Sometimes it’s the small quirks about a President that are the most telling. The remarks of Barack Obama at a dinner for Senator Barbara Boxer at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History on April 19 will be remembered for one thing: it was the first time the President used his favorite metaphor for 2010.
“And Barbara [Boxer] hasn’t wavered. And she wants to cooperate with folks on the other side of the aisle where she can, but she’s willing to fight where she has to. And that’s not a bad adage, by the way, for the Democratic Party. In this entire year and a half of cleaning up the mess, it’s been tough because the folks very responsible for a large portion of this mess decided to stand on the sidelines. It was as if somebody had driven their car into the ditch and then just watched you as you had to yank it out, and asked you, ‘Why didn’t you do it faster—and why do I have that scratch on the fender?’ And you want to say, why don’t you put your shoulder up against that car and help to push? That’s what we need, is some help.”
Of course, it would be at a California fundraiser that Obama introduced what has become his over-used and inadvertently revealing car-in-the-ditch joke. Until April, Obama’s Republicans had merely been “sitting on the sidelines” (February 1, Nashua), “pointing” (February 6, Capital Hilton Hotel), engaged in “shenanigans” (March 10, St. Louis). Because the car roll out was done in the subjunctive (“it was as if somebody had driven”), awkwardly, I wonder if Obama himself came up with the original riff. Since April, however, Obama and his speechwriters have driven it into the ground, if not quite off the cliff. Both the embellishments and the growing list of Republican moving violations are so amusing that I’m going to take a minute to track them before talking about the more serious implications here.
Those Republicans! Not only did they drive the car into the ditch. But also those Irresponsibles:
Interfered at the Scene of an Accident. “Made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, [and] they want the keys back.” May 13, New York City.
As a Looky-loo, as well as the driver at fault. “And they’re sitting there comfortable, drinking on a Slurpee or something.” May 25, San Francisco. Another fundraiser for Boxer has the dubious distinction for the Slurpee addendum. What is it about California and Boxer?
Failed to get a learner’s permit. “I’ll take you out to the parking lot and you can drive in circles.” July 8, Kansas City, MO
Failed to use correct grammar in their towing instructions. “You ain’t doing it right.” August 2, Atlanta
Demonstrated that they are Idle, Lazy and No-count. “Not lifting a finger to help.” August 4, D.C.
Never knew how to drive in the first place. August 5, noon, Chicago
Lied to an Officer of the Law. “They’re trying to get you to forget that they drove the car into the ditch.” August 5, 5:30 PM, Chicago
Drove off the road while talking on a cell phone. “I don’t know whether they were on their BlackBerry while they were driving, or they were doing something else irresponsible.” August 18, 1 PM, Columbus, Ohio
And did not pay attention to the road. August 18, 6 PM, Miami
Let special interests ride shotgun. September 6, Milwaukee
Dinged up the car but good. “It needs some body work, it needs a tune-up, it needs a carwash.” September 20, Philadelphia
Failed to meditate before hitting the road again. “Now, it would be one thing if they had meditated after the 2008 election and they said, boy, we really screwed up.” Then I, President Obama, might let them have the keys back. What does he mean, let them have the keys back? For a test drive? September 23, New York City
Showed no proper thanks for the rescue. “In fact, we pulled some of them out of the car. Now, they’re standing up on the road, sipping a Slurpee, watching us.” October 1, D.C.
Have been fanning themselves while Democrats, working for 20 months, in boots (or sometimes galoshes), inch by inch, pushing, shoving, tired, sweaty, in mud, dust, with bugs, swirling, flying, have struggled to get the car out of the ditch, back on the blacktop, moving forward, in “D” and not in “R.”
In important ways, Obama’s car-in-the-ditch riff is telling. First of all, it shows us that Republican obstructionism has gotten under his skin. Kudos to Obama for dealing with it, sometimes, with humor. At the same time, this is a president who has not given up hope on a more bipartisan Washington. This is the big change that he promised and believed he could deliver. Remember the President’s back-and-forth on fixing the economy with the GOP House Conference in Baltimore last January? What the media and many Americans saw was an exhilarating and all-too-rare exchange between a president from one party and congressmen from another. The consensus was that Obama, with his intelligence and knowledge of the issues, obliterated many, if not all, of his Republican challengers.
But this was not what Obama took away from Baltimore. Partly because he loves policy debates, but also partly because no human being can step outside himself to see how others see him, Obama thought that the Q and A with the congressmen could be a beginning for bipartisan dialogue. In Nashua a week later, when Republicans were still only “sitting on the sidelines” and had not yet committed any moving violations, the President was still hoping. “I can’t do this alone. Democrats can’t do this alone—nor should we. . . . So I was pleased when the House Republican Caucus graciously invited me to attend their retreat last week.”
Over the last ten months, Obama’s ire at Republicans has grown; it has even crept into his usually bland Saturday radio addresses. But here is a leader who is still hoping to work with Republicans. As he has embellished his car story, he has added the invitation to Republicans to come along for the ride now that the car is back on the road and moving again. “We’ll take you to prosperity but you got to sit in the backseat because you don’t how to drive,” Obama said on October 7 at a rally for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
What Obama failed to appreciate in Baltimore is the inexorable consequence for a smart man wielding power: lesser powers hate you, especially when you show them up in public with your better grasp of knowledge. A president of the United States always is potentially to be feared, but ten times so when he is highly intelligent. This should have been the take-away for Barack Obama from Bill Clinton’s presidency. President Clinton was hated and thwarted, by both Democrats and Republicans, not because he was a Baptist good ole’ boy with a Southern accent, or an opportunist, or a centrist dealmaker, or a Hollywood pal, but because he was all those things plus more intelligent than anybody else in American politics at the time.
Intelligence has its place, but we are comfortable with it only in the world of academe and think tanks and philosophy. But woe betide any political leader who presumes to demonstrate intelligence in the public square! The reaction from other politicians and the populace as well is fear. Perhaps this fear is justified, because the combination of power and ratiocination will take us we know not where. After all, the implication of high intelligence is that the person so endowed can see what others cannot.
President Obama is too much Julius Caesar and too little Octavius. It would have been better if he had exercised the cunning of the latter in pretending to be less than he is. If he had constantly called Republicans into the Oval Office for advice and help. If he had clasped a few, even against their better judgment, to his bosom. If he had said, “I love you, Republicans! You are Reagan to me.” It is too late for that stratagem now.
And the President’s moving violation, to continue my own riff, is traveling around the country and verbally skewering Republicans while at the same time still holding out a hand across the party divide. Which is it going to be? Enemy or friend? Frenemy? Our confusion merely stokes the fear. Obama’s ambivalence has been damaging the effectiveness of his presidency from his first presidential press conference, when he blasted “the failed theories of the last eight years.” What the Bush administration did or did not do was an irrelevance for Obama, politically. In the West Wing, he was wrestling with Bush idiocies every single day, of course; but he should never have called them out. Doing so killed bipartisanship. How could a man as intelligent as Obama not have realized that Republicans were humiliated by the debacle of 2008, that they had their own issues with the Bush administration, that they were beginning to deal with some guilt, and that, most of all, they were afraid of what Obama was going to do to them?
Alas, ratiocinative intelligence and emotional intelligence are a rare combination.
What could Obama do now to salvage this situation? Well, first of all, let me say that I think he is going to get a second chance. I don’t see the Republicans sweeping into the halls of Congress on a large majority. Certainly, they are not going to get control of the Senate. I don’t even think they are going to get the House. John Boehner may have measured those drapes prematurely. Not that the Republican Party is not again in ascendancy, so quickly that every spectator I can think of including myself has been astonished. A preponderance of governorships, alone, will give the Republican agenda a new seriousness with which Obama will have to deal seriously in return.
The day of the car-in-the-ditch metaphor is done. When even the sweet-tempered Mark Knoller of CBS News Radio is sick of the Slurpee, it’s fizzled. There are too many of us, as it is, who will always think of Barack Obama when we hover uncertainly in front of those drink dispensers, with their questionable hygiene, in a Seven-Eleven.
Rereading the President’s 2010 speeches, I have been struck by the difference in tone and content among the venues: fundraiser, town hall meeting, backyard chat, radio address, commencement speech, formal policy speech. Except for appearances before the Congressional Black Caucus and at union events, Obama has rolled out the car talk only at fundraisers. What his team, who only recently had been regarded as masters of the communications universe, do not seem to realize is that in today’s hyper-connected landscape remarks before one audience bleed over into the consciousness of others. We don’t have to pay $1000 to hear Obama in person to know that he is trash-talking Republicans. And the point is not even the trash-talk itself—after all, the car story is very funny—it is that we are so aware, so very aware, that the President of all of us is regularly doing fundraisers for the party of some of us. The image is unpleasant and unsettling: the President of the United States, supposedly the most powerful man in the world, is always running on the campaign treadmill.
The test for the Obama Presidency is going to be whether or not, and soon, the man and his team can relinquish campaigning for leadership. The dynamic–and its fairness is irrelevant–shows that the President, if he wants bipartisanship, is going to have to take the first step. Probably more than a few steps. Maybe back to the edge of the ditch. Given the age, one in which people are increasingly deaf to civil discourse, President Obama is going to have to do more than travel the country as Speechifier-in-Chief. He promised change. He promised an end to D.C. pettiness. He should nail us with change. Give over fundraisers entirely. Leave that to the former presidents. Don’t start running again in a few months for 2012. A lot of Americans two years ago believed we were getting a new kind of leader; some of us believe we still can.