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Works and Days

Our “Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain” Moment

December 16th, 2010 - 8:27 am

Straws and the Camel’s Back

At some point in late 2010 once optimistic independent voters, moderate Republicans, and centrist Democrats stopped listening. They abruptly concluded that their 2008 Barack Obama proved not to be the great uniter, the great communicator, and the greater humanist who was to bring the country together around “centrist” values.

At about the same time, a once ecstatic liberal base began to worry that President Obama was not the brilliant postracial social organizer, the brilliant progressive explicator, and the brilliant big government architect who would take a center-right country with him hard to the left.

Stop it, Toto!

The result has been a sort of political implosion, the proverbial “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” moment when the omnipotent wizard’s face projected on the screen becomes exposed as a rather frightened Frank Morgan, busy with levers and gears—or, in our morality play, a deer-in-the-headlights Barack Obama relieved to sub out his White House press room to a designated president Bill Clinton at last back on his home turf.

In a number of ways, we can see how the Obama administration has been reduced to a sort of virtual administration. The messianic spell of 2008 ended with the largest midterm rebuke since 1938. Whereas in 2009 it was considered racist for a conservative to question the president’s wisdom at a Tea Party rally, by 2010 Democratic congressional representatives were vying with each other to find creative ways of using the F-word to belittle the president. Since his inauguration, the president has lost a point in the polls about every three weeks of his presidency, without much deviation.

There is little presidential stature left. When Barack Obama addresses the Sen. minority leader as “Mike” McConnell or claims the U.S. motto is e pluribus unum rather than “In God We Trust,” this is by now a non-news story—not after “57 states” or “corpse-men” or Austrian-speaking Austrians. Proclaiming that at some point individuals have made enough money raises no eyebrows either—not after “spread the wealth,” “redistributive change,” and claiming that the purpose of capital gains tax hikes was not to increase federal revenue but to ensure “fairness.” If the president were to go on another riff about “fat cat bankers,” limb-lopping surgeons, or Vegas junkets, eyes would roll—in the manner that today’s students start text messaging when their aging 60s hold-over professors keep ranting about Halliburton. Martha’s Vineyard and Costa del Sol helped see to that.

Been there, done that

An Obama speech echoing boilerplate themes such as “there are no red states, there are no blue states” today simply could not be given—the laughing in the audience would be far too much. After Eric Holder’s “cowards” outburst, the beer summit, Van Jones, the slurs against Arizona, and the video appeals targeted at particular racial groups, the public takes for granted that a Rev. Wright, the clingers speech, “typical white person,” and Michelle’s angst (e.g., “downright mean country,” “never been proud,” “raise the bar,” etc.) were disturbing premonitions rather than rightwing racialist paranoias.

For a while, “working across the aisle” delivered in mellifluous tones assured millions that their soon-to-be president had not compiled the most partisan voting record in the U.S. Senate (to the left of the nation’s only self-avowed socialist senator). Now? We yawn when Obama goes off on Republicans as “enemies” who cannot sit in the front seat of the car. Chicago-style target the enemy has gone from shocking to de rigueur to banal for this president.

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