Barack Obama and the Establishment

We always like to go against the grain here at EuroSavant, so today – the historic day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th president, note that coverage here of reactions to that event begins tomorrow – let’s take a look at an opinion piece from the German Frankfurter Rundschau, authored by Arno Widmanm, entitled Obama’s helplessness. Here’s the lede: “The historical event was the election. Once in office, the new president of the United States will be able to bring about less change [or Change, if you like] than many have dreamed about.”

Isn’t that what so many of us are worrying about even as we witness, each in our own way, the inauguration delirium now playing out in America’s capital city? That Obama: as Widmann is glad to put it, “The United States has in him one of the most intelligent, alert, and communication-gifted presidents in its history.” I mean, just go read his books, and compare them to other politicians’ tired, ghost-written literary output!

But Wildmann, in his adopted role of public gadfly is happy to bring out explicitly that qualification that many of us harbor at the same time in the back of our minds: Success is not going to depend on character as much as it will on sheer circumstances. And for Barack Obama it is likely, in his view, that the “Change” that he will end up most remembered for is running for and winning the American presidency in the first place. Things are so bad, on so many fronts, that really radical change is required, yet by his very nature Obama is not the man to bring it. Rather, as Wildmann so aptly puts it, “[i]n democratic societies the difficult steps must be taken by those who came into power promising to protect us from them.”

I’d like to call this the “Nixon-in-China” syndrome, although Widmann for sure mentions neither “Nixon” nor “China” in his piece. The American rapprochement in the mid-1970s with that titanic Asian power with which it had been bitter enemies for more than twenty years was something as unthinkable then as it later turned out to seem (once the many benefits to both peoples, primarily economic in nature, began to flow) inevitable. But no one could have pulled that breakthrough off other than that ferocious, redoubtable Cold-Warrior, Richard Nixon: no one could have taken the political heat for that act and survived than someone whose anti-Red China credentials were impeccable, i.e. someone who had been the last politician you would have predicted would do such a thing. But you could also call this the De Gaulle-in-Algeria syndrome, as well: only someone so embodying France’s military glory as Charles De Gaulle – and therefore the very last politician any of the French could have imagined capitulating to the FLN Algerian insurgents, and thereby flouting the will of the French Army – could have gotten the French out of the bloody mess that was Algeria in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Widmann, naturally, also fails to mention De Gaulle or Algeria. Instead, though, he has a couple of convincing home-brewed German examples, of rather recent vintage, to back up his extraordinary “only possible by those who promised to protect against” assertion. There are the Harz reforms of earlier this decade, a set of fundamental modifications to aspects of the German economy – e.g. unemployment insurance, worker protections against being fired – done in order to make it more competitive and job-creating. These were ultimately pushed through, against the inevitable heavy domestic opposition, by Gerhard Schröder and his SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), i.e. by the Labor Party on the left side of the German political spectrum whom people ordinarily would have expected to be the last organization to put through any such reform. Or, if that example is a bit obscure for you, consider the very fact that the Bundeswehr, the German Army, currently finds itself partly deployed outside of Germany proper. It happens to be in Afghanistan (serving NATO, of course), but just ponder that fact: the German Army, of WWI and WWII fame, let loose again in foreign lands. In fact, ever since 1945 it has been the Germans, especially those of the Left, who have refused to allow it ever to depart their borders again – yet, as Widmann points out, the fact that it is (way) outside of them now is mainly due to the agreement for the move secured from Germany’s Green Party – again, the last party you would think would give its permission – back when they were part of the governing coalition with Schröder’s SPD.

The Best Is Just About Past

Widmann’s point is that the situation that America (together with much of the rest of us) now faces is bad, really bad. Nothing less than a tearing-down of the old Establishment, both economically and politically, will do to put things right – but now the former Senator from Illinois has become even more a part of that very same Establishment. And so, he concludes, “today’s swearing-in will be, and will remain, Barack Obama’s greatest performance.”

You obviously have to hope that he is wrong, but I confess to seeing a certain logic in this “Nixon syndrome” argument. But then the question naturally arises, “All right, so what does a society have to do to get done the things that need to get done?” The train-of-thought here would seem to lead to the conclusion that, in fact, John McCain (the Maverick!) was a better bet to elect to the presidency to save America from its crises! Think about it: He’s the last one (if you remember his party platform) whom you would expect to bring about a system of national health insurance, for example, right? Or to nationalize the banks.

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