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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the October 14, 2009 Providence Journal.
Are you tired of hearing how “smart” Barack Obama is? I reached my limit over the summer, when The New York Times Magazine quoted Valerie Jarrett, the president’s liaison to Chicago City Hall, declaring, “I mean, he’s really by far smarter than anybody I know.”
Well, as any Chicago schoolboy knows, there are many different kinds of smart. And right now our commander-in-chief is not looking particularly brilliant— at least on the level of substantive politics.
Take, for example, Obama’s intervention in Chicago’s failed bid for the Olympic Games in 2016. The Daley machine has escorted Obama most of the way during his short political career, and the Daley brothers, Richard and William, like their father, have never been known for their scholastic achievement. Indeed, book learning isn’t much respected in The City That Works— it’s why the public schools are generally so bad.
What really counts with the Chicago political establishment is whether you can deliver the goods, and Obama has notably failed— that is, the tens of thousands of patronage jobs and potential real-estate killings that would have fallen into Richard M. Daley’s hands had the International Olympic Committee voted the way the Chicago City Council usually does: 49-to-1 for whatever the mayor wants. It didn’t matter to City Hall that there wasn’t enough money in the public coffers to pay for staging the games. What mattered was all that boodle for friends and political allies who could have been cut in on the action. As far as I know, the Daleys aren’t personally corrupt about money. But they love power and they deeply value the currency of political leverage. The Olympics would have meant enormous amounts of leverage.
When Obama initially tried to get out of going to Copenhagen, he violated two cardinal rules of Chicago politics: demonstrate loyalty to the boss (be it mayor or ward committeeman) and be persistent. You don’t send your wife to bring home the bacon, and I’m certain that Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel (the other Daley henchman in the White House) got calls from the home office prompting them to remind the young president of his true responsibilities.
However, when the president suddenly announced that health-care reform did not require his undivided attention and that there was, indeed, time to spare for a transatlantic round trip, he just looked dumb and disorganized. Worse still, the Chicago delegation hadn’t really polled the IOC members (there’s always a way to do that, no matter how “secret” the proceeding) before sending the president on his Mission Impossible. In a legislature, the whips count the likely yes and no votes before a bill is brought to the floor; if they don’t have enough votes for passage, they shift to Plan B, often a tactical retreat designed to avoid public humiliation. Evidently, nobody counted the IOC votes before Obama got on the plane. Eighteen votes out of 94 does not justify sending the president of the United States on a lobbying trip. Not only was Obama humiliated, but his patron, Richard Daley, was also made to look politically incompetent.
Of course, failure to bag the Olympics is just one crack in the “smart” Obama image. I well understand that clever politicians make cynical choices to gain power, even when they know those choices will probably hurt the broader public. So far, Obama’s most cynical choice was to align himself with Robert Rubin and Wall Street in order to raise money for his presidential campaign. Second is his campaign pledge to escalate the occupation of Afghanistan to counter Republican claims that he and the Democrats were appeasers on “terrorism.” In third place is his decision to hand Max Baucus (the senator from Montana who moonlights as an insurance-company lobbyist) the task of “reforming” health care, thus guaranteeing that there would be no genuine reform.
All these maneuvers might seem tactically “smart”: Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and the hedge funds contributed mightily to Obama’s election; John McCain wasn’t able to call Obama a peacenik or “soft on Al Qaeda”; and Baucus’s insurance and nursing-home friends weren’t put to any trouble, which would have caused Obama problems with Baucus about other tax matters before the Senate Finance Committee.
But maybe such cynicism isn’t altogether so smart in 2009. Wall Street, unpunished and unrepentant after three decades of recklessness, is poised to embark on new, unregulated financial adventures, such as the issuance of securitized life-insurance policies known as “life settlement” bonds. Rewarded for their failures with huge sums of public money, the newly emboldened casino managers are liable to sink the ship next time, instead of just flooding it.
In Afghanistan, American soldiers are consistently dying in small batches (under orders from their Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader) while Afghan civilians continue to perish in far greater numbers under American and British bombs supposedly aimed at the Taliban. You don’t even have to remember Vietnam or the Russian occupation of Afghanistan to recognize the profound absurdity of the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy. Respectable experts, from Edward Luttwak on the right to George McGovern and William Polk on the left to Andrew J. Bacevich somewhere in the middle, have demolished the notion that such a military campaign can succeed in subduing a nationalist or tribal rebellion.
As for Baucus and health care, it’s clear that whatever bill comes out of the Finance Committee, large numbers of Americans will remain uninsured or underinsured. This means that the emergency room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York will continue to overflow with poor children who come for primary care because their parents can’t afford a pediatrician. And it means that America’s industrial corporations will continue to suffer from a competitive disadvantage with manufacturers based in civilized countries where health care is considered a public trust and a right and the government pays the bill.
Does this sound smart? Or does it sound really, really stupid?
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