August 25, 2011, 9:00 PM
Stop Waiting for Superman
By TIMOTHY EGAN
Hope and audacity hung in the winter air those early months of the perilous presidency of Barack Obama, a time when street vendors were selling pictures of him as Superman, complete with an “S” across his chest.
I remember picking one up, thinking the collage might be worth something down the road. Of course it was never realistic, despite Obama’s gifts of oration and the power of his narrative, for him to be The One, or The Natural, let alone a superhero. We can’t help it, though; every inauguration is like the start of a new baseball season, filled with hope for the rookie to hit 60 home runs.
A year and change from the next election, the politics of the season are mean and raw. A conservative in Eastern Washington State runs for local office on a platform of shooting illegal immigrants on sight. A Republican senate candidate in Nebraska compares poor people to scavenging raccoons. And the leading Republicans who want to take Obama’s place deny the existence of basic science, scoffing at everything from evolution to the global consensus on climate change. Is gravity next?
Through the haze of this dystopia, Obama has no skip in his step, no lift in his voice. His poll numbers are the worst of his time in office. His enemies no longer call him Muslim, socialist or Kenyan. They don’t have to: they point to 9.1 percent unemployment, and seek to ride the wave pushed by three-fourths of the country that feels the nation is going in the wrong direction.
The president’s supporters expect him to emerge from a deserved vacation with a term-saving jobs plan, and maybe the old cape out of the closet. They should forget such delusions. The jobs proposal will go nowhere in a Congress that has made clear from the beginning it cares about only one thing: ensuring that Obama fails.
And the Superman hype — that came with the froth of the 2008 campaign, when his words seemed strong enough to break up a storm, and the idea of a black man becoming leader of a nation born with slavery was so potent.
As president, he’s been a sober, cautious, tongue-shackled realist — a moderate Republican of the pre-crazy, pre-Tea Party era. Having failed to come up with a Big Idea to guide his presidency, he will sink or swim now on strengths that don’t lend themselves to large rallies or passionate enthusiasm. Sobriety and moderation, by definition, are boring.
Urban liberals, labor, blacks and Hispanics, environmentalists, the young – the core of Obama’s army in 2008 — are disappointed in the president of August, 2011. They’re right when they say he caved on the debt talks: the evidence is House Speaker John Boehner’s boast that he got 98 percent of what he wanted from the president.
But instead of waiting for an arm-flapping populist to emerge from the genteel summer redoubt on Martha’s Vineyard, the left should focus on the coming ground war, and try to fill Congress with new people who can at least tell fact from fiction.
For Obama the political mortal, two lines of governance present themselves.
One is simply to be the executive whose policies, with a few exceptions, are backed by the majority of the public, and opposed by Republicans in thrall to kooks and corporate absolutists.
Tax cuts for wage-earners, but not for millionaires and billionaires, has deep, bipartisan support across the land, sensibly articulated by Warren Buffett, who pointed out the absurdity his secretary paying a higher tax rate than he.
If Obama plays this issue right, those Republican presidential candidates who said they would never raise taxes even with 10 spending cuts for every increase will wish they never made such a pledge to extremism.
He doesn’t have to launch a class war — merely to engage one that’s already underway. So far, surprisingly, he has not taken a side. He should make Republicans defend the politics of grotesque economic inequality.
The health care reform law is not radical. The so-called individual mandate — requiring everyone to have some coverage — grew out of Republican think tanks, and of course was institutionalized in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney.
About 50 million American have no health care. If that’s the status quo Republicans want, Obama should make them own the misery, highlighting Rick Perry’s Texas, where one in four citizens are without this basic right, which the rest of the industrial world shares.
The second tack is to run against the lunacy of the opposition. In the same week that scientists announced the discovery of fossils 3.4 billion years old, evidence of explosive growth of early life through evolution, Rick Perry showed he will take his science from the Bible. He called evolution “a theory that’s out there.” If he thinks it is just a theory, he should get last year’s flu shot.
Sensible business leaders are looking to the Federal Reserve for some help with a sick global economy. Yet one leading Republican candidate, Ron Paul, wants to abolish the central bank. Another, Rick Perry, has threatened physical harm of some vague sort against the chairman.
On social issues, Perry wants to amend the Constitution to take away rights from gays and pregnant women, and eliminate the power of citizens to directly elect their senators (that’s the Seventeenth Amendment, which Perry opposed in his book).
Public opinion, again, is on Obama’s side on these issues. But to leverage it, he has to practice a much more muscular brand of politics. He doesn’t have to be Superman; Clark Kent with a strong dose of brio would do it.