Sunday, December 28, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Observers of politics, myself included, tend to be preoccupied with the present and the future, and rather less concerned with the past. We neglect the past perhaps because we think that the past is settled, and hindsight is boring.

The past is anything but settled. Or more precisely, history - our accounts and interpretations of what happened in the past - is not settled. History is as much about the past as it determined by the future. Ask President Bush - he is counting on the charitable hand of the future to rehabilitate his place in history. He of all people would not like the past and history to be the same thing.

History is an interrogation and a reinterrogation of the past. When we sing our Auld Lang Synes in two days, we should remember this. We shouldn't pay lip service to "Old Long Since" as merely the prelude to the main event, as if we're already on top of events that have transpired and fully cognizant of their meaning. Our Auld Lang Syne should be more than a perfunctorily nostalgic song ushering in the new year.

After all, 2008 was a year in which previously inconceivable events occurred. Who could have imagined that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt and the category "investment bank" would cease to exist? We need to take stock of what happened. The history of investment banking and of the federal government's regulatory stance (or lack thereof) toward them will now have to be written. Here are some other surprises along the way this year: the relative success of the "surge" in Iraq and the phenomenon called Barack Obama. We should not be stampeding towards 2009 if we still haven't come to terms with what happened in 2008. The calendrical invention of a "New Year" should not blind us to the seamless arc of history.

The future will have its way with us; we need not rush towards it. So when we sing Auld Lang Syne come Wednesday, perhaps we should linger a little on the words.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Referee and the Great Equivocator

Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way (PFAW) has strongly denounced President-elect Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the upcoming Inauguration ceremony. She wrote, “We strongly agree with President-elect Obama that everyone should have a seat at the table, but only those who treat others with respect should get a seat of honor.”

Liberals are annoyed that even though the Republican brand was so soundly rejected this year, Obama is not permitting them any schadenfreude. He wants it known that everyone deserves a place at his table and Kathryn Kolbert and others will not have any of it. Kolbert and her allies are putting Obama in a difficult and unenviable position. He can run from the problem they have presented to him, but he cannot hide.

There are two ways a president can try to unite a country to avoid conflict between opposing camps – but on issues on which people fundamentally differ, both are merely delay tactics. A president can either choose to take no position, or he can actively embrace the opinions of those that disagree with him. In performing the former, he becomes a Referee, holding back his views, or perhaps even disciplining himself to have none. The president becomes an impartial interest broker with no explicit stake in the outcome of politics. In performing the latter, the president becomes the Great Equivocator. Though he has an opinion and it may be public, he embraces the legitimacy of other views and attempts to make them consistent with his own. Abraham Lincoln tried, unsuccessfully, to be the former, and Barack Obama is attempting to be the latter.

Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address played the first role of Referee, saying, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." The Abraham Lincoln of 1861 did not take a stand, and he did not take sides. He has been criticized for this, perhaps unfairly, because the Referee is really no different from the Great Equivocator.

No president can get by today by playing Referee. We demand that our leaders take a stand. Ironically, in forcing our presidents to take a stand, they have become our Great Equivocators. Great Equivocators do take a stand, but the content of what they stand for has become so diluted and neutered that they might as well have taken no stand at all. Exactly what Barack Obama’s stand is as regards gays and lesbians remains unclear despite his deceptively assertive tone. When asked to defend his invitation to Warren, he seemed upfront, saying, "let me start by talking about my own views. I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on, and something that I contend -- intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”

The president-elect doth protest too much in his declaration that he is “consistent” and “intend(s) to continue to be consistent.” Why repeat the obvious unless it is not? Rick Warren has similarly commented on Obama’s invitation with a platitude of equally confounding proportions, telling reporters that "you don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand." He “loves gays and straights” alike, he continued. In a synergistic moment of mutual love, Warren and Obama have swept their differences under the rug with meaningless words.

While these empty statements communicate nothing, they reveal quite a bit. For Rick Warren, his words reveal an understandable vainglory. Few pastors would turn down an invitation to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration; the honor is probably worth the heresy. Obama, in extending the invitation to Warren, is signaling that Warren’s views on gays and lesbians are not repugnant enough for him to be ineligible for the invocation job. In this Obama is saying that Warren represents a legitimate and reasonable point of view. We should not be fooled to think that this represents a solution of the problem. Setting up two opposing worldviews in legitimate contrast to each other is only the overture of a contest of values to come. At some point, the clash must and will occur.

Like the first president who invited a team of rivals to form his cabinet and tried impartially to referee opposing points of view, Obama is merely buying time in his equivocation. But a house undecided cannot stand. In taking a side but also embracing another, Obama is attempting the impossible and liberals are calling him out on it. It takes a while for political impartiality and argumentative elision to dissipate, but in time, the people - of diametrically opposing opinions, one should add - will demand an answer from their government. Both the Referee and the Great Equivocator are politicians playing the highest (or the lowest) arts of politics, but these tricks can only buy time. For better or for worse, the expectations of leadership shall be foisted on Obama. At some point, he will have to take a real and politically consequential stand on matters that divide our country.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Calm before the Storm

In recent weeks, President-elect Obama has shown himself to be a cautious pragmatist. In keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his cabinet, he is signaling to his liberal base that there will be no precipitous pullout from Iraq. In selecting Senator Hillary Cinton to be Secretary of State, he has endorsed her aggressive campaign stance against negotiating with rogue-nations. We no longer hear about the windfall profit tax on oil companies that Obama had proposed during the campaign trail, and the next president is probably going to wait a while to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Barney Frank said it best in response to Obama's claim that there is only one president at a time, “I’m afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have at the present time.” There is so much frustration against the Bush presidency, and so much pent up anticipation for what is to come that if they had their way, Democrats would have moved inauguration day to the day after November 4. Liberals looking for change are doubtless disappointed and even agitated, but this is an administration-to-be saving its ammunition for the battles ahead.

The perceived prudence of the president-elect must be viewed in the light of the fact that he has no authority to do anything now. (He is not even a Senator anymore.) All the power he possesses now comes from the law of anticipated reactions. Until he takes the oath of office, he has no formal authority, though he possesses more power now than he ever will. Some call it a store of good will; journalists call it a honeymoon. But this is power that will not persist; it will start to dissipate just as Obama hits the ground running. As he finally sits down to to take the presidential test, and the distance between hope and reality, rhetoric and action narrows, his honeymoon, like the law of all good things, will end.

That is why I do not expect the prudence ex ante to continue ex post. Now is the calm before the storm. Come January 20, there shall be a flurry of activity and a big stimulus package which would include, among other things, a big infrastructure program to rebuild roads and bridges around the country. There is so much pent-up anticipation for Obama to use his electoral mandate that he is likely to benefit from the restraint he is exercising (and the angst he is causing) now. This man who has proved adept at beating the Clintons at their game during the primary season will not likely repeat their mistake of frontloading his first 100 days with more than he can handle. His legislative agenda will not be cluttered, but it will surely be bold.