Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is You -Ism or Is You Ain't?

Is it too early to start building a definition of “Obama-ism”? It seems that, of late, every president that comes along rates an “-ism” after his name – based, typically, on the more negative and notorious aspects of his presidency and administration. But things weren't always this way. Did you ever hear of “Eisenhowerism”? Even the almost universally-despised Richard Nixon has never been credited with inventing something called “Nixonism” -- although “Watergate” provides a fair equivalent. And the closest Reagan ever got to an “-ism” was “Reaganomics” -- which at this point seems as far in the past as the patroon system. And earlier presidents had to get along with mottos or nicknames -- you know, the "speak softly, etc." of Teddy Roosevelt, "keeping cool" with Coolidge, etc. This "-ism" business really all started with Bill Clinton, and “Clintonism” -- a term used exclusively by his opponents – typically refers to monumental venality, vanity, egomania, pettiness, paranoia, and corruption with undertones of cruelty and animal sensuality. It included features like accusing certain White House employees of embezzlement in order to get them fired so they could be replaced by one's cronies... or using the IRS and other agencies as a means of harassing one's enemies... or incinerating an entire religious cult just to see if you could get away with it (they did). And let's not forget the White House furniture! I mean, forget about Whitewater and Monica; that was pretty tame stuff, and not all that unusual. The essence of Clintonism was violence and ruthlessness toward anyone who stood in the way of.... well, of whatever. I always thought it was interesting that, whereas Hillary Clinton had a very well-defined agenda – running the nation's health care system being the biggest item on the list – Bill Clinton really didn't. For him, it was enough to simply be president. With that, it was “mission accomplished”, and the rest was gravy. I mean, sure, he enjoyed strutting around and enjoying the perks of office – but let's face it, he could probably have accessed more female admirers if he'd stayed in Arkansas. But there was just that indefinable something about being president that he couldn't resist.

Contrast that, if you will, with “Bushism”, and the abuses of liberty, both domestic and in foreign lands, by his administration that are too recent to require detailing. So unlike Clintonism, Bushism had much more of an international flavor, thanks to the Wilsonian zeal of the Neocons and their abject groveling before the Israeli lobby. It had a full-blown paranoid narrative in the form of the "Global War on Terrorism", and it also had an overlay of towering hypocrisy, as witness the “Patriot Act” and all that followed. Catch Bill Clinton ever coming up with something called the “Patriot Act”! Sometimes it pays to have an “anti-American president”, as he was termed by one commentator.

So what can we already offer as building blocks toward a definition of “Obama-ism”? For starters, I'll repeat my description of his administration as being composed largely of Clintonista retreads, Chicago and Illinois political hacks, tax scofflaws, and hard-core collectivists. But does this differ significantly from the motley crew that followed Lyndon Johnson, for example, to Washington, or Jimmy Carter? Or Bill Clinton? Isn't this basically a description of “the usual suspects” that any Democrat who wins the White House manages to round up?

And how about the massive bailouts and economic “stimuli”? Are they unique to Obama? Perhaps they are in terms of magnitude, but qualitatively they aren't a whole lot different from the New Deal – besides which, the process started under Bush, so that tends to water it down a bit as being distinctively Obama-esque.

But then how about Obama's charisma? His youth? His entry into Washington in triumph, with the multitudes scattering palm fronds in his path? Well, I remember when JFK took office in 1961, and believe me, it was the same thing – and we weren't even in an economic crisis or fighting two wars. In fact, the only thing JFK offered in a tangible sense was a way out of the 1950s – and that was enough for most people.

Is Obama a "great communicator"? Yes -- but so were FDR and Reagan. A mere Blackberry doth not a more superior communicator make.

OK then, how about the fact that Obama, in contradiction to his ultra-cool demeanor on the campaign trail, has shown remarkably low frustration tolerance when it comes to dealing with opposition and skepticism vis-a-vis his lunatic schemes for righting the economy? This could, in fact, be a distinctive trait; FDR (the only clear precedent) basically ignored the opposition and steamrollered over everyone in his path. He didn't get indignant or act hurt – he just crushed them underfoot, smiling all the while.

So yes, this perpetual pout and occasional lashing out – which reflects a profound misunderstanding of the realities of the political process – that could be a uniquely Obama-esque trait. The fact that he is now sounding notes of caution, whereas on the campaign trail he was promising to fix everything for everyone immediately – well, that's just politics as usual. Not understanding why everyone doesn't love and adore him – this is a trait he shares with Bill Clinton, and he doesn't have it to anywhere near the same pathological degree. Being above Hillary in the chain of command – well, that's somewhat unique too, you must admit. No one else has ever been able to pull that off, Bill in particular.

So yes, we have a few very modest building blocks, but they are far from enough to define, at this early date, an “-ism” for Obama. But at the rate at which things are happening in Washington – rivaling FDR's famous “100 days” -- we may be able to flesh out our encyclopedia entry quite a bit more before long.

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