While I am sure that every regular reader expects my response to the events in Paris and the escalating controversy that has resulted, I have decided to wait a week before thinking about it all in detail. My old friend Andrew Bacevich immediately wrote a characteristically sensible piece for the Boston Globe, which I recommend--I hope the link is accessible. Essentially he believes that the application of western military power cannot solve the problem, and that we therefore have to play defense, not offense, and try to quarantine what is happening in the Middle East and keep it out of the West to the maximum extent possible. While this will not stop further terrorist attacks, I cannot suggest anything better. But instead, I want to keep the promise I made a couple of weeks ago, and discuss part II of a conversation between President Obama and the novelist Marilynne Robinson which appeared recently in the New York Review of Books.
The conversation was remarkable to me for the extent to which the President revealed not simply his view of where American history has been going--which accords very well both with my own, and with the vision that William Strauss and Neil Howe laid out more than twenty years ago--but his apparent view of his own relationship towards it. Although the President is not old enough to remember the last era of genuine consensus in American history (1946-64), he knows what has changed. Although many people are still reading, they are not reading the same books: they are reading books that reinforce their own views and their own vision. "When I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country," he says,"there were
three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going
to cover that story." Sensational stories, he says, now dominate the news, and "all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they're not heard." Talking about taking his family to see the musical Hamilton, the President talks about the need to teach American history more creatively, and about the need to understand how contemporary issues like religion in politics and civil rights reflect struggles in the earlier critical periods of American history. (I am more convinced than ever that the President has not read Strauss and Howe, but it is striking how often the American Revolution and the Civil War come up in this conversation.) Obama also understands that we are going through "a spasm of fear" and "looking for firm footing," both here and in Europe, and that in that situation, "one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame." He talks about economic insecurity, and says, "What's frustrating to me is just that it wouldn't take tha tmuch for us to make the system work for ordinary people again." And he adds, convincingly in my view, that he is frustrated to hear candidates talk about how terrible the country is today because of the economic progress of the last seven years. At the same time, he recognizes that working people simply no longer make enough money to build families and give their children a better chance.
The President's response to all these problems over the last seven years, I think, shows what a product he is of his life experience. He had an extremely difficult childhood and learned to control his emotions. He is an intelligent and sensible man, and he expects others to think and act intelligently and sensibly. He does not tend to question the more powerful institutions of American society, largely, I am convinced, because they have been good to him. All these qualities would have made him a fine President in a time like the 1950s (with which he clearly feels some affinity), or, perhaps, in another 10-15 years. But they left him unable to deal effectively with the situation he describes so well.
Fear, anger, and a sense of dislocation characterize periods of crisis, the "fourth turnings" that create a new order out of the collapse of an old one--1774-1794, 1860-68, 1929-45. Leaders in such periods cannot simply try to dismiss such dysfunctional emotions: they must channel them in a popular and productive direction. The Administration's decision not to try to break up the big banks or prosecute any of their executives allowed the Tea Party, not the Democratic Party, to mobilize all the anger abroad in the land. Obama, who months ago told David Remnick that he did not think a President could change the direction of the country--and that that was "a good thing"--has left the field clear for others to try to do so. His failure to seize the initiative more effectively in his first year in office cost him the control of the Congress. With respect to the economy, he has assumed that we were on the right course. He has not been able to enlist the nation in a great cause, to create a news story that would dominate our media--with him playing a leading role--and to make the nation feel that he has changed our lives. He feels, in short, that he and his contemporaries inherited a relatively just world, and he cannot understand why so many of his countrymen seem determined to destroy it.
Here the President shares the flaw of the whole liberal establishment, the heirs of the New Deal and the Great Society: the belief that because what they want is right, it should automatically come to pass, and vice versa. (This is also showing up in his denial that ISIS is a state. It does in fact exercise authority over a substantial territory with a substantial population.) Yet the values of the mid-twentieth century--the concern for the common man and woman, the belief in economic growth as an engine of progress for all, and even the faith in science as a solution to economic and political problems--were simply products of a specific historical time and place. They cannot be assumed to last forever: they had to be renewed. This is what Obama, for a brief moment, might have been able to do in 2009, as FDR had done in 1933--but he did not really try to. And this is still what Benire Sanders would like to do--but he seems unlikely to get the chance.
The world crisis is escalating since I wrote the first draft of this post, and the President is aggressively asserting himself to try to prevent a large ground campaign in Syria and Iraq. I think that he is right, and that in this case he seems willing to stand up for his beliefs. It will however be difficult, because the pressure to revert to the policies of George W. Bush is growing, and in Russia and France as well as here. This is the drama of our great crisis--the crisis which, abroad, the President has not been able to escape.