Saturday, July 23, 2011

Free Man in Paris

"The way I see it," he said,
"You just can't win it.
Everybody's in it for their own gain.
You can't please 'em all.
There's always somebody calling you down.
I do my best,
And I do good business.
There's a lot of people asking for my time.
They're trying to get ahead.
They're trying to be a good friend of mine.
I was a free man in Paris.
I felt unfettered and alive.
There was nobody calling me up for favors,
And no one's future to decide.
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song."

Joni Mitchell

Back on the night he was elected president — and in the months before — I'm sure Barack Obama did feel, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song, "unfettered and alive."

He was the proverbial free man in Paris, adored by all who saw him and heard his voice. When one watched the relationship between the candidate and the crowds on the campaign trail, it was like watching two young lovers in the throes of a brand–new passion for each other. If one breaks wind, the other thinks it sounds like Mozart and smells like a rose garden.

And he and his followers fell under a spell that convinced them that the election of this man would change things forever.

I guess the followers of every victorious presidential candidate believe he will be the one who changes things forever, but the symbolism of the Obama election was hard to ignore. I remember watching the 2008 election coverage and seeing an anonymous black woman saying that everything in the future would be right and just and fair, and she didn't have to worry about that anymore.

It wasn't just a racial thing. I heard similar things from whites on that night. And I also heard young voters of all races, many participating in an election for the first time, speaking of Obama and what they expected from him. And I heard progressives of all ages and all races speaking of the liberal causes that would be promoted in an Obama administration.

That was the fantasy.

Reality has been smacking Obama and his followers around. It hasn't matched the fantasy. Not even when he did something his predecessor could not do — rid the world of Osama bin Laden.

That would have been quite a coup a decade ago. But that's the problem. Presidents are judged almost entirely upon how they handle the situations of their times — not of someone else's. And 2001 was George W. Bush's time, not Obama's.

Whatever one may think of the circumstances surrounding Bush's election, he was the occupant of the White House on September 11, and if he had remained focused on bin Laden and promptly captured or killed him instead of turning his attention to Iraq, I believe he probably would have been re–elected in a landslide.

Bush's administration is remembered for other things today, but, before 2004, capturing or killing bin Laden would have been like winning the lottery. In 2011, it was more like winning the pot in a hand of poker.

The challenge of Obama's time has been to put America back to work. All the other things he has wanted to achieve as president depended on the accomplishment of that one objective first — because, in order to do the things he has said he wants to do, the tax base must be expanded.

The tax base has not been expanding in the first 2½ years of Obama's presidency, and there aren't sufficient resources within the existing tax base to do the things he wants to do. This is at the heart of much of the debate over the debt ceiling that currently has Congress in a stranglehold.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Barack Obama felt like a free man in Paris when he sought the presidency. The challenger is apt to feel "unfettered and alive" when the responsibility of governing is not yet his and when there is "no one's future to decide."

Alas, there are millions of futures to decide.

He probably would "go back there tomorrow" to the days when he could say what he pleased about where America should be and he didn't have to worry about things like whether there was enough money — but the work he has taken on will not allow it.

That's when some experience at bringing opposing sides together would come in handy for a president. This president's administration has spoken admiringly of two recent presidents who won re–election in spite of economic woes — and difficulties with Congress — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The folks in the West Wing want to emulate those presidents.

They overlook, either deliberately or by accident, the facts that Reagan and Clinton both were governors before they were president. Successful governors know a lot about compromising, helping each side see the wisdom in giving up a little in order to achieve a lot.

In the current atmosphere, though, both sides have taken a take no prisoners posture. Neither side will settle for anything less than total victory — and that means total surrender from the other side. The left is repulsed by the right and vice versa.

This is a situation that calls for presidential leadership, for a president who rises above the congressional squabbles and brings the two sides together. This president has a little more than a week to do that.

Will he succeed?

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