Archive for January, 2012

John Stoehr, editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale, has a tribune on how Mitt Romney may possibly lead the GOP out of its loony right wilderness and back to something approaching “moderation.” He thus begins

Much has been said about the Southernisation of the Republican Party, but little about the way Mitt Romney, if he secured the Grand Old Party’s presidential nomination, has a chance to wrest control from the party’s fringe and restore it to political moderation. Sure, the GOP is justly viewed as the party of big business, and one of the richest men ever to run for the White House won’t change that. But of all the primary candidates, none is more likely to put the brakes on the troubling trend of Southernisation.

Shoehr, who’s a liberal, is perfectly happy to see the GOP crack up. He’s just calling it the way he sees it. I don’t know if he’s right but I hope he is, not that I would want to see Romney win—God forbid—but because America needs a party of the right that is moderate and normal, not crazy and out on the fringe. If the center of gravity in the GOP could once again be people in the mold of Bush Sr, Reagan, Ford, and (gasp) Nixon, I would breathe a sigh of relief (I never thought I’d say such a thing…).

On this subject, TNR has a piece by William Galston, a Clintonite centrist, warning Democrats that Romney will be a stronger general election candidate than they may think. He’s probably right. And another piece in TNR, by Alec MacGillis, one of its senior editors, examines what voters really think about Romney’s wealth. Answer: the majority don’t begrudge him for it. No doubt right as well.

So if Romney is the GOP nominee—which is more than likely—it will be a close race in the fall. Anyone else Obama will blow away. As for what the Romney-hating Tea Partiers will do: they’ll vote for Mitt as one. Of course they will. And they know they will.

Read Full Post »

Louise Wimmer

This is one of the better French films I’ve seen lately. The main character, Louise Wimmer—who’s in just about every frame of the pic—, is a woman in her late 40s who works part-time as a chambermaid in a hotel—her boss won’t put her on full—and, not earning enough to make ends meet, lives in her car and scrounges for leftover food at chain restaurants. It’s one of the best cinematic treatments I’ve seen of contemporary précarité économique—economic precariousness—in an advanced industrialized society, not only of the objective reality of life for someone who is leading a hand-to-mouth existence but also what it does to him or her psychologically—of living in a permanent state of fear for the future—and to relationships with others.

We learn in the course of the film that Louise is divorced and that prior to that had had a materially comfortable middle-class life. The one US critic who has reviewed the film so far had some criticisms of the way it developed Louise’s character on this score

Yet while the director…does a fine job at mapping Louise’s daily struggle to eat and sleep, he fails to reveal much about who she really is: Why doesn’t she trust anyone? Why did she never have a real career? How did she turn out this way?

I differ with the critic, as I don’t think the director needed to give any more information about Louise than he did. She was mistrustful of people because she was in a fragile state in every respect, was deeply ashamed of her situation—so didn’t want to talk about it, even with her occasional lover—, and had little protection against those who could exploit her. As for not having a career and how she ended up where she was, one can easily come up with plausible hypotheses. E.g. her ex-husband earned a sufficiently high salary—which is pretty clear in the one scene where we see him—so that she didn’t have to work, or that she did work but not in a job necessitating advanced or specialized training—as an office employee or something of the sort—, lost it and couldn’t find anything comparable. The film is set in Belfort in the Franche-Comté, which is a part of France with particularly high unemployment. And Frenchmen and women who lose their jobs after age 40 and are not highly skilled—and even then—have a poor chance of finding any kind of employment, let alone at their previous salary. The phenomenon of déclassement social, the great fear of the French middle and working classes, does happen. In the case of Louise, we gather that her divorce was messy—as she was not on good terms with her ex-husband, who was remarried—and led to her being turned out of her social milieu.

One noteworthy issue implicitly raised in the film is that of logement social, i.e. public housing. Louise is desperate to get an HLM, as the private housing market is inaccessible to her. There are several scenes of her increasingly acrimonious dealings with the functionaries in the public housing authority, where her application has been stalled for months (she’s not a priority case and demand is greater than supply). I can’t remember the last film I saw that depicted the tours et barres of the cités in such a light, as the salvation for so many (as it’s either that or being sans-abri). It certainly underscores the importance of public housing in France. Again, I was very impressed with this film. And I’m not alone, as French reviews are tops. And for all its moroseness and dreariness, it has a happy ending!

I’ve seen a few other movies of late with people living on the margins as the main theme. One was ‘Une vie meilleure’ (English title: ‘A Better Life’), which came out earlier this month. I had high hopes for it, as it was well-reviewed and with the sublime Leïla Bekhti—for whom I have a soft spot—in the lead. And the director, Cédric Kahn, is well-respected, though I hadn’t seen anything by him before. But the pic was a disappointment. Big problems with the screenplay and from the very beginning. The young couple meet par hasard—for him it’s a coup de foudre—, go on a date right away, make out on the street illico, cut to them in bed, instant love, he moves in, they’re a couple, and making plans for the future. All in four minutes. C’était un peu rapide. The guy—played by the well-known actor Guillaume Canet—is a cook by training and gets a brilliant idea to open a restaurant in an abandoned house in one of the big parks near Paris (precise location not specified), that they happened to stumble across. He has the entrepreneurial spirit and she goes along with his scheme. This part stretched credulity, as to how they got the bank loan and with no collateral—the guy was unemployed and with no family to back him up—, and were then able to hire the contractor and have the work done. And the Leïla Bekhti character, who had a nine-year old son from an unhappy marriage she had fled, was made to be from Lebanon. What an odd choice. Mlle Bekhti is clearly of Maghrebi origin—her parents are from western Algeria—and does not at all look Lebanese. And Lebanese Muslims don’t speak French the way she does (when they speak it at all), and generally do not flee their families and end up in France (at least not those from her social class in the film). This made no sense. She should have been a beurette in the film, which is what Leïla B. is in real life. The couple’s restaurant dreams inevitably came crashing down and they ended up in a situation of grave economic précarité. The depiction of this—of their vie de galère in the neuf-trois—is not bad but the way the story developed, with the Bekhti character suddenly taking off for Montreal to pursue an apparently great opportunity—but which was not—and leaving her son with b.f., with whom she was increasingly estranged, was a stretch, not to mention the way the thing ended (with all reunited in the dead of the Canadian winter). In short, thumbs down to this one.

I’ve seen a couple of other pics in the last couple of months with a living-on-the-margins motif. One was a self-proclaimed “guerrilla film” called ‘Donoma’, by the youthful Haitian-born Paris-based director Djinn Carrenard, and which was apparently made on a budget of €150 (meaning that the non-professional cast worked for free). I hesitated over seeing it, mainly on account of its 2 hour 20 minute length, but was swayed by the praise of two (non-French) cinephile friends, who pronounced it “brilliant” and “very good, maybe great,” respectively. And Paris critics gave it the thumbs up (see in particular the reviews in Les Inrocks and L’Express). Hollywood Reporter, which liked the pic on the whole, thus described it

Set almost exclusively in a series of bedrooms, stairwells, subway cars and side streets [in Paris and the inner banlieue], Donoma tracks the conflict-ridden relations of a handful of teens and 20-somethings [of various ethnic origins], jumping back and forth between plot strands, and using structural leaps to show how each character is ultimately connected… As the stories progress, the many conversations, têtes-à-têtes and shouting matches reveal how relationships must forever stand the test of each lover’s personal baggage – which, in today’s multicultural Paris, is one highly marked by both ethnic origin and the social divide.

And this from Variety, which gave it a qualified positive review

Electrifying drama and patience-testing talkfest are housed under the same roof of “Donoma,” [that demands] attention on the strength of its riveting examination of love, faith and identity among a loosely connected group of Parisians…

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film. Some of the situations did not strike me as entirely believable—which doesn’t mean that they weren’t; I may not be au fait as to what happens in the particular milieux depicted in the film—and it was overly long—but it held my attention throughout. For a film of over two hours, that’s not bad.

Another film seen with a sort of living-on-the-margins theme was ‘Americano’, produced and directed by Mathieu Demy—son of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda—, and who played the lead role. I went to see it strictly on account of the trailer, which showed it to be mainly set in Los Angeles and Tijuana. For a French film, that’s a good enough hook for me. Selma Hayek was also in it—as a stripper in Tijuana—and as I’d never seen her in a movie before, this was the occasion. It was attention-holding enough, not too bad, but not essential either. It’s fine for DVD. Not worth the trip to the cinema. US reviews here and here.

Finally, I’ll mention a film, ‘Les Adoptés’, that has nothing to do with précarité économique and wasn’t even that good, but is noteworthy on account of the director, Mélanie Laurent, who is normally an actress and is only 28-years-old. I love Mélanie Laurent and am impressed that she had the self-confidence and ambition to make the film—not to mention the time, given all her other commitments—and even though she no doubt knew she would be snickered at and the pic would receive (deservedly) mixed reviews (e.g. here, here, and here). I admire her culot. Good for her.

Read Full Post »

Adam Gopnik has a must read article in The New Yorker on the American prison system and the criminal justice system that underpins it. So much has been written on the subject, of course—on “the scale and the brutality of our prisons [that] are the moral scandal of American life”—, and Gopnik doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but he says it well. Gopnik is a very good writer and with a sens de la formule. E.g.

[America] is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

Conrad Black’s words reminded me of Christine Boutin in France, a solid conservative and family values person, who was so appalled by what she saw during her first visit to a prison while conducting a parliamentary inquiry a decade or so back—the French carceral system is a closed world and normally inaccessible to outsiders—that she became one of the most outspoken prison reformers in the French political class. When it comes to physical infrastructure, French prisons are no doubt worse than those in America, though, it needs to be said, the French prison population is proportionally one-seventh the size. And it’s not because the crime rate is lower in France. With the sole exception of homicide, the incidence of crime in France—and in Europe more generally—is roughly the same as in the US (and such has always been the case, BTW). And the great majority of American prisoners are not convicted murderers. The punitive mentality in America and its consequences are a serious problem. And a scandal. Read Gopnik’s article.

Read Full Post »

The day before yesterday I had a post on Roger Cohen’s inane column in the NYT, that lauded Nicolas Sarkozy and predicted he would win the upcoming presidential election (this on the same day as Le Monde’s headline story on the defeatist climate in Sarkozy’s camp and which was echoed in a report on the France 2 evening news). Other cognoscenti of French politics, e.g. Art Goldhammer, shared my view of Cohen’s absurd column. Now there’s a piece that makes Cohen’s look brilliant by comparison. L’auteur du crime: Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic. The subject: the DSK affair. I will admit that I am not a fan of Mr. Peretz and normally avoid his writings like the plague. I am an anti-fan of his and have been so for three decades—and I have a lot of company on this (e.g. see here)—, ever since his cheerleading of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon led me not to renew my subscription to TNR for ten years. Even when I started up the sub again I tried my best to avoid Peretz (not always easy) and his manic obsession with Israel, which borders on pathology. I am quite sure that Peretz has never written an article or anything that did not have as its focus Israel or something related to his ethno-confessional group. For someone who has shown little sympathy for the identity politics of others, e.g. Afro-Americans, he is certainly preoccupied with his own identity. Then there was Peretz’s polluting the pages of TNR—a once venerable voice of American liberalism—with certain odious right-wing journalists he hired over the years (e.g. Fred Barnes, Michael Kelly) but I won’t get into that.

In any case, Peretz’s commentary on the DSK affair—a has-been subject by now—, entitled “Edward J. Epstein Makes History…Again,” was quite simply the most breathtakingly idiotic piece of bullcrap that I have read in weeks. It left me agape. I’m used to eye-rolling nonsense from MP but this was on another level altogether and from the get go. Voilà the opening phrase

I was reminded of this devastating analysis of the sloppy case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn when I read that his wife, Anne Sinclair, is taking over the French version of The Huffington Post.

The “devastating analysis” MP is referring to is Edward J. Epstein’s widely read investigative report on the DSK affair in The New York Review of Books. This is now my 44th post on the DSK affair but I didn’t have one on Epstein’s report—though maybe should have—, which I thought was an irresponsible piece of pseudo-investigative journalism that the NYRB should have never published. And the whole thing was quickly revealed to be bulldust, as almost every mystery or question mark put forth by Epstein has been answered or put to rest. And Epstein’s conspiracy insinuating—hinting at a possible UMP/Sarkozy plot—was laughably preposterous. For Martin Peretz to call EJE’s report “devastating” in late January 2012 shows him to be not only behind the curve but also completely à côté de la plaque.

Continuing on Anne Sinclair, MP informs the reader that

Sinclair is now being dissed by her colleagues at Le Monde for sticking by and up for her husband in New York’s great spring celebrity scandal after he was charged with raping a maid at an overrated Manhattan hotel.

MP is referring here to a quote from an editor at Le Monde—a partner of the French HuffPo—in an item he linked to, who simply observed that “When [Sinclair] publicly compared the DSK affair to the Dreyfus affair, she lost her objectivity.” This is “dissing”? It’s one thing to stand by one’s man but to compare his legal problems in a sordid sexual affair to those of Captain Dreyfus and the French army? I think it was Mme Sinclair who was doing the dissing here, not only to Dreyfus’ memory but to the French Republic.

MP does let us know that

The truth is, however, that at the beginning I tended to believe the accusations, having heard from friends in Paris that Strauss-Kahn had the reputation of being a lecher. One lady-friend actually told me that he had followed her out of Yom Kippur services a few years back at the grand synagogue—the Rothschild synagogue!—on the rue des Victoires.

I am quite sure of the veracity of MP’s lady-friend’s story. Everyone has similar DSK stories second and third hand. And first. E.g. a lady-friend of mine has told me of the time DSK came on to her and in an unsubtle way, and in front of a few hundred people plus her husband to boot (not at a synagogue but the Institut du Monde Arabe…). But then MP continues with this

the D.A.’s tactics gnawed at me. And, then, Bernard Henri-Levy defended the accused, and Levy has a lot of ethical credit with me.

Oh please, spare me. My views on BHL are sufficiently well known (e.g. here, here, and here) that I do not need to state them here. Two things, though. 1. Anyone who gives ethical credit to BHL cannot have such credit with me (see the links to my posts) and 2. Such ethical credit can certainly not be accorded to BHL in view of his défense à outrance of DSK after his arrest, which was so uncompromising and arrogant in tone—even as the accounts of DSK’s satyriasis were being detailed in the public square—that BHL’s American publisher had to tell him—and I have this on good authority—that he risked losing all credit in the US as a consequence and should therefore STFU (and which BHL dutifully did).

MP gets in a few digs at D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. and then offers this

Who really knows? Dominique and Anne are on the left, and he was just about slated to be the Socialist candidate against Sarkozy’s re-election bid. Still, the left had nothing but venom for S-K.

“S-K”? Excuse me, Mr. Peretz, but Mr. Strauss-Kahn is universally known as DSK. Absolutely everyone outside France knows this by now. So where does this S-K come from? Vous êtes vraiment à côté de la plaque. But also, what is this about the left and venom, particularly as DSK was/is himself a man of the left (albeit close to the center)? And as the Socialist party—the dominant party of the French left—was getting ready to crown DSK as its candidate until the fateful encounter with Nafissatou Diallo? If one has in mind the hard and extreme left—PG, PCF, NPA et al—and intellos on that end of the spectrum, then one needs to be clear about this. But who cares about those people anyway?

Following from this MP gives the clincher. The money quote, which the whole piece has been building up to

I have my own suspicions about the sources of this hatred. OK, laugh at me: but it is because he and his wife are passionate Zionists, public Zionists, a sin among the progressives of Paris.

There you have it. DSK—who was the most popular political personality in France until last May 15th and the left’s champion to beat Sarkozy—was in fact hated—who knew?—and because he was…a Zionist. Honestly, this one takes the cake. The only thing one can say here is that MP made this up. He invented it in his turbulent head. He read this nowhere and it is not possible that he heard it from any person knowledgeable about French politics or society. Not even BHL would have told him such an inept connerie. MP has not a shred of evidence to back up his assertion. None whatever. He could not credibly defend this if his life depended on it. In point of fact, DSK and his wife, whose Jewishness has hardly been a secret, never spoke publicly about Zionism and such was not the subject of articles or reports in the mainstream media. DSK did express his warm sentiments toward Israel in a Jewish magazine back in 1991 but outside the Jewish community his words here were known only to those who consulted or stumbled across Arab-oriented or anti-Semitic web sites in the obscure precincts of the Internet. DSK and Mme Sinclair’s Jewishness and putative Zionism were a political non-issue, including “among the progressives of Paris,” whoever they may be. À propos, it would be helpful if MP named a few of these “progressives.” In fact, I defy him to do so. Just three names, please, of known “progressives”—a term that is not commonly used in the French political lexicon, BTW—who had it out for DSK on account of his “Zionism.” It is true that DSK did have detractors on the hard left—e.g. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was particularly outspoken—but it was because he was a libéral in their eyes—a neoliberal—and whose big sin was heading the IMF (and despite the fact that under DSK’s stewardship the IMF shifted away from its neoliberal Washington Consensus orientation). In the eyes of the gauche de la gauche, DSK was insufficiently gauche. They talked about him the way US lefties whine on about Obama. It’s politics, Mr. Peretz. It is not about Jews. Really, not everyone who is disliked and so happens to be Jewish is disliked because he or she is a Jew.

MP further drives the nail into his coffin with this

Anyway, it isn’t as if the French political class is pure. Sarkozy, for example. Or Mitterand [sic], for that matter.

What on earth is this supposed to mean?! Pure about what? Affairs with women not their wives? On this, Sarko is a well-known horndog and Mitterrand was a grand séducteur. So what? Neither is or was known to serially hit on women who did not wish to be hit on, to be a regular patron at clubs échangistes, or to frequently receive sexual services in return for monetary remuneration (and on the eve of a presidential campaign no less). Or is it something about Jews? Here, Sarkozy is considered by many French Jews—who viscerally like him—to almost be France’s first Jewish president (in the same way as Bill Clinton was seen by his many black American fans as having been America’s first black president). As for Mitterrand, he was a longtime friend of the Jewish community and Israel (and despite the zones d’ombre in his past and some sulfurous friendships). And BTW, Mitterrand is spelled with two Rs (not one).

MP, after reiterating his admiration of E.J. Epstein’s discredited report, concludes with this

Also try mentioning Edward Jay Epstein’s proven thesis, James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right?, available at Amazon and on Kindle, at a dinner party. The guests will think you a nut case.

Mr. Peretz: the nut case c’est vous.

Read Full Post »

Franco-Turkish follies – II

So the French Senate passed the loi scélérate criminalizing negation of the Armenian genocide (or “genocide,” depending on one’s perspective). I didn’t think it would do so, as a number of senators had expressed doubts in recent days about the bill’s constitutionality. Moreover, the Senate’s commission des lois—presided by the Socialist Jean-Pierre Sueur—had voted last Wednesday to reject the bill and by a wide majority, though which did not prevent it from going to the floor for a vote by the full Senate. As the Senate in France is indirectly elected and in thirds, it is thereby not susceptible to base electoralist considerations—presumably not, at least—or to pressures from the Elysée or Matignon, and is moreover controlled by the Socialists, the current opposition. Now it is true that the PS has largely supported the bill but insofar as the current legislative initiative was remote-controlled by Sarkozy the Socialist senators were not obliged to indulge him. And many PS senators did oppose the bill, not only for constitutional reasons or political opportunity but as a matter of principle (see this report in Mediapart). As it was, 26 of the 130 PS senators voted against and 48 abstained or did not participate in the vote (for the record, only 57 of the 132 UMP senators voted for, with 19 against). And the two previous presidents of the Senate, Gérard Larcher and Christian Poncelet, announced in advance that they would be voting against the bill.

I already expressed my dim view of this proposed law after the National Assembly approved it last month (here). I just find it unbelievable that the French government is going through with this, in view of the crisis—needless and totally avoidable—that the law has provoked in France’s relations with Turkey. The Turks are hopping mad, of course, and threatening all sorts of retaliatory measures, mainly in contracts with French companies. And they will follow through on it. If the law ends up on the books, it will poison relations between the two countries for a long time to come. One can only imagine the reaction in Turkey when the inevitable judicial prosecutions take place in France of Turks and others espousing the official Turkish position. The law will certainly be put to the test, and likely sooner rather than later. In its January 4th issue Le Canard Enchaîné had an article by Claude Angeli, the paper’s longtime editor-in-chief—and who has excellent sources in the foreign policy and defense establishment—, on the fury of foreign minister Alain Juppé and the Quai d’Orsay over the law. Juppé, who has seen his painstaking efforts to work with the Turks over the Syrian issue go up in smoke, had not calmed down in the two weeks after the National Assembly vote. Before the vote he told his staff that the bill was a “connerie sans nom” (i.e. a complete idiocy) and let his sentiments be known to the rest of the government. But Sarkozy paid no attention. Amazing.

Another thing about the law that is so perverse: the way it is worded—and it does not specifically mention the Armenians or Turkey—, it criminalizes only genocides recognized by French law, i.e. that have been voted by the French parliament in one of its “memorial laws.” This means the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, but not what happened in Rwanda in 1994, which is recognized as a genocide by the United Nations, as well as by just about everyone else, but which has been a delicate and problematic matter in France, given French support of the Rwandan Hutus at the time. À propos, President Mitterrand’s attitude—that massacres were committed by both sides in Rwanda—sounded very much like the official Turkish position on what happened with the Armenians in eastern Anatolia in 1915. And this “negationist” position toward the Rwandan genocide has been advanced in two books published in the past decade by the best-selling author Pierre Péan.

The only way the law can be stopped now is if it is referred to the Constitutional Council, which will likely strike it down. Robert Badinter, a former president of the Council and one of the most respected jurists in the country, had a tribune in Le Monde ten days ago arguing the bill’s unconstitutionality (and Badinter, it should be noted, is one of the few Socialists who is publicly opposed to Turkish membership in the EU). The only parties that can petition the Constitutional Council are the President of the Republic, Prime Minister, President of the Senate, President of the National Assembly, or a group of 60 senators or 60 deputies. In this case it could be the latter two and just possibly the President of the National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, who is, of course, in the UMP and an ally of Sarkozy but is opposed to “memorial laws” and has called for an end to such legislative initiatives. He could maybe save the day. Whatever the case, this whole crazy affair is the doing of Sarkozy. As such, it definitively discredits him as President of the Republic, in my book at least. He is unworthy to hold the highest office of this land. And he must absolutely not be reelected. Get him out of there!

Read Full Post »

Roger Cohen has a particularly stupid, asinine column in today’s NYT, “The Sarkozy Effect,” vaunting the French president’s “courage,” “leadership” qualities, and whatever, and predicting that he will be “the more likely winner” in the upcoming presidential election. The piece is so ridiculous that I won’t even bother taking apart its numerous inanities. What’s the point? and besides, I already rubbished a pro-Sarko column of Cohen’s from last April (here) and where I ran the numbers. And three months ago (here) I asserted that if there were no dramatic improvement in Sarko’s poll ratings by the end of the year—and there hasn’t been—that he would likely be toast in ’12.

As it happens, just as Cohen’s column went up two pertinent pieces were published, one in Mediapart asking if “Sarkozy has already lost?”, the other in Le Monde on Sarkozy evoking “the hypothesis of his defeat.” Here are the texts in full.


Sarkozy a-t-il déjà perdu?

23 janvier 2012 | Par Marine Turchi

Dans l’état actuel du pays, Sarkozy n’a-t-il pas déjà perdu ? A droite, certains avaient déjà posé la question de sa candidature à l’automne, ponctuant, comme Alain Juppé ou Jean-Pierre Raffarin, leur propos de «s’il est candidat». Désormais, d’autres font part de leur inquiétude, jusqu’ici exprimée en privé. Le collaborateur d’un ministre, dans Le Figaro : «On commence à se dire qu’on peut vraiment perdre.» Un (more…)

Read Full Post »

The Obama Memos

Ryan Lizza has an article in The New Yorker, “The Obama Memos: The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency.” It’s one of the more interesting accounts I’ve read of the Obama White House, internal debates over policy, and Obama’s evolving conception of the presidency. As with all new presidents, the presidency has been a learning process for Obama

Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don’t control them.

Lizza’s piece is long—over 11,000 words—but well worth the read. Here are some of the key passages

George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A. & M., who has sparked a quiet revolution in the ways that academics look at Presidential leadership, argues in “The Strategic President” that there are two ways to think about great leaders. The common view is of a leader whom Edwards calls “the director of change,” someone who reshapes public opinion and the political landscape with his charisma and his powers of persuasion. Obama’s many admirers expected him to be just this.

Instead, Obama has turned out to be what Edwards calls “a facilitator of change.” The facilitator is acutely aware of the constraints of public opinion and Congress. He is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals of politics. Instead, “facilitators understand the opportunities for change in their environments and fashion strategies and tactics to exploit them.” Directors are more like revolutionaries. Facilitators are more like tacticians. Directors change the system. Facilitators work the system. Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough—but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.

Yes, the limits of office. Something that Obama’s lefty critics tend to lose sight of

Obama was learning the same lesson of many previous occupants of the Oval Office: he didn’t have the power that one might think he had. Harry Truman, one in a long line of Commanders-in-Chief frustrated by the limits of the office, once complained that the President “has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. . . . The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

And then there’s the system

…our political system was designed to be infuriating. As George Edwards notes in his study of Presidents as facilitators, the American system “is too complicated, power too decentralized, and interests too diverse for one person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate.” Obama, like many Presidents, came to office talking like a director. But he ended up governing like a facilitator, which is what the most successful Presidents have always done. Even Lincoln famously admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events controlled me.”

And the conclusion

The private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reëlection.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.

I’ve been dumping on Obama for much of the past three years but have put all that aside for the time being. The only thing I care about now is that he is reelected, as the alternative is just not something I want to think about. C’est tout.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: