Hypnos Takes the Podium

So I watched the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Fine, the pundits are right; the president’s timing and delivery are excellent, the point is taken. Yet it’s strange how the dinner itself has become a major news event. In the hours before Obama took the podium, all the news channels were waiting breathlessly for the speech, complete with timers and countdowns on the screen. Anything, I guess, to make the news more like watching an episode of “24”. It’s gotten so that any event, no matter how distant or basically lighthearted and trivial, becomes an unmissable opportunity to milk another night’s worth of programming and ad space (and also, in this case, for the press to flaunt its coziness with the very officials it’s supposed to be watching critically).

Afterwards, in place of the Epic Countdown, idiotic captions appeared at the bottom of the screen, asking impossibly inane questions like “do you think the president was funny?” Go ahead and vote on the network website, or tweet if you prefer! Here it is, a shining invitation for invisible people leading invisible lives to attempt, for a glowing instant, to feel a zing of purpose and visibility, to have a sense of participation in the great American republic–just click the mouse and watching the counter on the screen tick satisfyingly up by one. If one only forgets how completely devoid of relevance the question is, to say nothing of one’s response, such gestures can seem almost inspiring.

The dinner itself is a strange scene, especially to present so breathlessly to a country so full of strife and disillusionment. It seems almost calculated to foment envy and resentment. We see an immense ballroom, containing a large proportion of the nation’s rich and the famous, the “winners”–exactly that tiny few for whom the country is structured and for whom it makes sense. At each table all are exquisitely dressed, beautiful floral arrangements, and no expense spared on the victuals.

It can be jarring to see how little real adult life, at the highest levels of success (as commonly defined) differs from high school, where the few “beautiful people” hold their special sway while the rest toil darkly in solitude or ostracism, or maybe get a chance to vote in a pre-selected candidate for “Most Likely to Succeed”, “Best Dressed”, or in Obama’s case, “Best Sense of Humor”.

I turned it off after Obama’s remarks, though I understand Larry Wilmore proceeded to “bomb”, mostly by insulting the media dignitaries there assembled–much in the style of Stephen Colbert back in 2006, but this time by also using the N-word to “relate” with the President. Maybe it was bold social critique or a pathbreaking expression of black cultural solidarity but somehow, as with Wilmore’s show itself, I don’t feel like I missed much.

Really, the problem is that the paeans to Obama’s skillful roast is beside the point. Virtually no one has seriously questioned our President’s powers of verbal delivery, or the majestic figure he cuts standing at a podium. The problem, instead, is this: I can think of precious few problems he’s actually fixed or even confronted head-on in his term; in many respects, the problems of the country have only gotten more dire and entrenched since he took office. The years have taught that Barack Obama is not the fighting type, though not a pacifist either. Primarily a vain man, it has always seemed more that he could not bear to sully the fine specimen of his person with scratches or fisticuffs, and so through the years has tended to avoid the deeper causes and to sidestep the ugly battles–in short, the very things that make a presidency transformative.

From his earliest days, and in remarkable contrast to his campaigning persona with its “yes we can” sloganeering, his presidency has been most distinguished by what David Bromwich called its “refined sense of impossibility“–any goal that was not too readily attainable with tools already in hand, or which went too far against the elite-defined status quo, simply would never be attempted.

How many soaring speeches were given that then led to no actions at all, or contained the undertones of their exact opposite? Massive action on climate change as the challenge of our generation (while extolling fracking). Revolutionary health care reform (while leaving all the big players untouched and hiking everyone’s deductibles). It’s hard, given the record, to tell if Obama was an idealist, or only thought himself so, perhaps again out of vanity. True idealists, after all, have a way of grating, of making enemies, especially among the powerful and the entrenched–something this president, even from the days of his fateful yet oddly platitudinous 2004 convention(al) speech, could never quite bear to do.

That’s true most of all, it seems, when it came to the Wall Street fraudsters who nearly wrecked the economy at the beginning of his term. Not only did their ilk promptly come to permeate his cabinet in the same old revolving-door tradition, but they received repeated reassurances of their impunity. Though a few still lugubriously claimed that they weren’t feeling the love, as Hillary Clinton of recent “name one instance money has influenced me” fame herself noted back in the day, their very existence as free men likely had something to do with the record contributions Obama received from the financial sector in 2008. As Thomas Frank put it: “To say ‘the center held,’ as one of his biographers does, is an optimistic way to describe Barack Obama’s accomplishment. Another would be to say he saved a bankrupt system that by all rights should have met its end.”.

But I will say this about our President: his reputation as “no-drama Obama” is almost unbelievably apt. If his was not an idealistic or combative personality, one that could wrestle with the problems and trends of our time and come up with brave solutions, he did at least have a remarkable gift for putting those problems into a kind of enchanted hibernation and sending them mostly out of sight. As if solely by the magical relaxedness of his manner, he seemed able to lull and delay indefinitely disasters that would have promptly exploded in anyone else’s hands–even when his responses themselves were uninspired, short-sighted, secretive, hawkish, rather disorganized, or in general pandered to the well-being of oligarchs and status-quo politics.

A preternaturally calm hand on the tiller was the main thing he offered–but he offered it perfectly, with grand speeches given in a rich voice, a confident-but-not-swaggering masculinity and a folksy charm. In this subliminal sense of providing reassurance through the example of his person and presence, Obama was a master of leadership. A more gifted mesmerist surely has never before sat in the Oval Office. The fact of this, combined with one of the most spectacularly meteoric rises to power in the history of anywhere, often seemed enough to distract from the contrasting hollowness of Obama’s actual powers of “hope and change”.

This contrast lends a suspended, dream-like quality to the years of Obama’s presidency, and reminds me to some degree of the term of his Democratic predecessor. Bill Clinton was also a mesmerist, nearly as gifted as Obama, and perhaps tactically cagier. And yet the difference in the years since 2008, the toxic seeds planted in the ’80s with Reaganism and nurtured diligently by both parties ever since, combined with the knock-on disasters of the Iraq War, have begun to bear fruit too noisome to ignore.

School debt (and many other kinds) became ever more crippling. Financial instruments resumed their growth, and the banks consolidated further than ever. Income inequality rose to levels unseen since at least pre-Depression times. The slow weakening of the nation relative to growing powers like China, both economically and militarily, continued apace. Medical costs remained ruinous, and the healthcare system grew more labyrinthine and dysfunctional, while for the first time a large section of the population experienced a dropping life expectancy. Vital infrastructure continued to decay throughout the land. Little was done to reduce carbon emissions (outside of economic stagnation and tax breaks for vanity electric cars), while fracking attained new heights. Technological innovation showed signs of decelerating, with the breakdown of Moore’s law and a drop in venture capital spending. Executive power continued to grow, and domestic spying moved us steadily closer to an Orwellian surveillance state.

And Guantanamo remains open for business–though at least that way it could provide the pivot-point for one of the president’s consummately delivered zingers against Donald Trump’s management abilities.

In these and many other respects, it’s hard to think of ways that Obama will leave the nation truly better than he found it–notwithstanding the financial crisis, which still fundamentally has not been addressed and, as I have said elsewhere, likely awaits a redux.

As TomDispatch recently opined, the end of the Obama years is witness to a dubious first: the first presidential campaign openly founded on the narrative of American national decline. The specter of decline has been a preoccupation of American culture for some time, and has spawned a motley of cantankerous or unnerving books on the subject; others point out quite correctly that as a relative fraction of the global economy, American power has been in decline since the end of World War II, when almost all the world except America was in ruins. Yet the almost-explicit admission of such decline in Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again!”–as well as Hillary Clinton’s typically stilted rejoinder that “America never stopped being great!”–is still a significant novelty.

I suspect that Obama will not be remembered quite for having presided over the peak of U.S. power or prosperity, but instead as someone who artfully disguised for a while longer the fact that the peak had already been passed, and given over to slow decline. Instead, deservedly or not, I believe the apogee of the U.S. story belongs to the presidency of that other great political mesmerist, Bill Clinton–the moment of greatest power, greatest general optimism and growth, the moment when all the most thoroughly American ideas, such as neoliberalism and techno-utopianism, reached their fullest expression and, for the nonce, seemed unimpeachable (so to speak). It was a sort of tacky dot-com golden age, fueled with the conviction that, in its newly discovered digital realm, the Faustian-American dream of limitless expansion and getting something for nothing could find natural and eternal apotheosis. Anyone could be a newly-minted billionaire, just by inventing a website or an app.

But like all such apogees, the seeds of imminent decline had already sprouted. The Clinton years were riddled with hypocrisies and tensions. Obama’s presidency, while remarkably free of scandal, resembles Clinton’s in its mood–its strange centrist uneventfulness, the way elites were simply allowed to quietly run the show and set the game rules without interference or knowledge by the public, and the way the public seemed not to care. Yet the Obama years already show a diminution in American power and prosperity, a spreading dysfunction (if not decadence) that could not be smoothed over quite so completely as in the ’90s. Volumes could be said about the Bush Jr. presidency, whose abysmal end set a high bar to even a superficial return to normalcy. Yet the nation’s recent reliance on talented mesmerists, while quite telling in its way, is no longer cutting the mustard; the people burn for action, for deeds and fierce words–and without doubt a number of them burn for blood as well.

And so, with the results from Indiana just today, and Ted Cruz’ surprise withdrawal from the race, Trump is now the presumptive nominee. There will be no contested convention after all. Already the GOP is wringing its hands, and there are startling entreaties by conservative luminaries to go so far as opposing Trump’s election–but there are also signs aplenty that the authoritarian compulsion that forms the true backbone of the party will soon overwhelm even the staunchest dissenters. The truth about political strongmen is that brave, principled opposition to them comes a dime-a-dozen–until they actually gain the upper hand. Then the vast majority of these pay-as-you-go intellectuals will turn quietly from dealing their supercilious political in-jokes (and correspondent’s dinners) at Trump’s expense, and align with the new power field–and who knows, perhaps coming face-to-face for a split second with their actual natures in the process.

So the question gets more urgent. What happens when he leaves office, this man of the perfect delivery, this man who embodied a nation’s transcending of a vile past–what happens when the talismanic power of his equanimity field is replaced by the stridency-field of a Trump or the cringeworthy anti-charisma field of a Hillary (who, by the way, is already looking vulnerable versus Trump)? Will a President Trump preside over a Correspondent’s Dinner crowd already notably thinned by the new leader’s notorious contempt for the press (a contempt that forms a strange conjugate to his prodigious skill at manipulating them)?

I find myself groping for mythic analogies to Obama’s role these past seven years. Pied Piper, or Sandman? Hypnos, or Thanatos? History will have to tell. As the monsters of our own short-sightedness move out of soft focus and into hard-edged reality, we may look on Obama’s years as a kind of reprieve–a time of waning illusions, but well-mannered ones at least. Maybe he just did the best he could with a failing and gridlocked system. But you can’t help regretting how much more might have been achieved had this man’s peculiar temperament allowed his genius to extend beyond the flawless delivery of speeches and jokes.

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