Party of None
Barack Obama's annoying journey to the center of belonging
[from The Baffler No. 20, 2012]
In real life, the balls were rushed and exhausting for the Obamas to attend. They danced ten times to the same song, “At Last” by Etta James, hearing the same lyrics over and over. But the version shown on television was stunning, one of those rare moments when presidential symbolism, personal history, and the nation’s emotions met and fused.
—Jodi Kantor, The Obamas
Barack Obama’s personal journey begins, and it is instantly made meaningless.
Sometime in the first half of 1966, Obama’s stepfather was mysteriously forced to return to Indonesia from grad school in Hawaii. Lolo Soetoro went home to a long episode of political violence, the outlines of which are not substantially in dispute. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, had tried to create political stability by balancing three competing political forces in the life of a new country: the army, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), and Islam. On the night of September 30, 1965, PKI members and leftist military officers attempted a clumsy sort of coup d’état that resulted in the murder of six right-wing generals and, accidentally, a lieutenant. The plot was a shambles: publicly incoherent, loosely planned, and easily suppressed. Suharto, the most powerful right-wing general to survive the attempt, used the plot as a pretext to seize power and purge communists from Indonesia’s political life. Within weeks, soldiers and militias were killing hundreds of thousands of people and removing thousands more to detention camps. In Jakarta, U.S. embassy officials informed their Indonesian counterparts that they were “generally sympathetic with and admiring of” the army’s chosen course. American military planes rushed to supply radios to Suharto’s headquarters to help his army coordinate the purge.
So Lolo Soetoro goes home, soon to be followed by his young wife, Ann, and her son, the future U.S. president. According to former New York Times reporter Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (Riverhead, $26.95), nobody really knows even today what was happening at the time. “The details of the September 30, 1965 coup and counter-coup remain in dispute, as do the particulars of the slaughter that followed,” Scott avers. Still, she concedes that a few things aren’t shrouded in fog, such as the fact that “it is known that neighbors turned on neighbors.” As a result of this nationwide outbreak of neighborhood violence, Scott concludes on the same page, “The army became the dominant institution in the country.” Neighbors spontaneously turned on neighbors, driven by unclear motives to perform unclear acts; the PKI was destroyed; the army ended up in power. Mysterious events, clear outcome.
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf, $29.95), by New Yorker editor David Remnick, gives the story a touch of detail, explaining that Lolo Soetoro found himself in grad school “at a time when his country was enduring a horrific civil war.” Seven dead on one side, hundreds of thousands on the other: civil war. Why were they fighting? “Suharto claimed that the violence had been initiated by leftists,” Remnick reports, though he pronounces no judgment as to the veracity of the claim. The whole thing may have had something to do with the left and the right. Let’s move on.
Placed by the authors in a murky setting, the narrative version of Obama’s stepfather is assigned a murky role. “Lolo was in the army,” according to Janny Scott’s book, which shows him in uniform. Remnick, on the other hand, says Lolo “had taken a job as an army geologist,” language that neatly elides the question of his personal agency. Either he chose to become a geologist after a civil war, or he was forced to serve in an army that had recently engaged in mass murder and was still engaged in the indefinite military detention of political enemies. Apparently, these are small distinctions. He took a job in Suharto’s army, sometime in 1966.
“Soetoro knew that his time was running out.”
Whatever Lolo was up to, Ann and Barack were devastated and delighted to join him. Janny Scott has them living in a place where people are “unable to eat the fish because of decaying corpses in the water.” On the next page, “Jakarta had a magical charm,” and on the next “the city felt friendly and safe.” Jumping into this milieu of orientalist exoticism, Ann eventually got a job as an English teacher, where snacks were available in the teacher’s lounge. There were, Janny Scott reports, many kinds of Indonesian snacks: “They include seafood chips, peanut chips, fried chips from the mlinjo tree, chips made from ground rawhide mixed with garlic, sweet-potato snacks, mashed cassava snacks, sweet flour dumplings made with sesame seeds, sticky rice flavored with pandanus leaves, sticky black rice sprinkled with grated coconut, and rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves or banana leaves, to name a few.” This is more detail than Scott has managed for the political events of 1965, in a story about a family that went home during a political purge so stepdad could join the army prosecuting it.
Ann Dunham’s occupational history is equally hidden behind this thicket of meaningless narrative. The English school, it turns out, was her second job in Indonesia. Here’s Scott, again: “By January 1968, she had gone to work as an assistant to the American director of Lembaga Indonesia-Amerika, a binational organization funded by the United States Information Service and housed at the U.S. Agency for International Development” (USAID). The offices of the USAID were located at the U.S. embassy, by the way, where officials had communicated American approval of mass executions and arranged for the shipment of communications supplies.
Hints of the story Remnick and Scott are trying not to tell begin to slip out. Lolo Soetoro had served in Suharto’s army, and Ann Soetoro was an employee of a thinly veiled Cold War federal agency, reporting to the American director of an organization with an office at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. The naïf with a desk at the embassy had eyes, though, and she noticed some things. Ann “sensed the hauntedness of Jakarta,” David Remnick writes, especially after she “came across a field of unmarked graves.” And so the doe-eyed USAID employee ventured an innocent question to her husband: “She tentatively asked Lolo what had happened with the coup and counter-coup, the scouring of the countryside for suspected Communists and the innumerable killings, the mass arrests, but most Indonesians, Lolo included, were extremely reluctant to talk about the horrors of the mid-sixties.” Remnick’s phrasing presents all of its own answers as a preface to our discovery that Ann’s question wasn’t answered. Janny Scott’s version of the story is a little less helpless. In this account, Obama’s mother eventually “pieced together some of what had happened in Indonesia in 1965 and afterward from fragmentary information that people let slip.” Somehow, a federal employee at the U.S. embassy managed to figure out some little bits about what had happened with that whole political mass murder by the army thing in the country where her husband was a soldier and her employer delivered military supplies.
And the lesson? Indonesia was where “Ann was Barry’s teacher in high-minded matters—liberal, humanist values,” Remnick concludes. It’s where she taught him the values of “honesty, hard work, and fulfilling one’s duty to others,” where she lectured him about “a sense of obligation to give something back,” Scott adds. It’s where she “worked to instill ideas about public service in her son.” Because Indonesia in the late sixties was the perfect place and time to learn about liberal humanist values and public service.
More recently, David Maraniss walked into this dark room and turned on the lights. His Barack Obama: The Story (Simon & Schuster, $32.50), which tells the story of Lolo Soetoro and his family, sees the creepy significance of the political setting. Suddenly we have a version of Lolo who, sitting in Hawaii, knew that “the political situation in Indonesia made him especially vulnerable.” Whole layers of meaning open up, as Maraniss shows Obama’s stepfather amid dangerous events with precise language: “On top of all this, the Indonesian army, the military to which Soetoro still had civilian obligations, was involved in a bloody skirmish in Malaysia against the British.” If he were to return to Indonesia, Lolo suspects he’d be “placed on the front lines doing reconnaissance work.” Throughout Maraniss’s account, a clock is ticking: “Soetoro knew that his time was running out.” Indonesian officials showed up at his university in Hawaii and sharply questioned him about his politics and his affiliations back home. He fought a losing battle to keep his student visa and was finally forced home by the loss of that visa in June of 1966. When Ann arrived with her son to join her husband, Maraniss writes, “the extent of the political bloodshed in Indonesia during the purge and the brute power and force of the emerging Suharto regime certainly must have stunned and demoralized her.” We’ve taken a sharp turn away from the world of delightful native snack foods.
But then Maraniss walks away from the politics that he sees so clearly. Serving the narrative conventions of American journalism about powerful figures, he works his way out of the detailed and careful story he’s told, and instead tells the one he’s expected to tell. Despite “all of the political bloodshed that Indonesia had just endured, violence triggered by raw power, fear, and political and ethnic hatred,” young Barry Obama’s classroom in Indonesia was somehow “a place removed.” His teacher “spoke idealistically of the notion of tolerance.” Floating above his setting, “Barry in Indonesia was not just an early coming-of-age story, but also the start of his coming to grips with race.” Amazingly, in the most banal conclusion drawn by any of these books, life in Indonesia brought the future president symbolically “closer to his father in spirit than he ever would [be] again,” a critical step in the formation of his personal identity. “He was also closer physically, only the breadth of one ocean away.” Oh, daddy, I am near you. Something has dragged a sharp and engaged reporter away from the landscape he has carefully surveyed, back into the banality of a dismal publishing formula in which people must necessarily get to know themselves and feel better about their fathers. The established narrative conventions cannot be escaped.
Their Very Names Were Music
Political journalism in America operates as a kind of narrative cotton gin, cleanly stripping meaning from events. It creates the kind of magical world where no one is quite sure what happened in Indonesia in 1965, but the food was delicious and everyone walked away with a desire to benefit society through selfless public service. The overarching narrative premise, the bit of mechanism that strips out the politics, is that actions and conflicts are essentially personal.
A protagonist—a future president of the United States, say—is on a life journey or vision quest, struggling with the legacy of his mother, or of a historical father figure, or of an actual father, or some combination thereof. Villains appear, necessarily. They stand athwart the personal quest, for personal reasons involving bad personal character. Policy negotiations are spiritual and psychological tests: Will Barack grow into his destiny through bold action, or shrink from history with narrow vision? Is either eventuality due to the way he feels about race, his roots, his papa? What Barack Obama “proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self,” David Remnick offers on the first page of his book, framing the nearly six hundred pages of portentous celebrity profiling that follows. Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (Harper, $29.99) describes its subject as “this brilliant construct,” sounding like an overawed Ivy Leaguer writing a seminar paper, and wonders whether this walking, talking narrative object can possibly “handle the waterfall of inchoate yearnings crashing down on him.” In a closing chapter titled “Finding and Being Found,” David Maraniss has Obama “on the way to his family’s unimaginable destination, his own el dorado.” In the Lifetime biopic, the role of Barack Obama will be played by Debra Messing.
Outside of the thing that passes for news on cable television, few journalists perform this dismal removal of meaning from politics more winsomely, with greater pretensions to wry knowingness and stylistic elegance, than Hendrik Hertzberg. In the introduction to his ¡Obámanos!: The Birth of a New Political Era (Penguin, $25.95), a collection of his New Yorker essays, Hertzberg parrots Remnick, his boss, with a description of Obama’s “long apprenticeship as a student of himself.” But Hertzberg makes sure to rub plenty of his own important self against Obama’s student self, until you surely understand that they’ve met, they totally know each other, and, oh my goodness, they are mutual fans: “I told him how much I admired his 1995 book Dreams from My Father, still the only one he had published.” And then? “He told me that he and Michelle were big fans of the New Yorker.” There are three shameless paragraphs about this encounter. (Hertzberg’s wife and Obama’s wife also dig each other, by the way.) Later, Hertzberg received an invitation to meet with the president during a conference for liberal bloggers, and he’s happy to tell you about that, too. Follow an experienced journalist into a close discussion on important topics with a leading political figure, and learn from the hard-earned knowledge he brings to his analysis: “The discussion was off the record, but it violates no confidence to say that, as I suppose we all expected, he made a favorable impression on us.” By not revealing the things that I suppose we all expected, journalism helps us to understand our world.
Every word in Hertzberg’s book bridges the selves of the serfs with the selves of the political class. They complete us; they run for office so that we can feel, so that we can be personally redeemed and sanctified at our emotional core. Obama, in this, is like Mario Cuomo: “Both made Democrats, haunted for decades by a phantom of themselves as losers who are weak and glum, suddenly feel like winners who are strong and joyful. Cuomo was grand opera and Obama was the rebirth of the cool, a jazz formalist, but both were virtuosi. Their very names were music.” Yes! Take a moment to say “Barack Obama” and “Mario Cuomo” out loud, so you can hear the operatic jazz mellifluence. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, “Obama comes riding through the smoke and scoops up his audience like a hero sweeping a stranded damsel onto his horse.” Hertzberg goes on, but I can’t.
Little Faith in Government
On facing pages in Ron Suskind’s Con Men, advertised as the inside story of how the Obama administration managed its way through the worst recession in seventy-odd years, Suskind introduces a guy named Billy Tauzin. On the second of those two pages, Tauzin is described as a steadfast advocate of the “unfettered marketplace,” a description that closely follows Suskind’s assurance on the previous page that Tauzin has “little faith in government acting as an arbiter” on health care matters.
So who is this limited government, pro–free market fanatic? When Suskind first shows Tauzin in action, he’s one of two people sitting near Larry Summers at a White House–sponsored meeting on health care reform: “A long-serving Louisiana representative who switched from Democrat to Republican in the 1990s, Tauzin had pushed through one of the most expensive pieces of legislation in American history: the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003. Costing $500 billion over ten years, it is considered by many to be a massive handout to the pharma industry, which in return hired Tauzin as their lead Washington representative.”
So the “unfettered marketplace” is where the central government nakedly gives away hundreds of billions of dollars in handouts to private corporations, and people who don’t believe that government should act as an arbiter in health care matters are the sponsors of some of the most expensive health care legislation in history, and free market purists work as corporate lobbyists in the District of Columbia, probing for the spigot. It’s free markets and laissez-faire economics, a half-trillion public dollars at a time. Thank god Billy Tauzin doesn’t believe in government intrusion in the health care marketplace, because just imagine what that would look like.
But Ron Suskind isn’t an ordinary writer using words in order to describe meaning, any more than Billy Tauzin is an ordinary speaker using words to communicate a set of beliefs; no, Suskind is using words to police a story into established narrative forms, putting the competing players into their categories. Marketplace, free markets, regulation, deregulation, isolationist, pacifist, anti-government, left, right, center, centrist, extremist, mainstream: these are Facebook words, telling readers about connections, positions, and identities rather than ideologies and actions. In political journalism, someone who believes in the “unfettered marketplace” is a Republican. That person need not believe in the unfettered marketplace, whatever that is, or act in its service. The phrase is not intended for that purpose.
Big books about national politics follow the same rules that Janny Scott and David Remnick bring to their stories about the Soetoro family’s sojourn in Indonesia and how Young Barack was endlessly becoming. Suskind’s book gives us, as the subtitle indicates, a story about “the education of a president,” setting Obama’s challenge against the test that George Bush failed: “He needed to grow, and he didn’t.” The nation is personified, too, and goes on its own personal journey, but it’s sort of riding shotgun. As Obama rises to the presidency, Suskind says, “The ground was trembling from the streets of Chicago to the fertile fields of Kansas.” Linked by trembling streets, the Chosen One is almost pornographically attached to the Body of the People: “It is a rare bond that allows a president and a nation to move as one. . . . Policies suddenly become not just what the president does at some adviser’s behest, to score a political point, but who he—or, someday, she—is. It is then that president and public enter their shared moment.” There are many such moments in Confidence Men, including an extraordinary analogy involving a school bus. It’s on page twenty-four, if you haven’t eaten lunch and want to read it for yourself.
Sometimes the narrative lens is a little wider than a single person, but politics still sinks beneath an aggregated personal journey in which a whole status group grows into its moment of destiny together. The model was laid down long ago by professional acolyte and melodramatic hagiographer of power Arthur Schlesinger Jr., with his sweeping narrative volumes on the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations. Contemporary books like James Mann’s The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (Viking, $26.95) take readers through the voyage of a class of Democratic foreign policy operators, the president among them, tracking them from the wilderness of the Bush years to the moment they could put on their cleats, take the field, and show the crowd how they could move the ball just like Republicans. While streets trembled on the fertile fields of Kansas, or something. They are all becoming. Of course, mapping all these personal journeys can be an exhaustingly circular task, as when Mann describes tedious think tanker John Podesta’s tedious emanations about a tedious think tank called the Center for a New American Security: “In an interview in early 2010, Podesta confessed that he was a little disappointed with CNAS. It had started out in the political center, maybe slightly left of center, he said. But he felt it had drifted to the right after [Kurt] Campbell and [Michèle] Flournoy departed and had gradually become just another mainstream Washington defense institution.” Understand? It started out in the political center, but it gradually drifted—a little to the left! a little to the right!—into the mainstream.
But the nonsensical language isn’t meant simply to identify actors or clarify allegiances. Purporting to describe and explain, it ranks, excludes, and orders. Here’s Mann telling the foreign policy version of Ron Suskind’s Obama-finds-his-economic-bearings subplot. Experts are descending on Colorado for the annual meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group, and all the soup is just hot enough: “The group spanned the spectrum of mainstream thinking about American foreign policy. They were, above all, respectable. Aspen participants were not too far to the left or the right; there was no radical critic of the United States such as, say, the late Chalmers Johnson, inveighing against American empire, and there was no isolationist like, say, Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, urging that all U.S. troops simply be brought home. No, the visitors to Aspen share similar assumptions; they are senior practitioners, practical people who dwell within the realm of the possible.”
They spanned the spectrum of people who share similar assumptions, representing the entire range of thought that you get when you keep critics out of the room. Everyone gets a voice but the actual left, the authentic right, people who say the word empire, and people who, being “isolationist,” think the American military presence shouldn’t span the face of the earth. All voices are welcome around the table, as long as they say more or less the same thing. It is, you see, a centrist forum, focused only on “the realm of the possible.” If you think the “realm of the possible” shrinks when everyone allowed in the room to discuss the possibilities already shares the same assumptions, you’ve just shown why you’re outside the locked door. Wear a jacket out there, hippie, ’cause the wilderness is cold.
They Are Married to Us, Too
Events and human beings outside the narrative frame of the personal journey toward the responsible center are incidental, sometimes mentioned but never fully perceived. Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas (Little, Brown & Company, $29.99), for example, is about the personal journey the Obamas are taking as a couple. The book scrupulously examines dilemmas like the one that opens chapter three: “The approach of the forty-third Super Bowl, with the Pittsburgh Steelers playing the Arizona Cardinals, raised a question in the White House: where would the forty-fourth president watch the game?” Here, too, we ride shotgun, as Kantor asks us to wonder not only about “the impact of the presidency on the Obamas’ relationship,” but also about “how the Obamas’ personal dynamic had consequences for the rest of us.” After all, she concludes, with the very last words that frame the introduction of her book, “they are married to us, too.” We’re like a whole national family of sister-wives, joined in mass matrimony. Just imagine how many in-laws we’ll have to visit.
Pakistanis, on the other hand, take their places as the furniture our family casually rearranges in its living room. Some of the president’s supporters thought he would scale back American drone strikes, but it was not to be. “The supporters,” it turns out, “were wrong.” Obama’s personal journey as an emerging leader went elsewhere. Here’s how Kantor’s paragraph, describing the new president’s first drone strike, ends: “Three of the other dead were children.” Here’s how the next paragraph begins: “The new first lady, meanwhile, was figuring out how Malia and Sasha could have playdates with their new school friends.” One set of dead children backs up against a pair of live ones. It’s jarring only if you’re able to notice.
Meanwhile, faked problems are placed in the narrative to displace the real problems, like dead Pakistani children, that politicians and their journalist courtiers are not able to perceive. In a stunning passage that Ron Suskind surely didn’t regard as stunning, we learn that an Obama campaign speech on foreign policy fell flat. As a result, Obama rushed to meet with a team of economic advisers, since “attention-grabbing domestic policies looked like the only way his campaign was going to generate forward motion.” The campaign “had booked the room,” Suskind explains, “for the next two hours.” The advisers tossed around ideas, suggesting (for example) that high levels of unemployment among “low- to moderately-skilled male workers” could be addressed with a program to train them for work in the growing field of health care. Obama “shook his head”: “‘Look, these are guys,’ he said,” and they wouldn’t want to take jobs as nurse’s aides. Then, finally, an economist sitting at the table pulled something out of the air: “‘Infrastructure,’ he blurted out. ‘Rebuilding infrastructure.’ Obama nodded and smiled, seeing it instantly.” This is how policy is made: people make shit up around a table to patch over a bad speech, and then go to Congress for a trillion dollars, maybe a little more, maybe a little less.
A few hours later, a bridge collapses—one bridge, in a nation of close to four million square miles—and the policy is vindicated. Here’s Suskind again (observe the seamlessness of the collisions in these sentences, the way premises arise and are simultaneously refuted and sustained without ever interrupting the smoothness of the narrative): “It was government’s responsibility to ensure that the physical foundations of the country, on which its economy and way of life rested, were sound. The bridges and dams, the electrical grid, the highways—the condition and upkeep of these things could not be left to the private sector and profit motive alone. They never had been. If government did not step up soon, disaster would surely ensue.” So infrastructure had never been left to the private sector, because it had always been the government’s responsibility, but the government needed to step up and start doing the things it had always done, instead of doing what it had never done and leaving roads and bridges to be maintained by the profit motive, which it had to stop doing despite never having begun to do it. Look again at the sentences on both sides of “They never had been,” and see how all the claims fit together: absolute incoherence, total nonsense, and an established journalistic narrative.
If speeches are “muscular,” does the phrase “bold action” appear?
To recap: once, a group of Obama’s campaign advisers, sitting around a table in a room that was booked for two hours, hit upon a new and sudden need to have the government start maintaining public infrastructure; and before the sun went up the next day, journalists were earnestly explaining that highways and dams could no longer be left to the private sector, pause, “They never had been,” pause, government needs to step up. All of these invented themes take perfect form in Noam Scheiber’s exhaustingly banal The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery (Simon & Schuster, $28), one of the finest pieces of raw stenography you could hope ever to read. The universe has given us Noam Scheiber for the same reason it’s given us Hendrik Hertzberg: as an exemplar of a particular character type, in this case the earnest scrivener of conventional wisdom. Scheiber’s résumé nails every point right on the head, from The New Republic and a fellowship at the New America Foundation to Oxford for a Rhodes scholarship. His personal journey worked according to design, training a young journalist to a state of impenetrable establishment credulousness. Scheiber types up a new Obama plan to spend fifty billion dollars on “crumbling roads and bridges” as part of a package of “reasonable, centrist policies” that pushed against the “extreme demands” of Republicans, who, presumably, desire immediate American bridgelessness in which no one can drive anywhere because all the roads have returned to dust and the broken dams have flooded everything. There is oration, and it gets the requisite adjective: “Obama delivered . . . a speech as muscular as the American Jobs Act Sperling had crafted,” Scheiber writes without laughing. If speeches are “muscular,” does the phrase “bold action” appear? Reader, you know it does.
That Power to End Debate
But let’s give them their due. Journalists like Ron Suskind, James Mann, and Noam Scheiber manage to notice policy and the significance of policy choices more than the career academic who has covered the similar “education of a president” narrative. In Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton University Press, $24.95), Harvard historian James Kloppenberg writes what might as well be a biography of Kim Jong-il on sale at Pyongyang airport. Every word is bold struggle and brilliant formation. Young Barack encounters many challenges, but he is shaped by the strengthening fire; in one environment after another, “his exceptional intelligence enabled him to master difficult concepts that left many of his classmates floundering.” That latter example specifically describes the future president’s experience at, yes, Harvard Law School, where diminished cognition is apparently the norm and smart people really stand out. Fortunately, Obama has been able to cover the awkwardness caused by his genius with the social deftness that comes from his “unusual self-restraint and self-awareness,” and his “vaunted poise,” and his—okay, let’s stop here.
Kloppenberg coughs out a book celebrating Barack Obama’s glorious philosophical pragmatism, his commitment to civic republicanism, his openness in thought and discussion. In this version of the heroic centrist melodrama, the Great Leader believes in a philosophy that demands “open-ended experimentation,” citizen! He stands for “open-mindedness and ongoing debate.” He is unique among politicians in that he insists upon “respect for one’s opponents and a willingness to compromise with them.” Declaring the importance of all this open discussion and respectful exchange, Kloppenberg also writes back-to-back sentences like this: “So incoherent is American public debate that Obama’s critics simultaneously blame him for an economic situation he did nothing to cause and oppose larger infusions of money into the economy through much greater government spending, the only option that might address the problem. The impasse in which the nation finds itself stems directly from the American people’s limited access to power—and their equally limited access to responsible sources of information about how the American economy works.” Does the professor who types sentences celebrating open-ended experimentation and open-mindedness notice that he also declares the presence of the only option for American economic policy? Does he notice that he pronounces dissenting sources to be irresponsible? Reader, he does not.
Oh, impassioned critic of our president who opposes the only allowable policy option, where is your openness, your pragmatic commitment to open-ended experimentation, your free-flowing debate, your modesty? Here, in any event, is Kloppenberg’s: “Have the first three years of the Obama presidency made necessary a reconsideration of the arguments presented in Reading Obama? The short answer is no.” This question-and-answer, from the book’s new preface, drags its author into the realm of naked self-parody. “Since the book appeared,” Kloppenberg writes with unembarrassable smugness that goes down like brandy in Cambridge, “I have heard from many people who have known Barack Obama at different stages of his life, and in very different circumstances. All of them have told me they think I have him right.” What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is Professor James Kloppenberg of Harvard University saying he must be right because he’s heard from “good friends” of the president’s at Harvard Law School, not to mention from “a former head of a European government” too. Well, there you go. Sounds like the only person who hasn’t confirmed his portrait of the president’s “mature, penetrating mind” is the man himself; no doubt, the professor lies awake at night dreaming of the call.
Reading Obama echoes another classic of the form, a ten-thousand-word Vanity Fair lament from September 2010 in which professional thumb-sucker Todd Purdum declared a similar concern over the kind of people who oppose whatever their betters declare to be the only option for public policy. “It used to be,” Purdum wrote, starting with words that invariably signal idiocy ahead, “that news outlets had space to report or comment on only a fraction of any day’s events. The pace of events has picked up, sure, but the capacity to assert, allege, and comment is now infinite, and subject to little responsible control.” Later in the same article, Purdum quotes presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, who does not appear ever to listen to herself speak, and who similarly laments the decline of the old days of responsible discussion: “Walter Cronkite would get on and say the truth, and people believed the media,” she says. Yes, Purdum nods along, a thousand times yes: “Today, no single media figure or outlet has that power to end debate.” What a shame.
Both Wall Street’s Man and Obama’s
Here I must pause to confess that I admire Ron Suskind’s book, although I had to squint to feel it. At least I admire it more than do its critics, like Jacob Weisberg and Ezra Klein, who know that Suskind must have been factually wrong because his book about politics is full of pettiness, backbiting, and accounts of internal chaos and disloyalty in policymaking. This is the lament of the faithful, who know that politics is serious business and a public service. In any case, the critics are right that the book is a mess. For nearly five hundred pages, Suskind wages conceptual war on his own evidence, piling up proof about a set of premises while insisting on a whole other set of contradictory conclusions. But the evidence, bless its little heart, speaks through the author’s fog, describing a set of policy arguments and their outcomes. Reporter Suskind overcomes Writer Suskind.
Here, at least, is a book about politics that has politics in it. We learn that Christina Romer—Obama’s first chair of the Council of Economic Advisers—argued (along with several other key aides) that insolvent banks, including even the biggest of them like Citigroup, should be seized and wound up, their failures resolved through disciplined regulatory intervention. She lost to (in particular) Tim Geithner, who opted to “keep matters moving forward with as little disruption as possible,” preventing a crisis of confidence in the financial system by endlessly throwing free money at it. Peter Orszag, meanwhile, argued for data-driven health care reform that would first aim to control costs, then use the savings to expand coverage. Instead, the bill that survived Congress “would be more accurately defined as ‘insurance’ reform than ‘health care’ reform,” as Suskind observes, “since the centerpiece was mainly an expansion of the private insurance industry.”
In a book written by someone who bothers to notice policy, regulation is a disputed thing of unclear boundaries and purpose: What is it? How will it work? What should it do? Whom should it serve? Look at the outcome of both of the major domestic policy disputes in the first years of the Obama administration. In health care, a policy initiative intended to reduce health care spending instead ended with a requirement that more people send money to private insurance corporations, while private health care corporations escaped any significant cost controls at all. (Somebody tell this to David Remnick, who crows about “the tens of millions of Americans who would now have health care,” as though there’s no distinction between an insurance mandate and the delivery of medical services.) In financial regulation, banks ran the table, and Suskind can write sentences like this one: “The government had handed $125 billion to nine banks, without conditions.” While we have a national debate framed by a false choice between deregulation and reckless greed or more regulation and greater fairness, here are two instances in which more regulation produced more corporate income. The facts don’t fit the debate; more remarkably, the debate won’t fit the facts.
Neither will Suskind’s book, which describes the “unfettered free markets” of the “deregulated post-Reagan era,” and an “army of men” in government who held “an unshakeable belief in the miracle of the markets, the freer the better,” and “traditionally antiregulatory Republicans,” and the “general agreement” about the “lack of regulation” in finance. Describing efforts to legislate financial regulation after 2008, Suskind references the “sweeping” Depression-era regulation that it would be measured against: “There hadn’t really been any since then, so the bar was low.”
Right alongside all of that language, a reader gets Suskind’s description of Alan Greenspan’s “greatest historical influence,” which was that he “helped to ensure that, in each crisis, the rollover of debts . . . would be supported,” creating “a flood of liquidity that altered the ancient, commonsense physics between price and value, confidence and pessimism.” Two pages later, Suskind describes “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, guaranteeing roughly 80 percent of all mortgages, and for years encouraging the extension of debt to unsteady borrowers as part of [a] national bipartisan push to spread the ‘virtues’ of homeownership.” A few more pages, and we learn that those two organizations, “and by association the U.S. government . . . were the guarantors of Wall Street’s business model and its vast profits,” a business model assured by “government’s role as backstop—final recipient of the risk being passed to and fro between investors in debt.” Next, it’s on to the bankruptcy reform legislation of 2005, which exempted repos and swaps, “like those soon-to-be-fatal credit default swaps,” from the “automatic stay” on corporate liabilities on bankruptcy. After that, we hear about the “migration” of middle-class money from savings accounts to Wall Street, caused by “the government’s 1970s creation of tax-exempt 401(k)s and IRAs.” From there, Suskind turns to the Federal Reserve Bank’s “cheap-money policies”; and then to banks “making money from the free money offered by the Fed, and sitting on the profits”; and then to AIG and “the government’s total contribution to the firm” rising to “a stunning $170 billion”; and then to the stark declaration that “Washington was becoming Wall Street.” See all the deregulation? It’s almost like we didn’t have any government at all.
Put it this way: in a book about the attempt to overcome the legacies of deregulation through the stabilizing and reasonable influence of the regulatory state, the pharmaceutical industry lobbyist Billy Tauzin is sitting next to Larry Summers in the White House, where everyone is somehow on a journey to the center. Describing the latest iterations of this regulatory-corporate fiesta, Suskind delivers the verdict of the asset manager Larry Fink, with an ellipsis from the original: “The president is much more of a centrist . . . in some ways he might even be called right of what used to be called center.” I think that’s supposed to be a compliment, delivered by a critic who was then “impressed,” as Suskind notes, by an up-close encounter with the president to discuss the country’s economic plight.
It’s clear from all these accounts of the sensibly pragmatic exercise of power in Washington that the “center” is where corporations go to pick up their free cash. But at least there are no extremists at that center. You can just change the foreign policy names in James Mann’s The Obamians to domestic policy names, and you will have exactly the same narrative on offer in Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men. “Why is it that Democratic presidential candidates hold out the prospect of a new American foreign policy,” Mann asks, “and yet often wind up with ones that are not fundamentally different from the Republicans?” Yes, why is that?
The Policy Executive as a Social Type
In October 2010, Kloppenberg described his work on Barack Obama’s political formation to an audience at the U.S. Intellectual History Conference in New York. In his remarks Kloppenberg probed the sophistication of Obama’s extraordinary mind, the depth of his philosophy, the seriousness of his engagement with the long roots of American political thought. In a story on Kloppenberg’s talk, New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen wrote that the audience “responded with prolonged applause.” A history professor in the crowd helpfully interpreted the enthusiastic response of Kloppenberg’s peer group: “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours.” The president is, like us, extraordinary. He went to college a lot.
Many critics have described the emergence of such insulated status groups among American elites, “the product of the cultural fragmentation that seems to characterize industrial and postindustrial societies,” in Christopher Lasch’s words. No fool for power, Lasch noted the separation of an emerging intellectual class from the society that produced it. As academic and political elites have evolved since then into status groups sealed off from reality and insulated from economic pain, they have substantially merged into a new kind of managerial elite. A Harvard history professor celebrates the ascendance of a Harvard Law grad and University of Chicago law professor to the presidency; and as the new president rises from one to another of these “strategic loci of social control” (in Lasch’s words, again), he brings along other members of his social class. Professor Elena Kagan moves from the dean’s office to the Supreme Court with only a brief detour to polish her curriculum vitae for government work; Professor Cass Sunstein takes his desk in the new administration—as “regulatory czar”—not far from Professor Samantha Power over in the State Department, who also happens to be his wife. Professor Christina Romer and Professor Larry Summers wait outside the Oval Office for a meeting, the air thick with tension, in the same seats once occupied by Professor John Yoo and Professor Condoleezza Rice, while Professor Steven Chu wraps up his discussion on energy policy. Wonderfully, Suskind describes “Summers’s pride in leading the most academically accomplished, big-brained team since Kennedy’s ‘best and brightest.’” It worked so well the first time, didn’t it?
As Kloppenberg casts a horrified look at all the irresponsible sources that burden the educated managerial class with incoherent debate, he sees himself. (And he likes what he sees.) As the professoriate continues, amazingly, to swoon over a Barack Obama who has been gratefully pronounced by the financial industry to be “much more of a centrist” than they had expected, they aren’t seeing the object of their projected adulation. The highly educated class, the new kind of managerial elite, is protecting itself from self-knowledge. It’s hiding.
Surveying the body of self-congratulatory, pragmatically centrist literature celebrating this self-congratulatory, pragmatically centrist administration, it’s at last possible to understand the true character and scale of our plight: the nation is locked in an elite-made crisis—caused by regulatory capture, not by mythical deregulation—that has been extended and deepened by elite intervention constructed around further regulatory capture. The solution to that problem has been to batter at the chimera of deregulation. A failed elite class that finds itself unable to put its knowledge into effective operation instead speaks of that knowledge in a louder voice. It tells us, of course, that Barack Obama is a rare and magnificent genius, that he is a pragmatic centrist who correctly performs the only inevitable policy options, that he is one of us.
The Qing Dynasty died under the hapless guidance of men like these, men who had trained hard in Confucian principle and passed a brutally difficult series of exams to ascend to the highest ranks of a dying regime that they couldn’t hope to save. We know so wonderfully much, and none of it works.
In this context, the center is a place of belonging, not a place of belief. It’s therefore striking to note that, in a book that describes a battle between regulation and deregulation, left and right, Suskind describes one brief hopeful moment in Congress, a momentary coalescence among senators who favored tough limits on the size and leverage to be allowed to financial corporations. Congressional leaders opposed the measure, “But senators started signing on, as the most liberal members, such as Sherrod Brown and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, were joined by none other than Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, and his party’s leading voice in the chamber on banking issues; Nevada’s John Ensign; and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, arguably the Senate’s most conservative member.” You can appreciate how distressing this specter would have been to the White House, and to its dutiful class of mandarin apologists: Bernie Sanders and Tom Coburn were now in agreement on a key question of financial policy, burdening public debate with incoherence.
But then the centrists intervened, and left us instead with the mostly unfinished gesture of the Dodd-Frank Act, which solves the problem of too-big-to-fail banks by leaving them just as large as they are now. Fortunately, though, since it wasn’t deregulation, Dodd-Frank could only have been a major victory for the regulation of the financial industry. To dispute that point is to be an extremist. A country that can’t manage or mitigate the crisis of its failing institutions has at least found a way to avoid talking about it, five hundred pages at a time.
Disciplined, Satisfying, and Secretive
And yet the politics accidentally leak through. The narrative construct named Barack Obama is everywhere encountering boundaries, slamming into hard limits that prevent him from taking bold action to help us on our own journey at his side, even though our emotions have fused with his and we are married to him and his wife. In books that depoliticize political events, politics becomes an obstacle to Obama’s performance of process rather than the process in which he is engaged. And that real process, the one he wishes to perform, is formidable indeed. “He had to clean up the financial crisis first,” Jodi Kantor explains, “but then he would be able to move on to his real agenda, which included dealing with a rapidly warming earth and fixing a health care system so expensive it might eventually bankrupt the country.” Oh, and he told his staff to get started on “an advanced smart grid to transport new forms of power across long distances,” and he called leaders in the Middle East “to tell them he was committed to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in his first term.” And let’s also multiply some loaves and fishes, and can we reupholster the couch in the Oval Office?
But then the only reason Obama doesn’t repair the global economy and reengineer medicine and change the temperature of the earth and toss up a new national power grid to harvest the wind and institute an immediate and lasting peace between Israel and Arabs is that people shamefully said no to him. His staff tells him that he can’t just grab up land across the length and breadth of the nation to run his advanced power lines, but would have to negotiate for it with such intrusive things as “every tiny municipality along the way,” pissants that they are. Here are the next two paragraphs in their entirety:
I’m the president. Can’t I get this done? he asked his advisers. Actually, no, they told him. The smart grid idea was scrapped.
Dunder Mifflined in his own office by uncooperative employees, Obama is similarly thwarted all over the imperial city by an inexplicable explosion of personal intransigence and meanness. Mitch McConnell, “a Kentuckian with large, calm eyes,” is “conjured up” to twirl his waxed mustache and tie Penelope to the train tracks. “Where Obama was subtle and intellectual, McConnell was a tough, canny tactician who believed in brute repetition of anxiety-inducing messages about the mounting federal deficit, bailouts, and terrorist attacks,” Kantor explains. The description of Obama as a subtle intellectual comes precisely one page after the one where he tells his staff to make an advanced smart grid appear, then gives up when they tell him there are laws. But anyway, it’s all just narratives: elsewhere in the book, Kantor writes that “the federal deficit was a stunning $1.4 trillion, the most red ink that post–World War II Washington had ever seen.” Why does Mitch McConnell keep talking about the size of the federal deficit? Merely because he’s a tough, canny tactician. The thing is simultaneously real and impossible to discuss as real, a dangerous reality and a narrative ploy that Republicans are playing as a game.
Crushed by Mitch McConnell’s shrewd decision to pretend there’s a federal deficit, Obama retreats to the rationality of state violence. “In comparison to the raucous noise of domestic politics,” Kantor writes, “there was something disciplined and satisfying about secretive national-security work. There was no messy Congress to deal with, no stroking and horse trading with legislators, and certainly no Tea Party resistance.” In short, Obama was “more at ease with the exercise of power than the exercise of politics.”
Here it is, all of it: a world of personal will, without critics, without opposition, without irresponsible debate that tragically can’t be closed anymore by a single paternal figure. Political events without political content or meaning, without politics. It is disciplined, satisfying, and secretive. Killing people overseas allows a leader to move past politics and achieve the satisfaction of exercising power. American journalists see the politics of their own place and moment as clearly as they see the political substance of Ann Soetoro’s Indonesia, where young Barack Obama spent some time becoming.
To my eye, nothing tells the story of our historical moment like the story about the swing set. It appears in Jodi Kantor’s book, as the Obamas “stepped into new lives that seemed in many ways to belong to nineteenth-century regents, with a circle of staff whose size and degree of specialization seemed to rival that of a royal court.” Remember that Kantor dwells on the limits Obama has encountered as his political opponents make slyly framed claims about federal spending and excessive debt. The president is confined in a political trap, bound by the inherent parsimoniousness and procedural paralysis of a government managed by political process. He also has “at least two valets to dress, groom, and pack for him, a navy steward to serve him meals, a maître d’ and six butlers for the residence, and two personal aides for everything else.” And then it’s time to buy some White House swings for Sasha and Malia, and the staff leaps into action. “The staff performed their work with total seriousness: when it was time to order a swing set for the Obama girls, Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon, the chief usher, traveled to the factory in South Dakota where it was being made to inspect it.”
Trapped by its limits, unable to take bold action, pinching pennies, and frozen by political obstructions, the White House dispatches an admiral across the country to buy playground equipment for its children. The Obamas are helpless, living like nineteenth-century regents. The absurdity of our own historical moment is written clear as day by people who can’t begin to perceive what they’ve written.
Chris Bray is a sometime history professor and is writing a book about the history of American military justice.
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