Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Intermission for America
A snowstorm may be finally headed for Washington D.C. A thread of the blanket of white that has swept across New York and Boston. So far 49 out of 50 states have been hit with snow. There's snow in Hawaii, but still none in the nation's capital. As the nation slogs, the capital rolls on. Americans dig out, the elite dig in deeper.
The 2010 elections marked a pause, a hush in the cold winter air, an intermission for America. A battle was won, and now the entire war is on the table. In a White House, still untouched by snow, the difference between an accident and history is one term. A one term president is an accident. A two term president is history. Nixon was history. Ford and Carter were accidents. Reagan was history, Bush Sr was an accident. Clinton and Bush Jr were history. But what will Obama be? An intermission for America or the final curtain.
As the snow fell, he climbed up a wounded congresswoman in the polls. But he can't count on one of those being shot every week. Or being able to score points by playing America's minister without a frock, delivering yet another solemn homily about people he hardly knew. Gazing down from jumbotrons on a congregation of screen printed t-shirts with the message of the hour. The polls rose in approval. Not for a deed, but for a well read speech. But the best speech in the world will not put food on a hungry child's plate or restore her father's job or bring the dead back to life. Speeches are artful collections of words, artfully read. But unless they are actionable, then they are just words.
A good speech is a dessert after the job is done and a great speech is an appetizer that inspires a movement. Obama's speech was a snack. A confection without context. The treat that he baked for himself and then offered to us. Ate it, smacked his lips, rubbed the tips of his fingers together and then took a plane back from a place he hardly wanted to be in. Buzzing in his mind, the worry that he might be an accident of history after all. Just another name, another face. Not so special after all.
His menace is the uprising of the middle class. They call it the Tea Party, but it is bigger and broader than that. It is the great rumbling in the nation's belly. Where political correctness reigns, it goes unheard. The sufferers remain in their couches, watching their televisions speak to them, and mumble something while flipping through unpaid bills. But across the broad stretches of the land, many are no longer willing to be silent or silenced. The middle class does not easily stir, but its frustrations run deep. Upon their shoulders governments deposit the burden of their regulations and their debt. When times are good, the middle class pays the bill and says little of it. Civility is one of the burdens it bears. But when money is tight and the government spends, then they learn to protest.
The middle class is not naturally given to shouting in the streets. Where it is easy enough to gather a rally of idlers, men and women who work all day are uncomfortable behaving that way. But they learn. It is not the wealthy who have been shouting the most about Obama. Economic turmoil affects the middle class, more than it does the wealthy or the poor. It is those who walk the balance, who risk slipping off. The middle class is an endangered species. In most of the world, it is easier to find child soldiers and slavery. The rich and the poor may always be with us, but the middle class won't. The survival of the middle class demands a balance. A walk along the tightrope between business and government, socialism and monopolies, the bomb thrower and the top hat. Sheer vigor has gotten them through this far, but this is a government that looks askance at their kind.
Barry's honeyed speeches come dipped in the comb of Reverend Wright who denounced middle-classness as if it were a disease. When he speaks you may not always hear it, but even many of the good and kindly people who voted for that clean shaven young man who promised hope and change, are learning to listen. The empty charm, the warm glow of a television set, the beaming smile practiced four score and seven times before a mirror every morning, are losing their magic. There is less of the fireside chat about them and more of the depression era comedy, lavish and tinkling, but only a distraction.
Where to now? There are no answers. Just the ongoing intermission. The first act of the play is over. The audience in their tuxedos and glittering dresses meet, down cocktails, and look nervously out into the night. It is beginning to snow. Soon they will have to go back inside. But they are not just the audience, they are also the actors. And the playwrights. The set dressers and the directors. That is the scene in the capital where the next act is beginning.
The Democrats wonder whether Obama can win. The Republicans wonder who will run. Solidarity is easy before the revolution, but ephemeral in the face of victory. Unity quickly dissolves into careerism. Factions rise, egos clash and snowballs with a heart of ice sail through the air. The struggle is a complicated one now, with human complications. We fight for ideas, but it is people who do the fighting, and when a battle is won, it is people not ideas who divide the spoils of victory. People can only carry ideas for so long, before ideas start carrying people. It is not a new problem, but then there are no new problems. Only old problems in new suits.
What the middle class wants most from government, to be left alone, is the one thing that government will not give it. Ask for subsidies, protectionism, grants and agencies and they shall be given to you. Ask to be left in peace, and you shall meet with a pained sigh. It is the middle class that makes this sort of government possible, and it is the middle class that falls victim to it. The vampire may change from a bat to a gentleman in evening wear, but not give up his prey. The politician will don a protest shirt, but underneath he is still wearing a suit. Business is business. And the business of government is to provide unwanted services at non-negotiable prices.
The next act of the play is a farce. It has already begun. The Mourner in Chief on the Jumbotron, the slogan bearing t-shirts, congressmen learning to skit together like kindergarteners, the debates over caucuses and conventions and the quiet sniping between would be candidates. All that's missing are the wealthy dowager and the Marx Brothers rushing along to add madness to the confusion and confusion to the madness. The tug of war between issues and careers tears apart even the best of politicians. And the happy and unhappy warriors who tread the road to 2012 are no different.
In his part of the production, Barry must either prove to the public that the last two years were unrepresentative of his style of governing by distancing himself from himself. But if his pride gets in the way, he'll instead have to improve his messaging to prove that they were actually not so bad after all. Prove or improve, proof or disproof, it all comes down to ego. Barry has no shame, but he isn't shameless either. He will humiliate himself on stage, but only if he doesn't realize that he's doing it. It's a tricky task for his advisers to maneuver him like a pawn across the chessboard of his own arrogance. And if they can't do it, Barry has already boasted that he could be his own Chief of Staff. Maybe he should try it. And his own Treasury Secretary too.
On the other side of the stage, there are racers and fighters. The racers are doing their squats, preparing for the November sprint. The fighters want to change the country. The racers only want to cross the finish line. And the fighters are in their way. The racers push aside the fighters. The fighters try to get up again and explain their point, only to be pushed down again. On the jumbotron, Barry is busy explaining his latest civility proposal. He wants everyone to wear nametags. That way everyone will know everyone's name and be able to greet them.
And above, the snow whirls through the atmosphere, cold fronts meeting warm fronts, breaths mingling and holding in the air. The snow will fall regardless of what men talk about. It waits for no intermission and cares nothing for elections and selections. It will fall where and when it pleases. The snow sweeps forward spreading a white curtain downward, as another curtain rises and the second act begins.