A recent comment by President Obama on the Jay Leno show exemplifies the basic philosophical error of his presidency, and a central reason why Americans make so many reasonable people around the world want to pull their hair out.
With unctuous smoothness Obama said of Russians: “There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them, what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future.”
Though that sounds like a reasonable attitude and friendly riposte, it’s about as close as a president can diplomatically come to a slap in the face of another people and opposing leader.
To not put too fine a point on it, the idea that ‘history starts today’ is an entirely American fiction and fantasy, one that’s egregiously at odds with the realities of the world as most peoples perceive and live them.
For a country that prided itself for 20 years on being ‘the sole remaining superpower’ to say to its partner in bringing the world to the brink of thermonuclear annihilation that it is “slipping back into cold war mentality” must be galling to say the least. Does one really need to point out to our Spock-like President that logically, if a nation thinks of itself as ‘the sole remaining superpower,’ it has remained in a Cold War mentality?
Might it not be that Putin, for all his totalitarian inclinations and machinations, embodies the resentment of a people that have been told for a generation that they represent the defeated and disgraced ideology of communism?
Might it not be that they have a little trouble with an American president, embodying a government and country that is slipsliding away, to be told ‘just get over it?’
As much of a strain on the brain it is for many Americans to think back just seven years, let’s recall how and why Barack Obama came to office.
The Bush-Cheney regime, perhaps the first evil administration in American history (please, I’m not comparing them with Stalin, who killed tens of millions of his own people), invaded a country on false pretenses; scooped up thousands of men and boys in the ‘war on terror’ and contracted out their torture; and told the American people that the best way they could support the phony war on terror was to ‘go out and shop.’
Our spirits at home and reputation abroad sank to all-time lows. In rode a biracial man on a white horse offering to transform Washington and give the people their country back. Instead, after misreading the mess and missing the moment, Obama became what he actually is–a conventionally calculating politician.
In short, we got sameness and mediocrity when the American people and the world were promised the hope of a new beginning, and even the greatness of a Lincoln. Needless to say, national spirits sank even lower, as did disappointment in American leadership worldwide.
The point is that focusing on the future without fully acknowledging and coming to terms with the past simply doesn’t work. It insures that the mistakes of the past will be repeated, as in fact they have been repeated by doubling down in Afghanistan, by overwhelming and dissent-chilling surveillance, and by institutionalizing a policy of extrajudicial drone strikes.
As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Americans have an annoying habit of believing they can have a fresh start without having to come clean. And the Obama Administration has operated under that illusion from the beginning.
We needed a reckoning after Bush-Cheney, and instead we got more partisan rottenness in Washington, led by an obstructionist opposition party with the reins of government wrapped around the nation’s neck. And the whole shebang has been presided over by a decent man who takes the high road domestically while refusing or unable to lead internationally.
There’s another aspect of Obama’s Russian chastisement that’s as disturbing as its condescension. It’s his habit of using the world ‘I’ in these contexts, reflecting an overweening identification with his office. “What I consistently say to them, what I say to President Putin…”
There are a thousand ways to use the first-person pronoun, and many of them, even as POTUS, are perfectly fine. But what grates about Obama’s use of the pronoun is the subterranean combination of the ego with the immense power of the Oval Office.
I’m not advocating a return to the royal ‘we,’ nor to the pretence of ‘we, the people.’ To be sure, the use of pronouns presents a linguistic tightrope for any president, although ‘what we consistently say to them’ could be fine—in another context.
Because he endures ongoing attacks by an extremist Republican Party, President Obama gets a pass by Democrats with his Bush-lite foreign policies. At the end of the day (pardon the DC-speak) why shouldn’t Obama think he can have things both ways?
However, the failure of Democrats to criticize the President’s foreign policies serves the same partisanship that has paralyzed the federal government. And counter-intuitively, the failure to speak truth to power could pave the way for an even more right-wing administration than Bush-Cheney.
Baseless attacks from the right should not inoculate a president against well-founded criticism from the left. Indeed, it works the opposite way—liberal-minded folks inoculate themselves and the nation against conservative extremism not through partisan loyalty, but by critically thinking and speaking out about what all presidents say and do.