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Washington’s muddled leaders inspire muddled punditry!

By Jim Sleeper – May 17, 2011

“Who is Obama? Now We Know,” read the sub-headline on a May 5 column in Commonweal magazine by the liberal and beneficent Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne, exulting over the “hard blow” that the killing of Bin Laden had dealt to American war-mongers who’d been calling the president weak.

The same muscular interventionists had also characterized Jimmy Carter as weak and even Ronald Reagan as having lost his nerve in his second term. But nattering nabobs of “national security” have to be taken seriously in Washington, and last week, Dionne was ready, brandishing that most formidable of Beltway weapons: Inside Knowledge:

“[A]s one of [Obama’s] close aides told me long ago,” Dionne tells us now, “there is inside [Obama] a very cool, tough, even hard man. Obama is not reluctant to use American military power. He was not at all queasy about authorizing the killing of an American enemy and the disposal of the body at sea to ensure that there would be no memorial to rally bin Laden’s followers.”

No, indeed! This is the kind of leader the Amur’cn Peeple want: John Wayne, or the Decider, high in the saddle at high noon.

Mind you, I’m glad we got Bin Ladin. As I wrote here at the time, I’m impressed by how it was done. I’m even impressed by the gem-like hardness and brilliance, burnished by Inside Knowledge, with which Dionne reveals that “[A]nyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.”

Dionne also understands, as sagacious pundits do but as neo-cons and other muscular interventionists do not, that decisive actions are best nourished by long deliberation. So he instructed us — or at least those of us who may still be recovering from George W. Bush — that while decisive leadership sometimes matters, as it did in nailing Bin Ladin, sometimes it just doesn’t matter so much. Patiently, he explains the difference:

“The fact that Obama is not a moralist has led to many of the frustrations vented about him over the last twenty-seven months. Liberals don’t get why it takes him so long to get around to taking on the Right over the fundamental purposes of government and the requirements of social justice….. and why he was so guarded in his initial response to the Arab Spring.

“Supporters of a muscular and interventionist American foreign policy suspect him of believing that the decline of the United States is unavoidable and of seeing himself primarily as a steward whose task is to manage our steady loss of influence.”

Dionne reminds us, or whoever it is he thinks needs to hear this, that muscular interventionists’ suspicions of Obama  “took…a profound blow when…..[ he ] chose the riskiest option involving a face-to-face confrontation with American commandos–on the orders of the president of the United States.”

OK, E.J., I hear the trumpets and the drums. But I have a question: What about the claim that this president is just a damage-control steward of American decline here at home? Where is the “profound blow” to that perception?

Dionne’s answer is that “Obama’s conceptual complexity means that he rejects the idea that there are just two alternatives…. Binary choices are not for him.” Behind the cool, tough, even hard man who is not reluctant to make the binary choice to use American military power against Bin Laden, there’s a deliberative, nuanced thinker — at least if the enemy is Lloyd Blankfein and not Osama Bin Laden.

Lloyd Blankfein is definitely an enemy of the American republic, and maybe we’re in for something better from Obama than anything he’s done gives us reason to believe.

But all I heard last month, eve as the orchestra of high-minded opinion trumpeted Obama’s big deficit speech and played its familiar medley, “This Is The Best of All Possible Worlds,” was a speech inadequate almost unto emptiness. Obama didn’t tell Americans enough of the truth about our situation to raise what George Washington called “a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

The truth that Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us,” let alone rally us to address — the truth he even tried to disguise by assuring us that Joe Biden would work with Washington’s naked emperors on a budget plan — is that the Congress and much of the rest of the federal government are bought and paid for by bottom-lining corporations that, by law and their own charters, are non- citizens and non-persons, whose profit-maximizing standards dovetail only marginally, and often only perversely, with those of citizens and the republic.

This truth used to anger even Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt. Why can’t Obama even mention it now that our casino-finance, corporate-welfare, military-industrial, consumer-marketing juggernaut is so patently illegitimate and unsustainable?

Why doesn’t it bother Obama that his own economic advisers, alongside the corporate-welfare and banking lobbyists who infest Congress, are doing to America what termites do to a building, leaving us with real estate that’s unreal estate, nothing but a castle in the sky?

I don’t expect Obama to tell us that we are undergoing what Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris has called aptly a “creeping coup d’etat,” three of whose moves have been

a) the Citizens United ruling, which, as I’ve explained here several times, strengthens the real electoral clout of fictional corporate “speakers,” including those from other countries;

b) the recent, coordinated attacks by Republican governors on public-sector unions as scapegoats for other workers to blame for their dispossession; and

c) the Republican congressional delegation’s framing of the budget terrain in Washington, as they’re doing again now with the debt-ceiling.

To tell us all this, Obama would have to become like Teddy Roosevelt when he denounced the country’s “malefactors of great wealth” and admonished the bought-and-paid-for Congress (and future Supreme Court justifiers like Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts) that

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be… an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

Judged by that standard, Obama, who ran promising “Change we can believe in,” has yet to show the great leadership E.J. Dionne is hymning. He has accomplished less than zero by crooning bipartisan ditties alongside a few criticisms of the House Republicans, whom he also goes out of his way to praise while admonishing the left wing of his own party as if it were as powerful as the Tea Party.

The truth he can’t or won’t tell us is, again, that the big-business corporations that increasingly own both parties are, by law and their own charters, mindless in any serious civic-republican or social sense and therefore incapable of deliberating seriously about the good of the country, because their personnel are truly forbidden to consider it, on pain of losing maximum profit and hence their jobs.

That’s why the great economic engines we’ve created have to be regulated and reined in more strongly than they have been before. I don’t suggest that Obama can go around just shooting off his mouth about this. But where’s the flash of that cool, hard hand Dionne was telling us about after the Bin Ladin killing?

Using military strikes to distract attention from capital strikes is a familiar but decreasingly viable governing strategy. Why don’t connoisseurs of great leadership remind us of that, as the confrontation over the debt ceiling looms, instead of pirouetting like Hapsburg courtiers in Vienna in 1914?