Babylon on the Potomac

Posted: Sep 29, 2010 12:01 AM
Babylon on the Potomac

WASHINGTON -- If there is one area where the Obama administration and the American people seem in fundamental agreement, it is in their contempt for Washington, D.C.

Not, presumably, for the actual place of schools and neighborhoods and monuments but for the conceptual Washington, the symbolic city. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with typical delicacy, calls it "F---nutsville," a judgment that earthier tea party activists might share. Senior adviser David Axelrod has announced his spring departure. "I think he's not having fun," says a White House colleague. A recent profile claims that Axelrod's idealism was disappointed by "a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system." And Barack Obama himself constantly complains about the "politicking" and obstructionism of the capital city, where they "talk about me like a dog." Much of the senior staff of the White House seems to long for a purer, simpler, more wholesome kind of politics ... in Chicago.

The tension here is obvious. Even while depicting Washington as a flawed, fractured, hopeless mess, the Obama administration has sought to increase the influence of Washington over America's economy and health care system. In the Obama era, Washington helps run auto companies, oversees some corporate salaries, imposes an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, and seeks to rationalize the health care system with a profusion of new boards, offices, agencies and commissions -- estimates vary from 47 to 159 new bureaucratic entities.

Progressives would object that it is political Washington -- the paralyzed structure of legislators and special interests -- that is broken, not bureaucratic Washington, which needs more authority. But it is not easy to argue that citizens aggregated in a legislature are self-interested, corrupt and incompetent while citizens aggregated in a government agency are public-spirited, wise and effective. And it is not much of a communications strategy to feed disdain for politics while proposing an expanded role for government.

Conservatives, on occasion, have their own consistency problems. A misty-eyed patriotism is difficult to reconcile with anti-government radicalism. How can you love your country and hate its government? In milder forms, conservative populism asserts that "the people" are infinitely superior to their government -- even though our form of government, over time, exactly reflects the virtues and flaws of "the people." In a democracy, all criticism is ultimately self-criticism.

But because liberals are currently in charge, the tensions within liberalism are more pronounced. Washington is a vile place, which should have more power. Obama's progressive achievements equal those of any modern president -- health reform was a six-decade Democratic dream -- and yet he and his closest advisers are so darned disappointed with a city that has failed them.

Though it is difficult to recall, there was a time when liberalism was identified with cheerfulness. Franklin Roosevelt, according to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "radiated personal charm, joy in his work, optimism for the future." Meeting Roosevelt, according to Winston Churchill, was "like uncorking a bottle of champagne." Hubert Humphrey was known as the "happy warrior," displaying what Ronald Reagan described as "a truly buoyant civility." "He was robust and energetic," said Reagan. "He loved the battle. He was warm and affectionate. He was hearty and spirited."

Who could argue that Obama currently radiates "joy in his work"? It is a chore, a sacrifice, for which we are expected to be grateful. The warriors have become dour. The champagne has gone flat. At the high-water mark of its recent political influence, liberalism is depressed, disappointed, deflated.

Having not achieved their entire State of the Union agenda in a two-year rush, progressives blame structural forces or Senate procedures or Glenn Beck or the Koch brothers. And this disappointment easily blends into arrogance. As conservative populists argue that "the people" are better than the government, some liberals bluntly assert that the government is better than the people. "We have an electorate that doesn't always pay that much attention to what's going on," Sen. John Kerry said recently, "so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what's happening."

Both conservative populism and progressive arrogance are simplistic and exaggerated. But it is generally a better political strategy to flatter "the people" than to insult them.

Disappointed that Congress and the public did not cheer every progressive initiative, modern liberalism has become a search for explanations that do not involve concessions. For the Obama team, that explanation is Washington -- the Babylon on the Potomac. Thus they avoid the need for reflection and readjustment -- at least for a time.