Last summer, as Barack Obama directed the subtle intimidation of fawning European crowds (millions of charisma-intoxicated Germans can’t be wrong!) at those Americans still retaining the quaint notion presidential elections are domestic affairs not subject to global opinion, at least one of his acolytes in the media here in the formal remnant of the United States gushed that Senator Obama had thereby assumed the leadership role vacated by President Bush–by acquiring the geopolitical equivalent of an impressive TVQ score. “Power begets more power, absolutely” Mr. Rich enthused, apparently without irony.
We’ll leave aside for the moment the interlocutor’s widely shared confusion–that President Bush does, or that President Obama can be expected to, maintain a leadership role that is more substantial than ceremonial. The inverse relationship between the freedom of action afforded a president and the power vested in the executive office continues to grow, along with the complexity of the job and Congress’ by now institutional cowardice. Likewise the relationship between the caliber of man drawn from the electable and the reverential expectations we have of the office. For this we have only ourselves to blame. Remarkable leaders are possible only by astounding coincidence in this environment, and they will not be fashioned out of creative desperation (witness the fiction of President Bush’s post-9/11, thrust-upon greatness).
Of course, before Barack Obama’s world tour touched down amid the automatic adulation of the children and the childlike of Europe, he’d already performed a much smaller gig in front of a tougher crowd in Israel, where he dutifully asserted that any amount of force (or US munitions) Israel deems necessary to deter Hamas’ crude rocket attacks is justified, because he has children of his own (the children of Gaza, and how their deaths might perpetuate the cycle of violence–something the president-elect has at least feigned awareness of in the past–would not be allowed to complicate this simple calculus). Yes, he doesn’t really believe this, he was just saying–which is precisely the point. Even now, three weeks before the nation changes administrations in a state of bewildering economic and geopolitical crisis, the next president of the United States has little experience beyond just saying.
That rhetorical bet of last July is now being called, before the president-elect has even sat at the table in earnest, as sanction for a gruesomely disproportionate military response leveled upon an all but powerless adversary. The precocious senator, having grown used to posturing before people intoxicated by the imagined wisdom inherent in his mulatto moral superiority, and having his elegant vapidities received as profundities, has forgotten, or never properly learned, that words have meaning. Of course he’s not alone; we’ve all forgotten this. Barack Obama wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
More to the point, this man who’s made a religion of power (with which he has, like the born-again Christian and his savior, a close personal relationship), has ascended with such absurd ease and rapidity to its pinnacle he hasn’t had the opportunity to develop sufficient respect for its consequences. His make-believe of last summer, playing at global “leadership”, is suddenly harsh reality. Israel’s hard bargainers weren’t just looking for him to genuflect properly (this much is to be expected), but were looking for something a little more concrete. Obliterate the Gazan ghetto with America’s finest military hardware before an outraged world, burning through American soft power as rapidly as we expend her munitions? Yes we can!
So the presumption and airs of that heady summer last are nowhere to be found as the president-elect ducks questions on his way from gym to golf course, his sudden shyness papered over by embarrassing beefcake shots. “One president at a time” is how the dodge is put into words, even as Israel’s actions and Ehud Barak’s assertions, placing limitations upon the incoming administration with the complicity of the current one, reveal it for what it truly is, capitulation to a forced reality. The economic crisis warranted no such respectful inaction, but rather haste in supporting the status quo; Obama’s duck-and-cover in this instance is really the same thing after all, reassurance to the players upon which the new president’s cherished power is utterly dependent that he will not step out of line. As for that much-hyped esteem which the rest of the world so cheaply bestowed on our frail young prince, it will wear out as quickly and to the same disappointment of any cheap purchase if Mr. Obama doesn’t redeem it with real, yeah, “change”.