Thankful, Well Not So Very Much

It's probably churlish to title a Thanksgiving piece the way I have. And I do have many things I feel thankful about in my life. (Maybe I'll list them at the end, so I don't seem like a total grouch.)

But in terms of our country and our planet -- hmmm. Not feeling so confident, so up, so grateful. And about Barack Obama -- well I feel very disappointed.

There, I've said it.

I still think he's smart and charming; I'm still proud the country elected him; and I know there's still time.

But I thought he was going to be a game-changer, and I'm not sure he is.

I also thought he was going to be a great communicator, but it seems that that's only true some of the time.

Ever since Obama won the nomination and then won the presidency, I have mostly not been writing posts. It's partially because I've been very busy with productions and casting, and with my teaching.

But since Obama became president, I've also been sort of struck dumb -- in both meanings of the word. I've been dumb/silent; and I've been dumb/brain-dumb. I haven't quite known what I thought. Or I thought I needed to be quiet and keep giving him time.

I'm still willing to give some time, but really... I'm disappointed.

I got an email from a friend today, whom I don't usually hear from. (Indeed his email was sent not just to me, but to a group of us, blind copied as polite people do.)

He expressed exactly how I'm feeling so clearly and briefly that I asked him if I could quote him -- either as himself or as an unnamed friend. He asked for the latter.

So here is what my unnamed friend wrote me and some others today:

I'm sending this to like-minded friends mostly as a way to deal with my own anger and frustration; I don't have any action to propose and don't presume to be providing information you don't already have.

It is now clear that Obama is going to escalate in Afghanistan.

This is not exactly a surprise, since he campaigned as a hawk on that war. I don't think I was naive about Obama, or "believed" in him as a transcendent figure, capable of transforming the world simply by force of his sheer Obama-ness. All the cult-of-personality stuff that suffused the campaign turned me off.

Nevertheless, I was a heavy and enthusiastic supporter of his campaign because I thought, and largely continue to think, that he is an exceptionally talented and intelligent man who is probably about the best we can realistically hope for in the Presidency. I knew once in office he'd break our hearts 10,000 different ways, but that's politics.

So, given all that - what I thought was a relatively clear-eyed view of the situation -- I struggle to explain to myself why this latest move in Afghanistan leaves my stomach so knotted with shock and despair.

Partially it is because I allowed myself to believe ("hope") that Obama would rethink his policy on Afghanistan after some time in office.

It's probably also a product of the disgust I already felt about the bank bailouts. After spending a year shoveling money at Wall Street, the Administration now proposes to double down on Afghanistan (1 soldier in Afghanistan for 1 year = 1 million dollars). Meanwhile, we're in the midst of a massive economic crisis here at home.

I believe it is not in our national interest to keep fighting in Afghanistan. I don't think we can nation-build there. I think the Karzai "government" stinks with incompetence and corruption and can no more be a partner for us than the Diem regime was in Vietnam. I think our presence there exacerbates violent extremism. Prolonging the war means killing and maiming more innocent Afghan civilians and destroying the lives of many more American soldiers. And I believe pouring billions more into Afghanistan at a time of economic crisis at home is a betrayal of the American people.

In a different category of concerns, I think this decision is a terrible blunder politically. I do not believe it is being made fully on the merits. I think it is being done, at least partially, to buy Obama breathing room from the Right. Apart from being deeply immoral, I think this is an insane miscalculation, albeit one that the Democrats nearly always make: that they can buy political goodwill from the Right (which wants to destroy them politically no matter what they do) while endlessly alienating their own base. I think this mindset will likely cost Obama his majorities in Congress.

Enough. I wonder if any of you feel the same way I do, or think I'm missing something big. I wonder what those of you who were around in the LBJ years felt then, and if you are experiencing déjà vu. Mostly, I guess I'm wondering what the hell to do.

Well, oh unnamed friend, that's how I'm feeling too.

Here are the things I'm disappointed with Obama about:

- The bailout.

It's hard to know for sure, but I believe the bailout was necessary. And when Paulson under Bush gave out billions of dollars WITH NO ACCOUNTABILITY, I assumed that Obama and Secretary of the Treasury Geithner would make some rules.

Like "Tell us how you use the money, make some notes."

Like "if you accept taxpayer money as bailout, you can't then reward your executives and your middle management with billions of dollars in bonuses, just by saying 'well we had a contract with them, we have to.' No -- you were about to go bankrupt in 5 seconds when the government, in the people's name and with their money, rescued you. You can't just take some of that money and give it in big globs to the same people who ran you and us almost over a cliff and into an abyss."

But that wasn't said, was it? Seemingly, not even hinted at.

There seems to be an enormous deference given by the Obama administration to the financial industry. This is the change we can believe in? Billions for people who caused near disaster by wild gambling practices, and small change for us.

And I also thought Obama and Geithner would attach some regulations automatically to any bank saved (saved!) by money from the taxpayers. But apparently that did not happen.

Even after the insanity -- was it not insanity? -- of "derivatives" having been allowed to run mad before the near-crash (and we all lost 1/3 to 1/2 to more of our pension funds), surely once Obama and Geithner became the non-Republican administration giving out the money, there would be some common sense regulations put in. Right?

Or if that has to go through Congress, then Obama would in his comments make it REALLY clear the seriousness of what just happened in the financial world, and he would ENUNCIATE for all to hear what had to happen, and soon, about regulations.

But he didn't. Every so often he mentions mildly that it's getting to be time to look into regulations. But his style is very casual, like he's picking up the dry cleaning. There's no energy to it, or leadership.

So I'm not with the tea baggers. But I'm not exactly with him either.

- Health Care Reform, Leading, and Communication.

Obama's communication has been oddly lackadaisical (with some exceptions).

When he wrote and gave his speech on race after the Reverend Wright "issue" became dominant in the primary campaign, he was brilliant and really gave everyone who was willing to listen a way to put into perspective how he might know and like a minister he didn't always agree with; and he made really complicated and nuanced points about race.

It was a dazzling display of intelligence, diplomacy and communication. It was a healing speech. Hard to live up to each and every time, I grant -- but still he didn't do a great job explaining the financial situation, and he did a less good job getting people on board with health care reform.

His speeches on health care reform didn't inspire or inform enough.

Plus the first speech got gobbled up by that Boston cop-and-the-black-Harvard-professor upset. Wow what a litmus test for conservative vs. liberal knee jerk reactions that was. HOW DARE A POLICEMAN BE CRITICIZED? HOW IS IT POSSIBLE? OH MY GOD! Vs. HE'S A PROFESSOR, HE'S IN HIS OWN HOUSE, IF HE WAS CRANKY/SURLY, WELL, DOESN'T HE HAVE A RIGHT? BLACK PEOPLE GET HASSLED ALL THE TIME. BOTTOM LINE, HE'S IN HIS OWN HOUSE, RIGHT? SO LEAVE HIM THERE.

Then the cop turned out to be articulate and charming (though he probably did overreact, it's not insane to wonder why he had to arrest someone for merely verbal comments, however rude, in their own house). And Obama was charming inviting them for a beer. It was good theatre.

But the health care definition moment didn't happen.

David Bromwich wrote a piece last August that I saved because it rang a bell with me and the frustration/disappointment I was feeling.

Basically he said that Obama seemed to wish to be a mediator... diplomatic, calm to both sides, but often not making clear what he felt as a leader; and way too patient with the right when it was clear there was no middle ground actually to be found.

Bromwich also made a good point that Obama -- the great speechmaker sometimes -- often didn't do the "introductory" speech that explained what the core issues of a problem where. Bromwich wrote:

But he has turned out to be far less canny than he needs to be in making the sort of major speech that explains an issue from the ground up. The absence of such a speech on the economy in his first few weeks in office, and the public unease generated by that default, prompted the first of his "recovery" trips on the road, to the West Coast for several town-hall meetings and an appearance on The Tonight Show. Now, far into the discussion of health care, he has re-engaged the strategy with appearances at town hall meetings in the Midwest.

...Several months into the president's call for health care reform, their [the public's] level of ignorance is his responsibility. His characteristic way of handling confusion in the audience is to come back and give good answers to questions. That is very well, but no substitute for an early explanation. [Emphasis mine.] Mopping up in question-period is an academic skill: the points you failed to clinch in lecture you recover when the hands go up. But this presumes that everyone signed up for the lectures and everyone already knows something. ...And when the argument is well underway, he starts his major explanation as an afterthought. [Once again emphasis mine.]

I mean, I'm holding him to a high standard -- but explaining the need for the bailout and making some common sense RULES connected to it seems a necessary step for successful governing. But he seems surrounded by Wall Street insiders, and the mediator in him is being way too gentle and diplomatic. And though his State of the Union speech was very good, to be fair, still he hasn't managed to convince enough people about health care reform. It's an enormous task, but... he's not pulling it off, I don't think.

- Obama and gay stuff.

I find his "I'll stand up for your rights soon, or next week, or in two years" to be tiring and unconvincing. Sure, it's a lot better than the Republicans.

But when Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point grad and an Iraq war veteran AND fluent in Arabic, was about to be kicked out due to "don't ask, don't tell," I thought for sure Obama would speak up.

SURELY if ever there was a winning argument with most Americans, it's the importance of having Arabic speaking people working on our side. I mean who cares about Lt. Choi's sexual proclivities in general, but especially who cares if he is valuable to the U.S. in possibly intercepting Arabic communication we should know about? Weren't a whole slew of pre-9/11 Arabic emails never translated in time because of lack of Arabic translators?

And I know Congress has to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell the truth" stupid rule, but Obama could, we were all told by the media, suspend the application of the law RIGHT NOW. Just stop its being enforced. By himself. Let the Arabic-speaking Choi stay in the service, stop other gay people from being thrown out, and then let Congress figure out the law in their own, slow way.

But no.

Obama, I guess, wants every single military person in the world to agree with him first; and he doesn't want to take a stand on this. I mean, WHEN THE GAY SOLDIER SPEAKS ARABIC, what did Obama say to himself: "Oh interesting, but not the right time. I think I'll let it take months and years, wait til everybody is on board."

I mean, how many Arabic speakers are we going to keep throwing out of our military? What a wasted opportunity, with Obama just letting it go by again.

I mean, if he had followed up this postponing the gay issue again with being brilliant and convincing on health care, I might have cut him slack, and said, "well, he was focusing on convincing the country on health care." But he hasn't done well convincing people on this.

Even when the annoying lie about "death panels" started to go around, Obama when asked about it at a public meeting smiled and said something like, "well, just so you know, we don't even have enough people to do that," meaning don't worry, we're understaffed we couldn't do real "death panels." As Jon Stewart said (approximately) when he showed that clip, "Mr. President, do you really think this is the time to be wry and amusing?"

So I'm really disappointed. Sorry, those of you who aren't.

I mean, I know he's way better than Bush.

I guess I miss the oomph that LBJ had both in civil rights and in getting Medicare/Medicaid passed into law. Then he let his mistakes in fighting in Vietnam sink him.

Obama is cool and charming. But oomph? Seemingly not. Hip and appealing. Yes, but can he do aggressive arm twisting to get something passed? Can he bring some power and aggressiveness to explaining things the country needs, to get people on board?" Not so much. So far.

And if Obama isn't the one to change things in a major way for the better -- health care, environment, people's rights -- who is?

I am a disappointed idealist.


Well, if you're still reading, I said I'd list the things I was grateful for.

The smile of a child. The sight of a little duckie shaking water off its tail. The music of Barry Manilow.

No, I'm kidding.

Oh, I've lost the ability to say what I'm grateful for. Maybe it'll come back to me in the morning, the day after Thanksgiving, and I'll email it out to friends and acquaintances, blind copied to all, as is polite.