The Soft Focus Administration

Obama Drops the BallOK, so I’m disappointed. We’re 77 days into the Obama Administration, and not everything is perfect. The economy hasn’t recovered. Carbon emissions haven’t stopped. My mortgage isn’t paid off. I still have to get up at 5:30 AM to get ready to go to work. I want a bailout but there wasn’t a cheque in the post today. It’s all Obama’s fault.

I’m kidding, of course. President Obama came into office with perhaps the most overloaded in-tray in the history of the American Presidency. It makes me wonder what the traditional letter from one President to the next said:

January 20, 2009

Dear Barack –

It’s all yours now. Bye! 😉

Yours, Georgie

And then Barack discovered that the change in power relationships meant that his former colleagues were no longer his friends; this shift was almost immediate. Witness how he has had to cajole a number Democrats to vote for his budget. He’s also been having problems getting Congress to behave on earmarks; the stimulus package is loaded with items which make absolutely no economic and environmental sense. For example, I understand that a small part of it is going towards building a convention centre in Dallas. Why? The last time I passed through Dallas, I saw they weren’t short on big buildings, including potential venues for all manner of shindigs. I wonder if they intend to turn Dallas into an American Sheffield: Sheffield has a number of sports arenas, shopping malls and convention centres which were built in order to provide work to local people, now they sit empty half the year.

To add insult to injury, Joe Biden was right: foreign powers tried it on with President Obama very shortly after he took office. Witness North Korea’s recent launch of a ballistic missile: they claim they were putting a communications satellite into space. Obviously the Ministry of Excuses in Pyongyang is a bit irony challenged: a country that makes such a point of not talking to other people would be better off claiming they were doing it for the hell of it. Considering Kim Jong-Il’s behaviour, that would be more readily believed.

Europe has turned out not to be as helpful as President Obama hoped, and there are good reasons for this: first, Europe is broke. Speaking from where I sit in the United Kingdom, we’re having intermittent problems auctioning off government debt. The French economy has been sputtering for years. Spain’s property market collapsed, taking a lot of employment with it. Italy is now the private property of Berlusconi and Co. Germany is paranoid about having another Weimar situation. Of course, with no money, there’s no European stimulus, and there’s no funding of further missions to Afghanistan. Saving the Afghani government isn’t exactly a mission of the righteous either: Afghanistan’s President Karzai let Obama (and half of his country) down by signing into law a nasty piece of legislation that says that allowing sexual assault is a wifely duty.

So Barack is facing a world of trouble, and the first 100 days have been very short of quiet. Is any of it his fault? On balance, I’d have to say “Yes.”

Take it with a pinch of salt, after all, I’m just one person: however, I believe that President Obama is suffering from a problem that Winston Churchill once had. According to legend, Churchill, a renowned gourmand, turned away a pudding and told the chef, “it has no theme”. Similarly, I believe much of Obama’s policies and vision are in soft-focus, rather like how 1940’s films developed a slight ambient blur whenever they did a close-up of Olivia de Havilland.

This lack of clear direction is most evident in the stimulus package. I thought, and had assumed, that he was going to announce a new “New Deal” on Inauguration Day which would serve as an overall theme. Then within the “New Deal” vision, there would be a number of other clear, concise schemes. FDR’s model was ideal in this respect: to this day, people recall the National Recovery Act’s blue eagle, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Furthermore, the purposes of Roosevelt’s plans were succinct: the TVA, for example, was there to provide electricity to people who didn’t have it before.

President Obama could have had his own TVA, except this one would have constructed a proper infrastructure for Green Energy. He could have had a clear programme for upgrading broadband and another for improving rail links. He could have dedicated a programme of infrastructure repairs to those who lost their lives due to the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minnesota in August 2007. Instead, he put everything into one giant stimulus package and as a result he’s diluted the message. Worse, he’s made the progress of the individual schemes that much more difficult to track, not just for his own Administration but for the public at large.

The public needs this clarity; a lack of focus could be costly: I’ve already seen worrying signs that the stimulus is going to be wasted on worse things than the aforementioned convention centre in Dallas. My sister’s new boyfriend works for Perot Systems, a company founded by the former independent Presidential candidate. I was curious to see what kind of work they do, so I looked at their website. What I found was a large presentation about how Perot Systems could be spending the stimulus money (click here for more). Ross Perot is a billionaire, the last time I checked; why is the wealth of the nation going towards enhancing his bank balance? The moment that others find this out, I suspect the same question will be asked, and in stronger terms.

The soft focus approach is also evident in foreign policy. Yes, President Obama has done well by pledging to close Guantanamo Bay. Some of his overtures to Iran have been masterful; few recent spectacles have been more satisfying than watching the Ayatollahs scrambling for a response to the new, friendly face of the “Great Satan”. Their justification for oppression and mismanagement is dissipating. However, Obama’s overtures to the Islamic world have not been consistent: while extending the olive branch with one hand, he is sliding more troops into Afghanistan with the other.

A military solution to Afghanistan is not possible. The Soviet Union found this out in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and their tactics were far more ruthless than what the European Union and America will allow. No less a military genius than Alexander the Great had problems with Afghanistan. He invaded the country with his battle hardened troops in 330 BCE; it had taken him 6 months to conquer Iran (Persia), in contrast, it took him 3 years to conquer Afghanistan. It may have been these difficulties which persuaded him to take an Afghan bride, Roxanne, as a political gesture. Apparently, Alexander wrote to his mother that while she might have been under the impression there was one Alexander, Afghanistan was a nation full of them.

Given this, a full, clear, “peace out” strategy, which had a dimension for the Israeli / Palestinian conflict would have been infinitely preferable. But rather, we are stuck with the soft focus. In Olivia de Havilland’s case, soft focus only made her more beautiful; perhaps the President feels that present Gaussian blur will continue the impression of glamour around his Administration. After all, if the Administration maintains a set of unclear or conflicting goals, then everyone can read into him what they want. Tough questions can be avoided by yielding to speculation about the First Lady’s dress sense.

However, this form of governance contradicts the experience he had on the campaign. People voted for him because he was the clear one. He had one great big theme: America needed change and hope. The first 100 days have desperately lacked this; but fortunately, there is still time.

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