On Tuesday, this past Nov. 4, I voted for John McCain for President of The United States. On Wednesday morning, I woke feeling glad that he lost. Had McCain won, a spirit of gloom would have spread over the land, a deadening feeling of "Oh, God, business as usual," part of that business being that a man tied to failed economic policies was once again at the helm and a nonwhite candidate for president still hadn't a chance. But Barack Obama was our new president. Great day in the morning; a new age in American politics is upon us.
Or is it? Like Augie March, I am an American, Chicago-born, but unlike Augie—a follower of Leon Trotsky—I have never been able to take politics with an entirely straight face. So often, I find my antipathies divided; faced with two equally outrageous candidates, a plague, I usually pronounce, on both their condominiums. The source of this is genealogical. When I was a boy, my father remarked that the aldermen of the City of Chicago, who were then paid an annual salary of $20,000, were spending as much as $250,000 to win election. "The arithmetic doesn't quite work out," he said, pausing, as if to say (though the phrase hadn't yet been invented), "You do the math."
Politicians, my rich Chicago heritage tells me, are all guilty until proven innocent. When the great Rod Blagojevich scandal broke a few months ago, I, like most Chicagoans, wasn't in the least scandalized. All I found remarkable in it was the now former governor's efficiency, in the realm of corruption, in eliminating the middleman and asking for the money himself.
Nigel Dempster, the late English gossip columnist, who specialized in exposing the sexual peccadilloes of British politicians, once remarked: "No one cares what politicians say—they're all liars, cheats and fools." I've met a few—a very few—who weren't: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Paul Simon, Jeane Kirkpatrick. At the same time, whenever I see Joe Biden, with those hair plugs and those too-large dental caps, I imagine him, perhaps unfairly, in traffic court signaling me into the men's room, where in a husky whisper he lets me know that, for three grand, he can get me off that DWI, no sweat.
But even hardened Chicago-bred cynicism breaks down from time to time, and hopeless idealism not only threatens but actually does break through. Barack Obama's presidency seemed such an occasion. He was young, handsome in an elegant yet inoffensive way, he had the gift of even temperament, he was articulate; if not as eloquent as advertised, next to bumbling George W. Bush he seemed a veritable Edmund Burke. True, over several years in politics he seemed to have accomplished nothing but election, which some would say is the real point of politics in any case, but so much about him seemed promising.
Obama himself wasn't short on promises. He promised to change the very game of politics. He would bring transparency to government, toss out the lobbyists, encourage bipartisanship, unite the country, making us one people again. As a tremendous step toward doing so, he ran a magnificently race-free campaign, never once suggesting that America was a racist country or that he was in any way a victim, nor that he was deserving of election for any other reason but his pure inspirational quality and solid intellectual merits.
All politicians disappoint, to ring a change on Tolstoy, but every politician disappoints in his own way. The first inkling of the disappointment with Barack Obama, as we know, came with his appointments. Two major ones—Bill Richardson and Tom Daschle—had to drop out for tax and more intricate delinquencies; Nancy Killefer, his chief performance officer, fell by the wayside for similar reasons. Timothy Geithner, nominated as secretary of the Treasury, was given a pass. But Obama's lectures on the purity that he would bring to government were over. The high moral ground he had picked out for himself, he was finding, was swampier than he had supposed.
Promises, promises, as the Burt Bachrach song had it; unkept, they come back to bite a man. Obama's promise of a new bipartisanship hit heavy water as soon as his stimulus-package debate was set adrift. For one thing, only the idea for a stimulus package—but not the package itself—ever felt as if it were really his. From the outset it was instead the work of that fun couple, maestros Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Frick and Frack of heavy federal spending. And those two are as interested in bipartisan participation as Lord Byron was in marriage counseling. When the going on the package got rough, Obama said, in effect: "Well, I won the damned election, so we'll do things my way, though of course I still invite bipartisan participation."
Such has been the steamroller effect of it all that Obama lost another cabinet officer, the Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who was to fill the job of secretary of commerce left unfilled by Bill Richardson. Secretary of commerce begins to look like a job that may need to be advertised in the classified section.
Meanwhile, Secretary of the Treasury Geithner, after laying out a plan to save the banks that satisfied no one, a plan that has been judged vague where not vapid, appears to be going the way of all geniuses. Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke—economic geniuses are falling like cats on the rack at the county fair in Texas. Enough of geniuses; a simple expert would come in handy. But not many of those are around, either, or at least not credible ones, which makes the new Obama presidency feel wobbly, weak, if not inept on the major crisis of the era.
Victims of the general ineptitude that the Obama administration has so quickly shown are transparency in government and the new (we hardly knew ye) bipartisanship. The stimulus package itself is felt to be suspect.
Which brings us back to disappointment and politics. It is in the nature of politicians to make promises; it is what they do. Some do so without the least intention of delivering on their promises. Some fully intend to deliver, but find the world obdurate, unwilling to go along with their fine intentions. Barack Obama now finds himself among the latter. With loony jihadists threatening from without, a crumbling economy terrorizing its citizens from within, Obama knew he needed straightaway to demonstrate utmost competence to stem fear and instill confidence. The reason for his wanting to assemble an able cabinet more quickly than any other administration in recent history was to show that, though the nation had major problems, they were under study and would soon be attacked by the most capable minds of our time. He needed to calm the country down, and show, in a measured but forceful way, that a strong hand was at the wheel.
This he has thus far failed abysmally to do. Very disappointing, to the country at large, and not least, I have no doubt, to Barack Obama himself. Viewed from Chicago, up whose greasy political pole the president has himself climbed, the jolt is a lot less jarring. "Them guys in the black suits and narrow ties, them Ivy League types, them goo-goos," the Chicago alderman Mathias (Paddy) Bauler long ago said, "they think the whole thing is on the square." Old Paddy, of unblessed memory, also said that "Chicago ain't ready for reform." Were he alive today to witness the sad early beginnings of the Obama presidency, he might add: "And maybe the rest of the country ain't either."