LONDON -- We're being urged by the Washington-NYC punditocracy to regard the post-shellacking performance of the lame-duck Congress as some sort of revival of President Obama as a getting-things-done-type leader. After all, look at what's been passed by the Dem leadership on their way out the door.
Okay, let's look. Health coverage for 9/11 responders. A new nuclear-arms treaty with the Russians. A tax compromise that extends the Bush cuts for the wealthy. Taken individually, or as a package, is this why, if you did, you voted for Barack Obama? More crucially, as has been pointed out elsewhere, in any other set of circumstances, these would be banal no-brainers to get through Congress, not as inconsequential as Clintonian school uniforms, but no more controversial. A man has climbed partway out of a hole he (and his advisors) dug for himself, and it's being hailed as if he'd scaled a mountain. The only serious question all this recent activity invites is this: what was Congressional-relations expert Rahm Emanuel doing in the White House all those months?
At the same time this whirlwind of the conventional was sweeping across Capitol Hill, a very different kind of cyclone has been building up: the leaking of selected US diplomatic cables by newspapers partnering with WikiLeaks. And, in the wake of the sensational Swedish charges, now duly (and semi-ironically) leaked to the British media partner selected by WikiLeaks, our gaze -- which, in the best of circumstances, wasn't going to spend all that much time focused on the minutiae of diplomatic cables -- is now directed to Julian Assange. He's spent his time under house arrest in an exurban mansion doing what appear to be non-stop media interviews. I've been particularly taken with his chats with BBC Radio 4's John Humphrys and Al Jazeera's David Frost (who ever thought, ten years ago, those last four words would go together?)
Assange has now been thoroughly analyzed from afar, by friends, foes, and some who fit in neither category (see, particularly, this thoughtful analysis And, he may be smart and media-savvy enough to out-think his questioners and the audience. (He was, for example, apparently careful enough in phrasing his response to both interviews' questions about his sexual history to choose "a gentleman doesn't talk about such things" for the older, proper British audience of Radio 4 while swapping out "gentleman" for "man" when addressing the Al Jazeera audience, whoever they are.)
He clearly has learned the skill, perhaps from Barack Obama, of addressing even the questions that must upset or engage him most with the same calm, even tone that he uses to answer, "How are you?"
In some ways, Assange is this season's Obama: a man from nowhere, suddenly burst on the scene with a message of hope that this nasty old system can be different, perhaps even better. Assange may, as the Blast Shack piece suggests, be some kind of cypherpunk-anarchist, but his answers to interviewers about his goals and values point (perhaps with cynical forethought) to more prosaic ideals: justice, openness, accountability, in Kenya as well as the US. What have been, up to now, regarded as absurd suggestions of the Swedish justice system's susceptibility to American manipulation don't sound quite so absurd when Assange points out to Frost the little-noticed (outside Sweden) cables in which diplomats reveal that, despite the pretense of neutrality, Sweden really is in fact in NATO, and that an opposition candidate who has pledged to remove Swedish troops from Afghanistan if elected then hustled over to the US embassy to suggest that was just red meat for Swedish bubbas.
And, far from being from nowhere, Assange hails from Australia, a country whose population is on daily drip-feed of American and British media. Has there ever before been an outsider with such exquisite understanding of our cultural innards?
So, if the Blast Shack piece suggests, Assange has built an international following of like-minded disaffected young people, let's pretend that history is linear enough to pose this question: if the arc of youthful hope has, in two short years, gone from Mr. O to Mr. A, where will it be in two more years, and what will that figure represent?