Friedman virtually threw up his hands at the Israeli-Palestinian problem, although promising a more positive approach in his next column.

Not only is the whole globe suffering and rudderless. After nearly two-and-a-half centuries, the deals we made to knit together thirteen disparate colonies—some slave, some free—are fraying. We lost two or three extra years to Dubya and Cheney because our system won’t let us remove failed leaders on a vote of “no confidence.” And with every vote in the Senate, our Great Compromise holds our mighty states hostage to the whim of their less educated, less populated and less productive counterparts.

Just read today’s editorial on education in the New York Times. The House, which reflects population power relatively well, is ready to enforce national standards in education and put gifted teachers where they are most needed. The Senate—where bare land still speaks louder than people and commerce—wants to perpetuate a fragmented system that lets ignorant folk deny evolution and keeps poor folk in the dark. The Great Compromise’s dead hand still rattles the editorial pages of our national press.

The problems that President Obama seeks to solve are not of his making. He inherited them. They vary in age from ancient to modern. The Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian splits go back millennia. Our own structural defects are over two centuries old. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back sixty years, and roots of our economic collapse trace back four decades.

So we owe our gifted young president some time.

My one wish is that he would explain himself more, if not to the public then to selected confidants in Congress. Maybe his genius is intuitive, like Mozart playing in the style of other great composers, upside down. Maybe it’s hard to articulate. But if he could explain to just a few why he pushes here and bides his time there, he might create a nucleus of political reason much broader than his own inner circle. His speech on race was like that.

Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do with his new social agenda. I hope so.


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  • At Mon Feb 23, 04:16:00 PM EST, Blogger LazySusan said…

    I think that we all need to support the president because he is one of the best political geniuses since FDR, and he can't do it alone. Progressives need to keep vigilant, keep laying pressure on Obama from the left because he is getting so much crappy bs pressure from the right. There's a great video on this site for the book Thinking Big that makes the same point - now is the time for us to do our part to keep Obama on track.

  • At Tue Feb 24, 09:45:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear LazySusan,

    I agree with your first sentence and the first half of your second. But I disagree that what the President needs now is “pressure from the left.”

    I think the President knows what needs to be done. He’s just smarter and more realistic than most about how hard it will be to get done.

    We have an enormous problem of self-delusion in this country. Unthinking, reflexive free-market ideology has become our secular religion. It has even infected some progressives subconsciously. Many people still believe—quite honestly and sincerely—that government can do nothing right.

    Just a few days ago, a commenter to a Wall Street Journal article disparaged our Post Office in vituperative language. His tone implied, “Doesn’t everyone know this stinking government institution is worthless and incompetent? Do you want our industry to be like that?”

    In fact, our Post Office is the best in the world, a model of innovation and good management. It offers self-stick stamps, a variety of inexpensive packaging materials, and reasonably priced overnight delivery. It lets you hold or forward mail temporarily and call courteous clerks on the phone to discuss your mail service. I’ve traveled widely and have never seen anything like the same products or service elsewhere. Yet millions of Americans still believe in their bones that government is invariably incompetent and our Post Office is evidence of that fact.

    That deluded comment is a metaphor for our national ideological self-delusion. So many people hold so many wrong ideas so deeply. No real change will come until this self-delusion softens and people (not just progressives!) begin to see reality. That’s why the President says change must come from the bottom up.

    Obama knows how hard it will be to turn this ocean liner around. He knows he can’t do the job with class warfare or “pressure from the left.” He has to be our educator in chief, as well as commander in chief.

    It doesn’t help him when progressives hurl insults like “crappy bs pressure from the right.” We need to educate, not scold, lest we begin to sound like Rush Limbaugh ourselves. Education and persuasion take time, but they’re they only alternative to political gridlock or worse.



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