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The Disorderly March VI, or, Midterm Exams

October 6, 2010

The midterm elections are coming up, and a panoply of clearly insane people are well on their way to having actual power over my life and future – people who believe that high school football teams shouldn’t wear black jerseys because “black is the Devil’s color” or that they have access to documents about secret plots against the US by the Chinese. If you really want to get a Tea Partier going, ask them about their favorite Secret Plot – there are so many secret plots against us in the United States that it’s hard to pick just one. I think Sharron Angle voted no on everything in the Nevada State Legislature because she was deathly afraid the first letters of each line of every bill spelled out a Secret Plot that would have authorized more black helicopters.

Obama has to have his feet held to the fire on this. The Great Professor has failed to fulfill his Rooseveltian promise, only now, too little and too late, coming out swinging against the opposition. Anybody with a grain of sense could have told you in January 2009 that there would be no bipartisanship on Capitol Hill – its Republican members must obey to the letter the Rovian gospel that their base has been infused with for thirty years (the gummymint wants to send the atheist queers to take away your gun; all taxes go to welfare queens; government out of my wallet and into your bedroom – there’s only “too much federal government” until people want gay marriage or medical marijuana or assisted euthanasia, at which time we need the full might of the Feds and constitutional amendments to stop ‘em). For a Republican to even agree that the opposition had a good idea, or a potentially good idea that needed work, was to find yourself accused in the Wingnutosphere of both blasphemy and treason.

It seems Obama really did believe he was moving from one classroom to another, where “civil discourse” would reign supreme and agreement and compromise would be reached. Obama’s greatest failing, to me, is a blindness to evil: he just can’t believe that people who have gone to good schools and attained power through the Orderly March can possibly be as wicked and hateful and selfish as they appear to be. He failed to remember the most important thing – many people are civil in a classroom for the purely selfish reason that they won’t get an A if they are obstreperous or combative, not because they treasure the free play of ideas.

Frank Rich, my favorite opinion writer of this age, had a review a while ago in the New York Review of Books of Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, about Obama’s first year in office.

… Alter’s chronicle confirms that the biggest flaw in Obama’s leadership has to do with his own team, not his opponents, and it’s a flaw that’s been visible from the start. He is simply too infatuated with the virtues of the American meritocracy that helped facilitate his own rise. “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top,” Alter writes. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.” This led Obama to hire “broad-gauged, integrative thinkers who could both absorb huge loads of complex material and apply it practically and lucidly without resorting to off-putting jargon”—and well, why not? Alter adds:

“Almost all had advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, proof that they had aced standardized tests and knew the shortcuts to success exploited by American elites. A few were bombastic, but most had learned to cover their faith in their own powers of analysis with a thin veneer of humility; it made their arguments more effective. But their faith in the power of analysis remained unshaken.”

This was a vast improvement over the ideologues and hacks favored by the Bush White House, but the potential for best-and-brightest arrogance was apparent as soon as Obama started assembling his team during the transition. The Promise leaves no doubt that his White House has not only fallen right into this trap but, for all its sophistication and smarts, was and apparently still is unaware that the trap exists. During the oil spill crisis, Obama and his surrogates kept reminding the public that the energy secretary, Steven Chu, was a Nobel laureate—as if that credential were so impressive in itself that it could override any debate about the administration’s performance in the gulf.

Rich writes of Obama’s disdain for Wall Street, and how this blinded him to the need to bring in fewer professors of economics and more people whose expertise depended on having had “boots on the ground” through several up and down economic cycles.

Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, “found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president” once he took office.

There’s a great satisfaction to be taken in accomplishment. And one can often only share that satisfaction with those who have gone through the same process to get there. I’ve written before about those who, as Alter notes, “knew the shortcuts to success exploited by American elites.” I’ve expressed my horror at Marissa Mayer and Jim Collins as they consign to the flames any potential employees without a perfect transcript – far better to sleep with the professor, if needs be, to get an A, than to get a C that you will never have a chance to explain in an interview because you’ll never get one. Skip mom’s funeral if it means less time to study for the final; FSM forbid you get in an accident or get mono or anything else that will derail your Orderly March.

But if Obama is not blinded by dollar signs, he suffers from a cultural class myopia. He’s a patsy for “glittering institutions that signified great achievement for a certain class of ambitious Americans.” In his books, he downplayed the more elite parts of his own resume—the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia, and Harvard—but he is nonetheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process” as he had. And so, Alter writes, he “surrounded himself with the best credentialed, most brilliant policy mandarins he could find, even if almost none of them knew anything about what it was like to work in small business, manufacturing, real estate, or other parts of the real economy.” Not only did the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, have the quintessential best-and-brightest resume (Princeton summa, Marshall Scholar, Ph.D. from the London School of Economics) but even the OMB spokesman, Ken Baer, had a Ph.D. from Oxford.

…Yet it’s hard not to wonder if much more would have been accomplished, both substantively and politically, had Obama’s economic principals, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, been more open to ideas not of their own authorship and more capable of playing with others, including a public that still hardly knows either of them. Obama “apparently never considered appointing a banker or Fed governor from outside the East Coast who knew finance but was less connected to the policies that caused the crisis,” Alter writes. The homogenous team he chose “all knew one another and all looked at the world through nearly identical eyes.” Once in place in Washington, they would all underestimate the threat of rising unemployment, be blindsided by the populist anger rising outside the capital, and even fail to predict the no-brainer popularity of the “cash for clunkers” program. Their paramount group-think lapse—their inability “to think more boldly about creating jobs fast”—still haunts the administration.

The administration’s “disconnection from the world” stemmed from the Orderly Marchers’ inability to see how the kind of people whom they had rigorously disassociated themselves from all their lives would react to their decisions, or lack of decisiveness. This disconnection,

Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead “the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult.” For all Obama’s skepticism of cant, he was “in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer’ to everything. But a right answer for whom?”

The answer is, not for everyone who didn’t go to Harvard. The appearance of this administration is, in the end, ironically Republican on the face of it – he helped Wall Street, he “compromised” away critical parts of health care reform to please Big Pharma, he’s kept DADT and DOMA with nary a peep against them. FDR may have been “a second-class intellect with a first-rate temperament,” but to get shit done, sometimes it pays not to so smart that you outsmart yourself.

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