The latest attempt to write history as it’s happening comes from The London Review of Books. It’s hard to know what to make of it. As observers and thinkers we naturally make connections and see patterns in events. We form these into narratives and this is how we understand. But when do we start manufacturing our narratives and imposing our own order onto chaos? At what point are things too complicated to make sense of and best left undefined until hindsight grants us 20/20?
David Bromwich is an English professor at Yale University, the author of a book about British political philosopher Edmund Burke, and has a long history of political commentary at various highbrow publications. While impressive, absent from this resume is any hands-on front line work in the business of politics. This makes one wonder just how much weight to give some of his claims about Obama’s presidential style. As he says:
[H]e shuns the company of other politicians – a trait now generally familiar and wondered at. A leading Democrat in the Senate, when asked how often he had spoken to Obama in the past year, answered that they had spoken once. The same senator declined to be named because that degree of intimacy would arouse the jealousy of his peers. Obama’s lack of concern with the daily business of politics – the bargaining and immersion in other people’s interests, the often merely formal but necessary exchange of views – has done much to blunt his sensibility to changes in public sentiment.
This is a narrative we’ve heard elsewhere, and perhaps its constancy the last few years is enough to give it credence, but it is overblown. Bromwich claims this lack of intimacy and disinterest in engagement allowed the Tea Party to rise, the Middle-East and Ukraine to crumble, and the bureaucratic problems that have dogged his administration. While again, this a great narrative to spin, I’m skeptical that it was Barack Obama’s cool detachment that allowed for a Republican resurgence, a Sunni-Shia civil war, Russia’s encroachment on Ukrainian sovereignty, and major screw ups in the most complicated legislative implementation in a generation. Yes we would like the president to be a more engaging, warming figure, but I doubt it makes a substantive difference in the events of the world and I’m disinclined to believe that Bromwich is able to achieve full comprehension of what has happened in Washington the last five-and-a-half years from his perch at Yale. Perhaps our president is the World’s Most Important Spectator, but this gives the office of the president, to say nothing of the United States of America, too much credit. The real world is much darker and more complicated, too big and changing too fast for us to even comprehend, much less control. No wonder people are scared.
While President Obama’s in office he will be criticized for not doing more. He will be despised by the neoconservatives for “losing” the Iraq War, for not supporting the “moderate” elements in Syria, for not doing more in Egypt, not confronting Putin, and on, and on. On the other side the Left will resent him for not being liberal enough – “he compromised on the stimulus and heath care and financial reform, he stood by while thousands die in Syria,” they say, “where is our next FDR or LBJ?” In the hysterical media environment it’s hard to score points for being calm, collected, “No Drama Obama.” A composed, slowly and sometimes haltingly speaking figure standing before us doesn’t make for the best TV. Obama himself has acknowledged his communicative shortcomings since becoming president.
It’s comforting to think that our leaders are responsible for bringing us together. It’s comforting to think that out there is someone who can articulate our deepest desires, unite us, and lead us to the promised land. Our past claims to hold these figures and certainly all of us wish to see one again in our lifetimes. That way we don’t have to do the much harder work of doing it ourselves, from the ground up.
Bromwich ends very well – questioning the Hillary Clinton coronation and the dangerously mainstream permanent war, national security state consensus. He calls for the U.S. to think again, and fears more disasters will have to strike before we do. Maybe he’s right, and maybe he’s right that Obama has failed to talk us all down from the ledge of our own hubris, but it is hubris of another sort to suggest that any one person would ever be able to do this for us. Obama’s presidency has failed to live up to its expectations, but it never could.