Monday, October 7, 2013

The Tiger Blood of the Administration

As the Federal Government Shutdown continues towards a full week--which at this point looks like a foregone conclusion--we can step back and take stock of the situation, as the battle lines are clearly drawn. There is no significant movement from either side. Polls suggest the Republicans in the House are getting the most blame, but as I explained previously this is misleading. The hardliners in the House do not answer to the people at large, they answer to their constituents. And there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that their actions are fully in line with what the majority of their constituents want.

Nonetheless, they are getting hammered by the press, by many Republicans in the Senate, by Democrats, and of course by the Administration for shutting down the government. All of the above groups place the blame for the shutdown wholly on the shoulders of the House Republicans (and Ted Cruz, to be fair). And in that light, one would think these other groups want the shutdown to end, want it over. That's certainly true of the Republicans in the Senate, for their opposition to the House Republicans is based on the assumption that the shutdown is politically costly for Republicans in general, an assumption that may be correct in the moment but will likely mean nothing by the next election cycle (the nation's attention span being no longer than that of typical half-hour sit-com). But what about the other groups? Do they really want the shutdown to end as quickly as possible?

The members of the mainstream media may suggest they want it to end, but let's get real. The shutdown is great fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. It provides talking heads with a near-constant supply of red meat. Why would they want it to end?

As to the Democrats and the Administration, their position seems clear: they want the shutdown to end because it's damaging to the government, the nation, and the economy as a whole, not to mention what it is doing to individual federal workers who have been furloughed. As cynical as a I am about politicians and their motives, I don't think the great majority are really evil or bad people. I don't think they want to cause financial hardship to others. So I'll grant the Democrats and the Administration this: they do--most of them--care about the consequences of the shutdown for federal workers. Oddly enough, I think most of the House Republicans care, as well.

That said, political calculations and long-term goals can override such caring, whether these calculations and goals are noble or ignoble. And that's exactly what's happening here. For if the fate of the furloughed federal worker, of the effect of the shutdown on the economy, was the driving issue, there would be efforts to negotiate from the Democrats and the Administration. Because let's get real again: delaying the implementation of an aspect of Obamacare, of the individual mandate, is not so devastating to the nation as to be worth this stalemate. How could it be, given that the Administration has been delaying things and granted exemptions to the legislation left and right for years now?

So what's the real deal? Simply put, this is--in the minds of the Democrats and the Administration--an opportunity to really stick the knife into the Republicans, to twist it and make it hurt. Witness this piece at the Wall Street Journal and the words of a senior member of the Administration:
Said a senior administration official: "We are winning...It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts "because what matters is the end result."
They believe they're winning, end of story. But what are they winning? What is the end result they actually want? It's a pointless question because they don't want anything specific, they just want to win, or at least to be perceived as if they did. In the moment, the end result is the passage of a spending bill and the continued partial implementation of the mess that is Obamacare. But these things don't matter, really. For the Administration what matters first and foremost is public perception. It needs to be seen as large and in charge, because the President clearly has a deep-seated psychological need to be the smartest man in the room. And he can only satisfy that need by winning. His failures--and he has a litany of them now--only serve to rile him up, to force the pettiness and petulance of his character to the surface.

And somehow, his supporters don't see these traits for what they are. They fail--and I include most of the mainstream media in that "they"--to appreciate how they are being manipulated, how every statement issued by the President or the people in his administration is about winning, about defeating the "enemy." Look back a the talk surrounding the Sequester, or the Benghazi fiasco, or even the initial passage of the Stimulus Bill. Disagreement, counter arguments, and the like were marginalized not by facts but by harsh rhetoric couched in the language of people who considers themselves superior and their positions beyond reproach.

This is the foundation for the lack of negotiations on the part of the Administration, a lack that extends back to the first moments of Obama's Presidency. This is why the Administration looks for ways to circumvent Congress, to expand it's own powers and that of agencies it controls as a matter of course. It has no interest in negotiating in good faith, it never has and it never will, solely because of the nature of the man at the top.

As much as many would like to argue this is nothing new, they can't. Because a look back at past Presidents demonstrates just how unique Obama is in this regard. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, even Carter; all of these leaders negotiated with the "other side" on critical and divisive issues. Critics of the Reagan era gleefully point out how much deficit spending occurred in those years and try to blame Reagan for it all, but the reality is that spending under Reagan increased mostly because he gave the Democrats in Congress some of what they wanted (as did both Bushes, though to be fair, George W. was more than happy to initiate domestic spending as well). So too, the much-vaunted balanced budgets under Clinton came about because Clinton negotiated with the Republicans in Congress.

But the Obama years have been marked by a wholesale lack of negotiations, by huge spending bills forced through Congress, bills that few even read in full before voting on them. The only moments of negotiation--of any sort--have occurred with brinkmanship, brinkmanship brought about by the Administration's unwillingness to negotiate, to recognize that it's views on things are not the end-all-be-all, that it's decisions and choices can be fairly criticized.

It will have none of such talk, and as such Obama and those who speak for him are content to engage in fear-mongering as a matter of course as a response to any criticism, any backtalk as it were. And that is again because it's all about being the winner for the President, all about being recognized as the winner.

This Charlie Sheen-esque aspect of Obama's persona should be troubling to us, to the nation as a whole. But it's not. Why? Perhaps it's because Charlie Sheen himself is not troubling to us. We--meaning the citizenry in general--welcomed Sheen's shtick, his "bi-winning," "Adonis DNA," and "tiger blood." His narcissism was accepted, even applauded. So to is the President's. Both are granted substantial leeway in their conduct because of this, both get to be insulting to others, obnoxious, and self-righteous, Sheen because he's funny and Obama because, well...

In a way, this makes Obama the first real twenty-first century President, insofar as his demeanor and general attitude is reflective of the cultural shift brought on by the navel-gazing world of the internet and social media. Leadership is now about getting the most "likes," "hits," or "shares" by being self-important, cocksure, and critical of others. A brave new world, indeed.

Cheers, all.

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