WASHINGTON -- In Mark Strand's pleasingly odd poem "The Tunnel," the author is tormented by a persistent, moaning man in front of his house. The narrator vainly orders him to leave, makes obscene gestures through the window and destroys the living room furniture "to prove I own nothing of value." Finally, the author takes refuge in his basement and digs a tunnel to escape -- only to emerge moaning outside a house, where "I have been waiting for days."
Against all my expectations, President Barack Obama is having this effect on me.
Following Obama during the New Hampshire primary, I saw a candidate who -- though I disagreed with him on many issues -- defended idealism and rhetoric against the supremely cynical Clinton machine, who brought a religious sensibility to matters of social justice, who took care to understand and accommodate the arguments of others, who provided a temperamental contrast to culture war politics.
After just weeks of governing, that image seems like a brittle, yellowed photograph, buried at the back of a drawer.
Obama's proposed budget shows all the vision, restraint and grace of a grasping committee chairman, using the cover of a still-unresolved banking crisis to push through a broad liberal wish list before anyone notices its costs and complications. The pledge of "responsibility" has become the massive expansion of debt, the constant allocation of blame to others and the childish cultivation of controversy with conservative media figures to favorably polarize the electorate. The pledge of "honesty" and "sacrifice" has become the deceptive guarantee of apparently limitless public benefits at the expense of a very few. The pledge of "bipartisan" cooperation has become an attempt to shove Republicans until their backs reach some wall of outrage and humiliation.
None of this is new or exceptional -- which is the point. It is exactly the way things have always been done.
Obama's stem cell decision was worse, because it is a thing that has never been done before. "Obama," explains Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "is willfully ignoring the moral complexity of the subject. He says he understands the views of his opponents, but he never addresses or answers them. He seems to have adopted the premise that the stem cell debate presents a choice between science and ignorance, when in fact the debate requires the kind of weighing of competing goods which we elect presidents to contend with."
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