“Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug”
—Mary Chapin Carpenter
In 1999, on the eve of the dot.com bust, I was sitting in an executive meeting of the New York-based alt weekly chain Village Voice Media. LA Weekly— the group’s Los Angeles paper, of which I was publisher — had just come off a spectacular year, earning the company a huge — in retrospect almost obscene — profit and lots of journalistic accolades. Acknowledging the results, my boss, the group CEO, told a couple of other execs in the room, “Mike is our best publisher. He’s better than me.” A promotion followed, along with a big bonus. I felt about as much job security as a paranoid can hope for.
In spite of the decimation of the dot.coms — and their advertising budgets — the following year, LA Weekly still made a fortune, but only a modest one compared to 1999. I wasn’t much smarter or dumber, but calls from the CEO took on a darker tone. Soon after, I was fired. No reason was offered, but I deduced that perhaps I was no longer seen as the best publisher in the group.
In 2008, Barack Obama had a spectacular year, running for and then winning the Presidency with a brilliant campaign. Many Americans — not just liberals and progressives — saw him as a visionary, even transformative figure. Millions gave him their hearts as well as their votes and dollars, believing he would challenge a system hopelessly rigged in favor of the moneyed elite.
As we look back on the President’s first year in office, the conventional wisdom among progressives is that we’ve been seduced and abandoned. Bloggers and commentators on lefty websites proclaim they’re “breaking up” with him. The scorn they ‘re heaping on the President for poor performance — first on the economy and the war, and now on health care — is the mirror image of the hyperbolic praise so recently served up by those infatuated with his campaign persona.
While I would argue that Obama has done wonders for America’s foreign relations, it’s clear from his handling of the economy and health care that he’s not the Moses so many had hoped would lead them through the political desert. But let’s not declare him a sell-out or a failure quite yet.
What makes a leader successful — contrary to the expectations of our 24/7/instant gratification/”just do it” culture — isn’t measurable by initial moves and events, and certainly not only by early results. There are far too many variables — especially when it comes to governing so vast an enterprise as the United States of America — to put much stock in an unemployment number here, a housing-starts stat there.
That doesn’t mean these numbers don’t reflect real suffering — of course they do. And of course we need to hold the President’s feet to the fire with relentless pressure. This is a guy who raised over three quarters of a billion dollars to become President and has tapped way too many Beltway insiders to key posts, most disastrously — as chronicled by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone — by packing his economic team with Wall Street insiders. And the deals the administration struck with Big Pharma contributed mightily to the sad watering down of the health care legislation now oozing its way towards the President’s desk.
This President’s freshman year performance leads New York Times Op Ed columnist Ross Douthat to characterize him as “a bipartisan bridge-builder — unless he’s a polarizing ideologue. He’s a crypto-Marxist radical — except when he’s a pawn of corporate interests. He’s a post-American utopian — or else he’s a willing tool of the national security state.”
To be sure, President Obama has a long way to go to earn the trust of many who fervently supported his campaign. But the cumulative effects of the thousands of decisions and appointments he and his administration are making are simply unknowable. Maybe, as he showed in his amazing campaign, he actually does know what he’s doing.
However things turn out with President Obama — who is, after all, a politician, not a savior — the recognition that he is part of “the system” further underscores the necessity for public financing of campaigns.
The real heart-breaker is the way Big Money controls the political life of this country.