I am not an historian. But I know enough about history to realize that there is more to the study of the past than memorizing names, dates, and places. There are gigantic forces that are pushing history forward and are only revealed in hindsight, or when cataclysms blow away the fog and allow a brief glimpse of where we are going. Barack Obama is caught up in these forces — well and truly trapped by them — and appears unable to respond to them, much less identify the fact that he is a prisoner of events, many of which are beyond his control, but others on which he might make an impact if he had the first hint of what it took to be a leader during a crisis.
Social historians like Page Smith believe it is the march of ordinary people that drives history forward. Over time, the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of billions of people work on the decisions of national and international leaders, shaping them in ways that are unfathomable to us in the present but can be seen when history is receding in the rear view mirror.
It’s a seductive argument, but leave me my belief that the “Great Man” theory of history plays a role too. I have learned that the narrative histories I so enjoyed in my youth are perhaps not the best way to look at how history unfolds. Too many events occur virtually simultaneously for narrative history to be much of anything but a good read, because by definition, a narrative artificially provides order to disorder.
The towering personalities of those narratives were largely trapped by forces of history that, try as they might, they couldn’t bend to their will in order to alter destiny. Lincoln put it best when he said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Lincoln could only ride the tsunami, not direct it. The ageless desire for freedom, the growing agitation for equality, the westward expansion of peoples and ideas, the rising shame over the sin of slavery, the greed of industrialists, the incomprehensible hypocrisy of a nation that boasted of its freedoms while keeping millions in chains, the emergence of free labor and a nascent labor movement — this and more was in the wave that Lincoln was trying to ride. He was successful only insofar as he was able to identify those things he could control, and those he could not. It was his particular genius, and you certainly can’t expect every president to be gifted with such insight.
But in Barack Obama’s case, events have gotten far the better of him. And most tellingly, he seems unable to see anything that he can control, settling for blaming his predecessor and promising to do better.
In these times, with the challenges he is facing, that simply isn’t good enough.
Obama is riding the wave without realizing he’s even on the water. And to make matters worse, he apparently can’t swim. The analogy of a “deer in headlights” seems harsh but that is a judgment of some of the Washington press corps.
Yet Obama plods along, raising gobs of cash for his reelection bid — he was scheduled to speak at two DNC fundraisers Monday night — and varying little the words he reads from the teleprompter. He seemed detached even from those words Monday as he pivoted his head from side to side, proclaiming that “our problems is not confidence in our credit” and turning his bipartisan fiscal commission into a “biparticle.”
He reminded all that the situation isn’t his fault (the need for deficit reduction “was true the day I took office”), he blamed the other side (“we knew .?.?. a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip could do enormous damage to our economy”) and he revisited the same proposals he had previously offered to little effect: extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, and spending more on infrastructure projects.
This, he said, is “something we can do as soon as Congress gets back,” along with further deficit reduction. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks,” he said.
Over the coming weeks? As soon as Congress gets back?