The Sort-of-God That Failed

The New York Review of Books has become a good source of unintended humor, as its writers attempt to explain what went wrong with their sort-of-god. In the October 5 issue, Garry Wills tries to explain why Barack Obama adopted many of the national security policies of George W. Bush. It turns out we created a “national security state” back in the fifties and “any president” would find it virtually impossible to turn around.

Now, in the October 22 issue of the Review, Elizabeth Drew tries to explain how a messianic president, with control of both houses of Congress, can’t seem to get anything done on health care or even persuade anyone anymore with his speeches:

A White House aide told me that Obama was "very frustrated" by his inability to convince people that the stimulus program was working. ... Obama is sometimes slow in arriving at an effective formulation, and he presses his aides to sharpen his message. Finding a voice that is explanatory rather than oratorical can be difficult for him. This definitely has been the case with health care.

Of course, it is easier to find an explanatory voice when one has a plan to explain.

Drew blames the usual meanies: “entrenched interests,” impolite Republicans, anti-government rallies, Internet and cable TV with “repetitious and vile attacks,” “extremely powerful and well-financed” insurance companies, a “frightened” public, elderly people who were “especially troubled,” etc.

But she comes a little closer to the truth when she notes a certain incredulity that necessarily accompanies a non-plan that promises everything:

It was counterintuitive to believe that the president's program would expand coverage to include nearly all of the forty-five million people who don't have it and at the same time save money. It's even harder for people on Medicare to accept that the proposed cuts in the program would not -- as administration officials insisted -- affect their benefits. The pledge to achieve most of the cost reductions by eliminating "waste and abuse" -- a vague but handy phrase going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan -- wasn't convincing or reassuring.

Drew recounts how Obama, after his argument about saving money did not work, changed his sales pitch to an attack on insurance companies (while cutting deals with industry to get their support), and finally settled on a third strategy: a message of “stability and security” -- “words that sound as if they had poll-tested well.”