Sunday, May 3, 2009

If Obama is The Fonz, does that make us Potsie?

This past Friday, Obama interrupted Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' daily song-and-dance routine to give a brief statement about Supreme Court Justice Souter's retirement announcement. In the increasingly emotionally charged bipolar shouting match that broadcast politics has become, the changing of the Supreme Court's roster is the gunshot that starts off a month-long marathon of bitter debates, biased bickering, and a sharp increase in income for cable news "Expert Guest Correspondents". The quicker the White House tackles the subject, the quicker the hysteria can spread and deplete its own energy like a tuckered out toddler at the tail end of a sugar rush. Apparently deciding to bypass the trouble of calling a separate press conference to address the issue, Obama just strolled up behind the podium, nudged Gibbs aside, and gave the press corps some quotes and responses to chew on for the next twelve hours.

Obama's impromptu press conference shouldn't be such a big deal. You would think our elected leader crashing his press secretary's spiel, chuckling and swaggering onstage and casually tossing jokes around would be something we could take in stride. (That's right, I said "swagger". I'm not a highly paid CNN news correspondent, so I figure I can get away with it.) It was, for lack of a better word, Cool. Why should we expect the "Leader of the Free World" to be anything but Cool?

Of course, we're not used to Cool. After eight years of watching our President playing Cowboys and Indians both on and off the public stage, we've forgotten what it feels like to actually feel good about something as simple as a spur of the moment press conference. It almost feels unnatural to watch our President give a press conference and not cringe at least once or twice, hoping in vain that the rest of the world didn't notice that last sentence. To be fair, Clinton wasn't even that cool. He tried to be, did his best to come off as cool by going on MTV and playing the saxophone. But in the end he was only cool be default; like the high school English teacher that occasionally curses and plays the guitar on Fridays, he got points for at least trying, or even knowing how to go about trying.

Maybe that's why a lot of Democrats are so hard on Obama when he doesn't toe the line on every left-wing movement that's suffered through to terns of Bush cronyism. The left still has its roots firmly planted in the hippie-movement and counter-culture of an era that defined cool, that the newly elected savior of the cause has to be more to them than they can reasonably expect him to be. It just isn't enough for them that he is cool; they need him to be super cool, capitalized, in all caps, with a few exclamation points thrown in for effect.

Last month, Obama held a press conference and tried to calm America's fears about American car manufacturers by promising that the US government would stand behind their cars. Both sides immediately jumped on the opportunity to paint him as the ultimate cliché of the used-car salesman politician. It's a concept that might have seemed funny decades ago in movies like Used Cars, with a young Kurt Russell as the smooth talking huckster in the loud sports jacket attempting to raise enough bribe money to buy a seat in public office. These days, that kind of humor is so reality-based that even chuckling at it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most people. Many politicians have blurred the line between satire and tragedy that holding a Senate seat could easily springboard the right candidate into a lucrative career as a stand-up comic. Political satirists like Stewart and Colbert run the risk of being overshadowed by their own subject matter, a rather sobering testament to exactly how sharp of a decline our little Free Society experiment is traveling towards.

Obama's biggest enemy is the nature of the beast he struggled so hard to saddle and tame. It's a beast that has grown far too big and powerful to be broken; it is all that most can do just to hang on for dear life until the next general election. But we tend to ignore this when Obama plays the game that we voted him into. We so desperately need him to be our Super Cool Savior, that watching him tip-toe around politically volatile topics like the possibility of criminally prosecuting Bush's tag team of warmongering policy writers for war crimes. Those thirsty for the blood of those who made public surveillance and torture the new apple pie of America's legend can practically taste it. They are so righteously vengeful that they grow more and more frustrated every time Obama effectively cock-blocks their attempts to do to the same thing to the Bush Administration that it spent eight years doing to civil rights and the Geneva Convention.

Obama's right, of course; he knows that going full-tilt against Bush and the Neo-Cons would be portrayed as biased witch hunt. He's got to play the game and slip that kind of thing under the radar. We're so used to policy-makers hiding behind the Oval Office, we've forgotten that the door swings both ways. But the hard left is so drunk with newly-regained power that it hasn't been able to play along. Obama's literally too cool for the room; his subtle signals for everyone to play it cool while he mixes things up behind the scenes are going unnoticed, mainly because we can't get past the hurt of watching him perform the same verbal tap-dance that we thought we were finally putting behind us.

We need to wise up to a simple truth. You can't change the nature of the beast. Politics in the new age is nothing more than a non-stop infomercial, no matter which side is selling what. You don't get into office by rejecting the system; you get in by mastering the game and making it work for you. Of course, admitting this is the same as admitting that we are nothing but easily-led consumers in almost every aspect of our lives. But it's true. A woefully short public memory can be the only excuse as to why Democrats have forgotten that their last man of the hour was the perfect example of the American Political Salesman.

For all intents and purposes, Clinton was the Joe Isuzu of the white house. So likeable and charismatic in that glossy salesman sort of way, most Americans were willing to give him a pass even when it was blatantly obvious that he was talking out of his ass. The conservative hardcore loved calling him "Slick Willy", a demeaning nickname that sounded nifty, but was never that realistic. There was nothing slick about Clinton's "I never inhaled" answer, his "I never had sex with that woman" statement, or his pitiful "definition of 'is'" argument. Clinton had a habit of fumbling under pressure, like most bullshit artists that don't quite know how to switch gears when someone finally pulls back the curtain.

The Slick Willy moniker was just wishful thinking on the right wing's part, a sad attempt to explain away why he managed to get away with so much and still hang on to a high approval rating. They'd rather claim that American voters were mesmerized by the forked tongue of a skilled illusionist then face the truth. They tried to explain Obama's popularity the same way during the 2008 elections, bluntly accusing him of hypnotizing the American public. But popularity is the beginning and end of it, the sad reality behind Republican claims of devious wordsmiths and mass hypnosis. People just liked Clinton; so much so that cheating on his wife didn't put a major dent in his approval ratings.

Republicans have never had much luck with the popularity contest. Much like the schoolyard bully who beats up the weaker kids because deep down inside he just wants to be loved, the GOP has never been able to live down that fateful televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Since then, the Republican Party has become increasingly and painfully aware that most people just don't like them. Even when they get someone in the White House that the people don't actually hate, something always happens to turn public opinion into ridicule. Reagan started out strong, but ended up being remembered as a senile old man with an equally clueless wife. Bush Senior's moment of glory with Operation Desert Storm quickly faded, and he lost out to Clinton as being woefully out of touch with the rest of the world. The GOP thought they had the answer to the Clinton factor with Bush Junior; southern folksy charm, but mixed with a good 'ol boy swagger (there, I said it again.) and a mischievous chuckle that was downright endearing. They might have gotten away with it if he had exited stage left after one term, but eight years of shit eating grins and Dan Quayle-worthy flubs turned him (and the entire Republican Party, by proxy) into a comical Texan cliché, a Ralph Steadmanesque caricature of how the rest of the world thinks all Americans act like.

It might be rather insulting to claim that American politics boils down to nothing more than popularity contest. I, for one, think we deserve the insult. Not for falling for the cult of personality; it's human nature to do so, and you can't fault a scorpion for having a stinger in the first place, let alone using it. We deserve the insult because we can't bear to admit that it is true. We bitch and moan about politicians and the news media constantly lying to us, then turn around and flat-out refuse to be honest with ourselves. We lie to ourselves and claim advanced knowledge of government policy and global diplomacy, or hide behind hot-button topics like abortions, guns, or gay marriage.

But the dirty truth we can't seem to cop to is that the majority of voters simply go with the party or candidate that makes us feel better. We voted for Clinton because he had a way of making us feel good about things, even when things weren't good, and then gave him a second term when things actually were good. Bush (debatably) won by the skin of his teeth twice, first because he was the kind of guy we'd like to have a beer with, and then because we were too afraid not too.

And Obama? Deep down inside, we know the real reason he beat out grumpy old man McCain, even beyond the Palin Debacle; it's been way too long since we've had a cool President. As luck would have it, our new Cool Pres might also have a clue as well. The real question is, can stop playing Potsie to his Fonzie long enough for him to set things right?

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