Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ah, but in Mr. Darcy, it's a feature, not a flaw

Poor Maureen Dowd. After swooning back in the campaign--remember that? It seems so long ago--that Barack Obama was the second coming of Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, she now seems to be perennially frustrated by the awareness that even Jane's Mr. Darcy would have made a terrible politician or national leader, and that her own personal version isn't doing much better:

President Obama was supposed to be a soothing change. He had a rough childhood. Michelle once told a friend that “Barack spent so much time by himself that it was like he was raised by wolves.” But he seemed to have come through exceptionally well adjusted. “His aides from the Senate, the presidential campaign, and the White House routinely described him with the same words: ‘psychologically healthy,’ ” writes Jonathan Alter in “The Promise,” a chronicle of Obama’s first year in office.

So it’s unnerving now to have yet another president elevating personal quirks into a management style.

How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self-destructive about politics?

President Obama’s bloodless quality about people and events, the emotional detachment that his aides said allowed him to see things more clearly, has instead obscured his vision. It has made him unable to understand things quickly on a visceral level and put him on the defensive in this spring of our discontent, failing to understand that Americans are upset that a series of greedy corporations have screwed over the little guy without enough fierce and immediate pushback from the president.

“Even though I’m president of the United States, my power is not limitless,” Obama, who has forced himself to ingest a load of gulf crab cakes, shrimp and crawfish tails, whinged to Grand Isle, La., residents on Friday. “So I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw.”

Once more on Tuesday night, we were back to back-against-the-wall time. The president went for his fourth-quarter, Michael Jordan, down-to-the-wire, thrill shot in the Oval Office, his first such dramatic address to a nation sick about the slick.

You know the president is drowning — in oil this time — when he uses the Oval Office. And do words really matter when the picture of oil gushing out of the well continues to fill the screen?

While I'm left wondering about the odd descriptor of Jonathon Alter's which Dowd cites--after all, whom do you know who you would routinely introduce or describe to others as "psychologically healthy?"--Dowd's larger point is mostly on target. Say what you will about the president's response to the Gulf Oil crisis, there's been a disturbing lack of empathy displayed. The residents of Louisiana do not, in fact, expect the president to act like a movie-superhero and "plug the hole" by a dazzling display of super-skills. What they do want is the reassurance that their plight is being noticed and recorded, that there will be real, tangible help for them which will not take years to administer nor be swallowed up in the swamp of corruption often present at local government levels, and that the company whose inattentiveness led to this catastrophe will be held accountable in some specific way.

Instead, the president seems to be getting testy and moody, talking about posterior-kicking one day, setting up an Oval Office display a few days later, complaining that after all, he's only the president. In this, the first real test of his office that didn't involve mere politics, Barack Obama has been found wanting. The usual political solutions are worthless; the usual words mean little. What's required is that shade of leadership which lays the self thoroughly aside, and focuses in on the people who have suffered and lost the most, that kind of deep compassion which, if a political leader can't actually muster, he must learn, early on, to fake convincingly.

A bloodless dispassionate self-centered analytical approach is only going to infuriate the ones who most long for that sort of leadership. But in Mr. Darcy, that kind of thing was a feature. In a United States President, it can only be a flaw.

But while I agree with much of what Dowd writes here, I must shake my head at her question quoted above: "How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self-destructive about politics?" As a candidate, Barack Obama was only dazzling to those on the left--Dowd included--who imbued him with nearly superhuman attributes cloaked in dizzyingly hyperbolic words, as they gushed and thrilled and tingled and shivered every time the future president opened his mouth. Had they listened--really listened--to what our current president was saying back then, they wouldn't be so surprised now, to find out that when faced with a crisis that demands both leadership and compassion, President Obama has been able to produce only Chicago-style bravado.

4 comments:

LarryD said...

Erin - I think you're psychologically healthy, BTW.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if Dowd has ever actually read P&P. Obama is clearly more like Wickham than Darcy. Mr. Wickham was the outgoing, charasmatic one.

Red Cardigan said...

Good call, Anonymous!

Larry: how dare you, sir! You know me better than that! ;)

Oh, and yes, it's now summer, and something I've been feeling guilty about all during fourth quarter of school will be attended to soon. Promise. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

My mother, a life-long Republican who voted for Obama, observes that while he is not projecting the dramatic image everyone seems to be looking for, he is doing his job well. I think in the long run that may be correct.

No doubt the residents of Louisiana do want "the reassurance that their plight is being noticed and recorded, that there will be real, tangible help for them which will not take years to administer nor be swallowed up in the swamp of corruption often present at local government levels, and that the company whose inattentiveness led to this catastrophe will be held accountable in some specific way."

The existence of a $20 billion fund, paid for from BP's revenues, bypassing endless lawsuits that make more for attorneys than for those injured, should be quite reassuring. I'm not so sure what people will make of the Republicans who want to blame the president for not taking action, then denounce this action as a "transfer of wealth" (from the perpetrator to the victims???). I can see the campaign slogans now: "Michelle Bachman, Chief Apologist for BP." And there is another in Texas, is there not?

I'm open to the idea that the president should have ordered the navy to get a remote controlled submarine in there the first day, and set of some plastic explosives to bury the hole in tons of rock. Maybe it wouldn't have worked. Maybe there is good evidence that it would have left the oil bubbling its way up through crevices and gaps. But maybe that option wasn't considered out of respect for BP's private property... after all, the president might have been called a socialist and a dictator if he had taken such precipitous action.