Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visions of Obama

"We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it's him or them that's really insane
Louise she's all right she's just near
She's delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna's not here."

Bob Dylan
"Visions of Johanna"

I've been thinking of Dylan's song — which, incidentally, Rolling Stone ranked 404th on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time — after reading some articles that have been written lately about how Democrats are resigning themselves to an electoral spanking that seems to be inevitable on November 2.

But those articles really make me think of the theme song from a popular TV show from decades ago — although it would require an adjustment to the lyrics to make it more timely ...

"Blame is all around ..."

It seems the walls are closing in on the Democrats, and they're flailing about in all–too–familiar ways. They're running out of scapegoats so they're resorting to cannibalism.

They're blaming the voters. Vice President Joe Biden has been telling Democrats to stop whining, and Obama scolded his supporters, in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying that those who voted for him in 2008 need to prove they are serious and return to the polls in the decidedly less favorable climate of 2010.

Those voters, Obama said, have to "buck up" — as if it was their fault that they expected instant gratification when they pulled the lever for hope and change.

But the truth is that they were only doing what they have been conditioned to do. And the ire they are expressing in the midterms is also something they have been conditioned to do.

There is nothing about this that should be even remotely surprising. Is it bewildering? Absolutely. Infuriatingly so? Perhaps.

But surprising? Hardly.

Nevertheless ...
  • John Podhoretz of the New York Post advises that it just isn't smart to blame the voters.

    I know the Post isn't known as one of Obama's supporters, but it seems as if that should be self–evident. I mean, politicians need votes to win and retain office — so, in a democracy, that makes the voters a politician's employers.

    And who in his right mind would tell his employer to stop whining or to buck up if his employer said the job wasn't being done according to his expectations?

    "Obama is talking to voters as though he is their boss, or their principal, or their father," writes Podhoretz. "He is not any of those things. He is their employee. And employers don't like it when their employees yell at them — even if their employees have it right."

  • The Wall Street Journal — which also has been less than friendly to the current administration — points out that many politicians have blamed the voters for their own shortcomings "but usually they wait until after an election."
It's all part of the mindset.

A lot of things have contributed to that particular mindset over the years, I think. In my memory, things really began to go in that direction when Ronald Reagan was elected.

In his one and only debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan asked the voters if they were better off than they had been when Carter was elected — and that has become the measuring stick for presidential success.

Before 1980, there seemed to be a genuine understanding among Americans of both major parties that big problems required a lot of time — and usually a lot of sacrifice — before they could be resolved. Reagan preached that there were simple answers to complex questions, which was never realistic but it was what the voters wanted to hear.

Politically, it was a smart move for a challenger. Before that time, it was typical in American history for most (but not all) presidents who sought another term to be given one by the voters.

But Reagan radically changed the playing field. Expectations were drastically altered, and it has proven to be a double–edged sword. Two years after he was elected, Reagan's party took a drubbing in the midterms because things weren't improving.

Twelve years later, Bill Clinton and his party suffered an even worse voter backlash for much the same reason.

When I was a child, I heard the adults in my world lamenting the fact that John F. Kennedy didn't have enough time to leave his mark. But Kennedy served nearly three–quarters of his elected term.

Less than two decades later, the voters felt that, even though he had been in office less than two years, enough time had gone by for them to start passing judgment on Jimmy Carter — and, when things grew progressively worse in the second half of his term, his re–election fate was sealed, and he became the first sitting president in half a century to be denied another term.

America has evolved rapidly in 30 years. I have heard our society described as a "microwave culture" — and it is. Things that, in the past, required preparation and planning and careful execution — and, yes, sometimes sacrifice — can now be done quickly, with little (if any) thought and with little (if any) sacrifice.

And I have to think things have only gotten worse since the nightmarish midterms that Reagan and Clinton endured. In the 21st century, people carry so much modern technology around with them — laptops, cell phones, etc. — that they can always satisfy every desire wherever they may be.

And they can be on top of breaking news no matter where they are.

So many things can be delivered "on demand" these days — and that is, in many ways, progress — that an individual may get an overly inflated opinion of his/her expectations and desires.

(I recall speaking to another voter when I was standing in line to cast my ballot in 2008. This woman told me that the only issue that she cared about was the ethical treatment of animals and that only those candidates who actually spoke about the issue in their campaigns would get her vote. I'll grant you, that's an important issue for some people, but it didn't rank too highly among the issues of concern for most of the people who voted in that election.)

When a candidate runs under a banner as innocuous as "change" and "hope," it may reap tremendous benefits in the election — as it did in 2008. But it also raises the bar on expectations. It encourages voters to pin any change they desire on him — which sets him up for the blame when change isn't achieved (or, at least, isn't achieved as quickly as the voters would like).

Americans elected Obama — waving his generic banner for "change" — in 2008, and each American who voted for him projected his/her personal vision for change — whatever form that took — onto Obama.

I think it is safe to say that most — but clearly not all — of those who voted for Obama did so with the expectation that he would pursue policies that would save the country's economy. Whether he has been successful depends, I suppose, on which economic indicators are being discussed, and, obviously, some of those indicators suggest that the economy is — slowly — recovering.

But that's a tough sell for the unemployed. The unemployment rate is the most accessible, easiest to understand economic figure for people who didn't major in economics and have little, if any, knowledge of economic theories — and one's knowledge of math doesn't have to be terribly extensive to understand that an unemployment rate of 9.6% (the unemployment rate in June of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is higher than 6.5% (the rate when Obama was elected in November 2008).

However, the unemployment rate isn't as straightforward as you might think (or at least hope) it would be. As many unemployed Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out are discovering, they are sort of like 21st century versions of George Orwell's unpersons. If they aren't receiving benefits, they simply aren't counted.

So, when the unemployment rate goes down in this economic climate, you need to do a little research to find out if that decline is because long–term unemployed people aren't being counted anymore — and not thanks to a burst of new jobs.

Anyway, the Republican administration was an obvious target in the 2008 general election campaign, but, after the campaign was over, it must have occurred to Obama and/or people on his staff that it would be good cover for them to keep blaming the previous administration. So that is what they did.

Even as Obama took office and Democrats fully seized control of the federal government, they constantly reminded everyone that the recession began on someone else's watch. We didn't start the fire, they told the American public. We just want to put it out.

And that worked pretty well ... for awhile. But, as they always do when their presidents depend on this particular excuse, the voters tired of it and began to turn on Obama.

And then, recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the recession ended in June 2009.

That would be good news indeed if there had been job growth in the last 15 months. But instead the unemployment rate, which was 9.7% in June 2009, soared past 10% — and, more than a year after the end of the recession, stands only slightly lower than it was when the recovery began.

And, as Catherine Rampell wrote in the New York Times, with the recession officially over, "any contraction that might lie ahead would be a separate and distinct recession, and one that the Obama administration could not claim to have inherited."

Thus, blaming their political adversaries won't work, anymore. The economy belongs to Obama and the Democrats now. And voters who voted for Obama believing that they were voting for someone who was committed to creating jobs and building a solid foundation for the economy's future, have been disappointed and frustrated.

I've heard it described as "buyer's remorse," this movement away from Obama. If that is so, perhaps the voters' rationale is that they can't do anything about Obama in 2010. No matter what happens on November 2, he will still be president.

But they can do something about the Congress with which he must work. Then, in 2012, they can do something about the president and vice president — if they still want to.

By then, Obama had better hope the voters' vision of him has shifted again.

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