“Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Constitution, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand. If only that were true. We can all taste the bitterness now.”
—Rodger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope
“I want an exit strategy.”
—President Barack Obama, from Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars
Whether or not something has actually died, the obituary has already been written for President Barack Obama’s promise of progressive reform. You can hear it in the newly-daring manner of newscycle carping, the scent of blood in the water that energizes the right’s media drones while leaving the left’s version of same looking for ways to pretend that they knew all along that it was going to end up this way. It’s there in the slightly embarrassed way that Obama voters shuffle their feet and study the ground when the subject of his shortcomings arises. It’s in the way that knock-kneed Democratic politicians now back quietly out of the limelight they once clamored to share with the president, and pray for the strength to endure one more quavery-voiced Tea Party shouter at their next town hall.
All politicians look for the exit just as assiduously as they avoid picking up the check for lunch. (Are you sure? Why, thank you very much. They do an amazing salmon here, don’t they? And you’ve given me a lot to think about regarding clean coal. Yes, the EPA does have too much power, I agree. I would hate to see you forced to move that mountain-clearing operation to another district and to stop those checks for that community center I’ve been trying to build. We’ll see what we can do on that bill. It’s for the people, after all.)
It is, then, of no surprise that when the president’s poll numbers sag and wilt, his once stalwart allies will melt away like so much frost before the glare of morning sun. Republicans ran just as swiftly from George W. Bush once he became the president everybody wanted to forget had ever been there. So while elected officials may not shift their positions with the agility of cable news pundits, once the winds shift, they shift with them.
Writers operate on a different timeline, most needing to research and think and formulate before delivering a world view. If you have a cable news show or a spot on the Senate floor, one can just fire away, fact-checking be damned. But when something is written down, stamped on paper and bound between two stiff boards, there is a longer development cycle.
So we find ourselves nearly at the two-year mark of Obama’s historic election, and our authors just now seem to be catching up to the reality. There have been a number of election accounts, which either feel like daily news dispatches padded out to book length (all this-then-that reportage with little larger picture sense) or hagiographic portraits of one man’s ability to transcend the nation’s legacy of racism in one grand victory.
Several conservative scriveners have already rushed their volumes of apocalyptic freakouts into stores, but fantasies don’t require much in the way of primary research. One imagines that Michelle Malkin already had her Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies and David Limbaugh had his Crimes Against Liberty: An Indictment of President Barack Obama written before the election and just hit “print” once the final poll numbers came in.
The less said about the likes of The Roots of Obama’s Rage (at least as it was articulated in the 27 September issue of Forbes), Dinesh D’Souza’s bleary-eyed vision of Obama as some anti-colonialist Mau-Mau (a perfectly Fox News-ready creation that’s one part Black Panther poster and one part elitist lefty intellectual caricature) come to destroy America once and for all, the better. This is all manufactured cottage-industry rage, meant only to feed the shouting beast of talk-radio and lay the groundwork for the seemingly inevitable call for impeachment, which could well become the price of entry for any Democrat who gets themselves elected president in the post-liberal era.
Finally, a couple writers with a modicum of sense have caught up to the dissonance between the gauzy, flag-waving dreams of November 2008 and the grotty reality that followed. But neither his Beltway eminence Bob Woodward, who appears content on grinding out a continual running history of the modern American presidency, or former Harper’s Magazine editor Rodger D. Hodge, whose crushing disappointment with Obama drips off every acid-soaked page, can come close to capturing the true soul of the moment. What both writers make crystal clear that the optimism has gone, the dreams have given way to waking life, and the promises of a new dawn seem impossible, indeed.
The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism
(Harper; US: Oct 2010)
Disappointment is the name of the game in Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, which opens with a torrential outpouring of all that Obama has not accomplished despite his “great promise.” Hodge then turns his finger of blame away from the expected parties to excoriate those on the left who refuse to condemn the president with as much fervor as does he:
It is no surprise that innocent children, naïve European prize committees, and professional Democratic partisans continue to revere the former heroic candidate, despite everything he has done and left undone. Nor is it surprising that the Republican Party and the broken remnants of the old white supremacy coalition hate and fear the man and will oppose him without quarter (excepting, of course, his war and torture policies, which flatter their nationalist impulses)… his most knowledgeable admirers assume the burden of Obama’s sins, bite their tongues, and indulge the temptation to frame his shortcomings as America’s own. Obama is not to blame; we are to blame. Obama has not failed us; America has failed him.
In this artfully constructed but somewhat fervid passage, Hodge outlines both his book’s great strengths and also its salient weaknesses. With a clarion’s power, he lays out the sins of the administration, the great gulf between its gauzy rhetoric and its granular accomplishments (a fact made even more embarrassing by their having Democratic control of the Senate and the House). His lacerating vehemence, a violent vituperation that liberal writers tend to reserve for those on the other side of the aisle, targets also those so naïve as to think that a dialogue of change is the same as change itself.
However, when Hodge takes a little poetic license and recasts the words of those liberals who would argue against criticizing Obama, he lets his frustration crowd out what was up to then a strong argument. By letting it rip against these imaginary enemies, Hodge loses track of what should have been his thesis: how Obama has failed to be even a shadow of the progressive he both promised to be and who his more soft-headed critics like Glenn Beck claim him to be. Who indeed are these people cautioning against this kind of critique of Obama? Hodge doesn’t say.
Hodge also takes his good time getting around to explaining the damning charge of betrayal contained in the book’s title and subtitle. His early chapters jab at the Obama halo of saintly inevitability and mock the teenybopper gushes that passed for much election coverage. They also detail how the supposed candidate of “change” didn’t seem to have much change in mind, as he was taking money from all the usual deep-pocketed parties and bringing on an economic team whose outlook didn’t appear all that different from that propagated by the previous administration.
Here, Hodge’s snark gets the better of him time and again. His prose rolls its eyes at the foolishness of all those who fell for the Obama promise, engages in snide little asides (Vice President Joe Biden gets tossed off as a “plagiarist buffoon”), and argues that ultimately there is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans, that they both just serve slightly different corporate interest in “the mundane corruption of our capitalist democracy.”
By going all the way back to James Madison and showing how far America as a country have fallen since his articulation of the principles of American governance, Hodge deflates his own argument. For if the system was well broken before Obama even arrived on the scene, and the country’s progressive tradition (such as it was) already in tatters, what was there for Obama to betray? By thinking anything could have been different, isn’t Hodge falling prey to the same delusions of the Obamacons whom he mocks so mercilessly?
Be that as it may, where The Mendacity of Hope truly fails is in presenting a coherent view of Obama as a president. Hodge’s chapters work quite well as discreet essays on different issues—the multitudinous failings of Obama’s health care reform, the ever-increasing power of the richest one percent in elections—but they don’t come together as an indictment of the man whom the book is ostensibly about.
This is a shame, because Hodge’s brimstone rage frequently achieves the kind of incandescence so sorely lacking in the left’s dialogue, which continues to run to milquetoast tut-tutting or juvenile name-calling. When Hodge declaims that “American liberals have been reduced to an embarrassing defensive cringe, a political attitude that dares not speak its name,” his writing sings with a potent kind of truth-telling. Unfortunately, he never closes the circle to show (for instance) how that kind of neutered defensiveness could then produce a president like Obama, who continues nearly all the War on Terror policies of the Bush regime and promotes only the most limited centrist legislation and is still damned by the right as an America-destroying socialist renegade.
That Obama can actually do so little as a reformist and still cover himself in the cloak of change is infuriating to Hodge, and rightfully so. But a ratcheting down of his rhetoric and a cooler approach to deconstructing Obama’s policies (which strangely the book spends relatively little time on) could have delivered a truly devastating polemic instead of the angry and unfocused shout that it is. There is little here that can beat what was arguably the first great left-wing reaction against Obama’s presidency, Kevin Baker’s devastatingly insightful “Barack Hoover Obama”, published in Hodge’s own Harper’s, in July of 2009.
Nobody would argue that Bob Woodward wrote angry. Some could even say that “writing” isn’t exactly what he does—“assembling” (with his reams of notes and teams of researchers) seems closer to the point. So if there was anybody to write the reasoned critique of the first part of the Obama years, Woodward would seem to be the guy.
The Body Politic
To be fair to Woodward, the idea that Obama’s Wars would serve as a reckoning for the Obama administration—in the same way that his State of Denial banged open the floodgates of criticism against Bush—came more from its advance press than the book’s premise itself. Breathlessly worded early skims of the book provided the bullet-points. Secret CIA-led Afghan hunter-killer teams, in-fighting between staff members, a military command that was ill-at-ease with their civilian counterparts. It all made for good copy and is certainly there in the book.
But after reading Obama’s Wars—the plural is heavily significant, seeming to refer not just to Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the shadow conflict in Pakistan as well as other hot-spots like Somalia, where the president could find himself pushed to intervene—it seems obvious that Woodward didn’t have that kind of narrative in mind. His story is told in a mostly anodyne, this-then-that style that manages to be less of a slog than you’d think. It all starts in January 2009 and runs through June 2010, with little in-between left to conjecture or analysis in Woodward’s accounting. As he (somewhat primly) asserts, every line in the book comes from one of his 100-plus sources or interviewees, not to mention enough leaked official planning documents, communiqués to keep Wikileaks in the news for weeks.
(Simon & Schuster; US: Oct 2010)
Since publishing his CIA expose Veil in the late-‘80s, national security has occupied much of Woodward’s attention—sometimes to a fault. In Obama’s Wars, the chief executive flits into the picture only when matters of military or intelligence import are at stake, specifically matters involving the Afghanistan war and its habit of bleeding over the Pakistani border (thus the conflict’s wonkish nom de guere, “AfPak”). Those looking for a blow-by-blow rehash of the health care debate or mid-term election strategizing will have to look elsewhere.
As Obama settles into his presidency in early 2009, Woodward shows him being presented with one strategy briefing after another that appears to reveal one salient fact: with the Iraq war winding down and Afghanistan in some manner of stalemate, the true concern is Pakistan. One advisor after another presents the hard facts of a Pakistani government barely able to control its restive population, particularly in the so-called tribal areas along the Afghan border, where insurgents operated with impunity. Obama is appraised time and again of Islamabad’s double-dealings, where they gladly take American aid and allow drone strikes in certain areas while their intelligence service regularly aids and abets the Taliban. In addition, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and Afghani president Hamid Karzai—the former described by Woodward’s sources as an out-of-touch fool and the latter as a paranoid, possibly doped-up, serial whiner and depressive—seem more intent on engaging in wild paranoid nightmares than handling their business.
Handed this excruciating dilemma, Obama should have become a figure of sympathy in Woodward’s account. There are moments where he seems determined to plot his own course against a military leadership determined to ask for more and more troops. Biden is the naysayer in the corner, wanting nothing more than to avoid another quagmire, while Rahm Emanuel breaks in from time to time to drop a reality grenade on people. Everybody in the inner circle has read Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster and they don’t want to replicate Lyndon Johnson’s letting the military walk all over them. (Though they don’t seem to have taken to heart one of the book’s central lessons, namely how LBJ’s people allowed the 1964 election distract them from the Vietnam question.)
However, despite all the election media’s adulatory talk of “no drama” Obama, his advisers seem perfectly content to try and erect a Bush-style wall around their leader, with any military realities that could negatively impact their domestic concerns hustled to the side. The somewhat unholy trio of White House operators—chief of staff Rahm Emamuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, and press secretary Robert Gibbs—comes off as particularly unctuous politicos. National Security Adviser General James L. Jones, worried about getting sidelined and kept from performing his duties of assisting the president, complains about there being “too many senior aides around the president … they’re like water bugs.”
Just as the Clinton administration entered the White House with a level of discomfort toward the military (which was immediately reciprocated), Woodward reports a disturbing disconnect between Obama’s water bugs and the military leadership he was inheriting from Bush, which was used to having a more direct line to the Oval Office. It’s clear that Afghanistan is simply one item in Obama’s overflowing inbox—as Woodward notes, there was exactly one sentence devoted to the wars in the Inaugural Address.
General David Petraeus, the relentlessly self-promoting hero of the Iraq War surge, and the man Obama chooses late in the book to head up the Afghanistan command after General Stanley McChrystal’s insubordinate remarks about Washington in a Rolling Stone article, sees the war in the long view. His take is that of the classic counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy where protecting civilians and improving quality of life takes precedent over enemy body counts, and can’t exactly be enacted overnight. Woodward quotes Petraeus in a private conversation presenting a view of Afghanistan that would make nervously exit-looking operatives like Emanuel blanch:
I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably your kids’ lives.
The Obama who emerges in somewhat shadowy outline in Woodward’s book doesn’t want that kind of commitment any more than his staff does. Early in the book, he announces with some prescience, “I think I have two years with the public on this.” Battling against any kind of time line or limitations on their operations are Petraeus and the various beribboned generals who agitate throughout much of Obama’s Wars for 85,000, then 40,000, then 30,000 more troops, and then, once Obama agrees to reinforcements, start trying to creep more soldiers into the deployment under his nose.
The overall effect of Obama’s Wars is like that of a days’-long security briefing, where one nightmare scenario after another is delivered by one puffed-up politician or general or expert, without any clear solutions being provided. By giving such a ground-level view of the daily grind of executive-level national-security affairs, where issues of the highest order seem to get lost in a shockingly juvenile roundelay of backbiting and bureaucratic gamesmanship (more than once you are tempted to shout at the players here to just grow up, stop worrying about their careers and do what’s right), Woodward shows how miserably difficult it can be to make history-changing decisions on the fly.
Almost as tough is the recounting of history while one’s in the thick of it. Woodward writes close to the ground, with an eye for the details and little attention on the larger scene. Hodge glares from afar, too full of scorn to get into the weeds. Woodward barely leaves the confines of the Situation Room or various Executive Building or Pentagon offices, while Hodge seems more interested in inveighing against the pallid state of modern liberalism. Neither explicate a well-considered view of how Obama and his policies fit into the fabric of modern-day America.
What Hodge appears to understand, at least, is that it’s a bad scene out there, something that might have made great fodder for Hunter S. Thompson in his paranoid, doomcrying prime, but nothing too enjoyable to live through.
The unemployment numbers refuse to budge. Every few weeks another packet of rumors skitters through the markets and sets off panics like car alarms after an earthquake. Neighborhoods are littered with foreclosure signs. The promised “green” economy refuses to show itself. American soldiers ride the IED-seeded highways of Afghanistan or hunker down in their Iraq firebases, worrying over the sniper’s bullet or the remote-detonated artillery shell out there with their name on it. Drones roam the skies of Pakistan, their remote-control rockets blasting Taliban gunmen and unlucky nearby civilians into bloody vapor. Guantanamo squats there on a remote Cuban shore as a mockery of high-minded American rhetoric. Men and women are still thrown out of their nation’s military for the crime of being gay. The previous administration’s tax cuts look likely to keep bleeding the Treasury dry. Empowered by the Supreme Court and a regulation-wary administration, corporations tighten their grip on the body politic.
Through it all, Obama remains a mystery. The most indelible view of Obama that comes from either one of these books, however, is in Woodward’s account, and it’s a silent one. In October 2009, Obama flies out to Dover Air Force base after midnight to greet a C-17 cargo plane arriving with the bodies of 18 service members. He first meets with the families in a chapel, and then goes to the C-17 and walks down the line of coffins, stopping at each one to say a prayer and leave a presidential coin:
For nearly two hours he stood in his long overcoat in the cool darkness and watched as a six-person Army unit wearing fatigues, black berets and white gloves transferred the individual cases from the plane to the van. It was all done with precision. The units had regular practice because Dover was the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead. By 4 A.M. the ceremonies were complete. The president thanked everyone, slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.
Though the connection is never explicitly made, it’s hard to forget that dark night of the soul while reading Woodward’s account of Obama wrestling with the damned-whatever-he-does impossibility of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For all Obama’s failures of vision and mistakes in basic governance—and Hodge’s recounting of those is likely only the initial salvo—it may at least be suggested that he dug his heels in against the Pentagon’s push for reinforcements without an end-date simply because he didn’t want to be surveying planeloads of the war dead for years to come.
Whether that will be enough is for the future to judge.