Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Debt and taxes: "The Character of Presidents," by E.L. Doctorow

"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

(President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009)

"Giving our all to a difficult task': The thirty months of Obama's historic presidency have seen the country change not dramatically enough for some Democrats, and -- from Republican detractors -- raising the idea of his outright llegitimacy to hold the Presidential office and upping partisan rhetoric to new levels of Marxist-socialist scaremongering.

In his calm demeanor, his refusal to be riled, and his seeming deliberate pace, Obama confounds both parties. In other words, by being "presidential," politicians and the public have found in Barack Obama a confusing cypher. Perhaps in this hyperkinetic age America has come to expect change to happen overnight, and its leaders to be superheroes. But the president is not the FDR many of his supporters hoped he would be, and the change he brought is, paradoxically, too much for some.

Writing in The Nation during the election year of 1992, author E.L. Doctorow mused at length about the idea of Presidential character during the campaign. Now, in the middle of the current budget standoff, increasingly a frustrating, partisan battle, Doctorow's words seem worth repeating.

... The President we get is the country we get. With each new President the country is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kind of lawlessness that governs our lives and invokes our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into, and get us into, is his characteristic trouble.

Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail. One four-year term may find us at reasonable peace with one another, working things out, and the next, trampling on each other for scraps of bread.

That a President is inevitably put forward and elected by forces of established wealth and power means usually that he will be indentured by the time he reaches office. But in fact he is the freest of men if he will have the courage to think so and, at least theoretically, could be so transported by the millions of people who have endorsed his candidacy as to want to do the best for them. He might come to solemn appreciation of the vote we cast, in all our multicolored and multigendered millions, as an act of faith, fingers crossed, a kind of prayer. ...

Who would not wish for someone, first of all, who realizes that once elected, he cannot be the President merely of the constituency that empowered him but, if he would fill the defining role of the office, a President on behalf of everyone? That is a simple grade-school concept, and, given the relation in America of money to politics, cannot be anything more than that.

But the President who has the courage to live by that would immediately lead a reformist movement to erase the advantages big money accords to itself by its political contributions and its lobbying. This would presume a morally intelligent President as well as a courageous one.

I would wish for a developed historical sense in the President, one that could understand and honestly acknowledge that the political philosophy of what we lovingly call the free market has in the past justified slavery, child labor, the gunning down of strikers by state militias, and so forth.
I would want a presidential temperament keen with a love of justice and with the capacity to recognize the honor of humble and troubled people. And the character of mind to understand that even the borders of the nation are too small for the presidential service -- that willy-nilly and ipso facto (idea that) we're planetary blunderers now.

The true President would have the strength to widen the range of current political discourse, and would love and revere language as the best means we have to close in on reality. That implies a sensibility attuned to the immense moral consequence of every human life. Perhaps a sense of tragedy that would not let him sleep the night through.
Also, I should think he would be someone who really likes kids, who laughs to be around them, and who is ready to die for them -- but who would never resort to the political expediency of saying so.

... the raising of the idea of character in the public mind may finally be a great service to the electorate that we imagine by contrast ... what the character of a true American President should be."

In the current stalemate of political will, both sides appear to be playing politics as if compromise is something for the other side. "
The President we get is the country we get:" If the President hasn't the style to shape the country's political will in the way of an F.D.R., most of his supporters would be happy with at least an echo of Harry S Truman: "give 'em hell, Barack."

Yet in this continued recession and need for solutions, neither party is making points with the electorate that they are there to serve. The bipartisan "Gang of Six" say they have agreed on a plan which contains a stopgap measure raising the debt limit but also, because of the continued delay, cannot be completed and voted on by August 2. This will require a timetable that pushes a final vote down the road, and the country will go through this entire tent show again in a Presidential election year.

The ultimate irony is that the plan is largely made up of elements modeled "on the recommendations last year of a bipartisan fiscal commission established by Mr. Obama," as theNew York Times reported today.

The entire process has been an embarrassment to the representatives of both parties as they play a needless game of tag-you're-it. With no real recovery in sight (only another election cycle on the horizon that ensures the current rhetoric will only become hotter) Obama will need to demonstrate that he truly can be, in Doctorow's phrase, "a morally intelligent President as well as a courageous one."

E.L. Doctorow, "The Character of Presidents," was originally published in 1992 and reprinted in The Best of the Nation, 2000)

No comments: