Monday, February 09, 2009

Obamaniacs should accept the hard facts of politics

Business Times - 10 Feb 2009

Obamaniacs should accept the hard facts of politics


DURING the 2008 presidential race, candidate Barack Obama's meteoric political rise reminded some observers of Chance the Gardener aka Chauncey Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film, Being There (adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski).

Chance the Gardener finds himself homeless upon the death of the owner of a house in Washington and becomes the central figure in a comedy of misunderstandings. His ordinary silence and unremarkable utterances ('As long as the roots are not severed, all is well') are mistaken for profundities. He is embraced by a group of politicos and eventually the general public, and seems to be on his way to the White House. Mr Obama's detractors who compared Barack the Candidate to Chance the Gardener, suggested that not unlike the character in Being There, Mr Obama was uttering empty slogans ('Yes. We Can!') and they drew parallels between the characters mocked in the film and some of Mr Obama's enthusiastic followers.

But his backers countered by stressing that their candidate was an intelligent and highly educated man of substance with impressive leadership qualities and a clear and realistic agenda that would help restore America's economic health and global prestige. And after a long and gruelling election campaign which provided Americans with an opportunity to examine Mr Obama's biography and scrutinise his policy proposals, the majority of American voters rejected the comparison with Chance the Gardener and put their trust in the candidate.

But as Mr Obama gets into the real business of governing and is trying to win support from the US Congress and the American people for his ambitious economic stimulus package, there are signs that even some of the new president's ardent supporters are losing their early enthusiasm. And, not surprisingly, some of them are returning to the theme of Being There.

Indeed, critic Joel Stein, who insists that 'Obama is Peter Sellers in Being There', is worried about danger of 'ungrounded expectations' exhibited by many Obamaniacs. He quotes a marriage therapist who explains the phenomenon. 'You feel young again. You feel like everything is possible. He helps you feel that way and you want to feel that way; it's a great marriage. Unfortunately, the divorce will happen very quickly.'

Mr Obama has been in office only three weeks and Americans are not ready yet to file for divorce. Opinion polls suggest that most Americans feel they still have a great marriage with the man residing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But perhaps some of them are beginning to sense that even with Mr Obama in the White House, not everything is possible.

During the election campaign, he promised to rid Washington of the corrupting influence of well-paid lobbyists. But he ended up selecting a Washington lobbyist, former senator Tom Daschle for his Cabinet, who was eventually forced to step aside as the nominee for health secretary after it was revealed that he had underpaid what he owed to the government in taxes.

In fact, another Obama nominee, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, admitted that he was late in paying taxes totalling US$34,000, because of what he described as an accounting error that he later corrected. And two other Obama appointees withdrew their nominations following reports on alleged ethical misconduct. Moreover, some Obamaniacs have lost some of their mania, disappointed that Mr Obama selected so many Washington 'insiders' and political operators, including old-timers who had been around during the Clinton administration (including Hillary Clinton) to serve in his administration.

'Well, what did you expect?' respond veteran pundits. 'Obama had to pay back a lot of political debt, reward powerful backers and appease dangerous rivals.'

And then there is the economic stimulus package that Mr Obama introduced a few days after Inauguration Day - a jumble of tax cuts, 'pork barrel' projects, and, yes, a few programmes that recall his campaign promises of placing the environment on the top of the agenda and of reforming healthcare. As opinion polls suggest, the plan has failed to excite the American people and it certainly failed to usher a new era of bipartisanship in Washington. Instead, it led to the usual political and legislative bickering in Washington. And no one is even sure whether the plan would really help stimulate the economy.

Hey, that's political life, you say. Well, that's true. But didn't Mr Obama promise to be different and to bring to Washington 'a change we can believe in'? As his political honeymoon with the American people continues for a while, he should try to figure out more effective ways to transform his stirring rhetoric into a stimulating policy decision. At the same time, Obamaniacs should understand that governing - like any successful marriage - requires making hard choices and reaching difficult compromises. Being there is just the start.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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