The longest taps American politics has ever known is being sounded. You can hear the bugler's first notes when the din of infernal Washington subsides briefly in the darkest hours of these chill winter nights. It will haunt us until January 2013 - or, maybe, January 2017. The Obama star has begun its long, slow fadeout. We already ask ourselves: "Whither is fled the visionary gleam; where is it now the glory and the dream?"
Barack Obama entered the White House with a large reserve of goodwill. It now has dwindled to a thin veneer of hopes against hope. The account is flat even as the accomplishments are meager. What happened? Obama gave it away in large chunks. Roughly a third to the Bernanke-Geithner-Summers troika. A second third to Max Baucus. The remainder to David Petraeus. Those investments - if we can call them that - have yielded no political capital. If anything, the yield has been negative. Understandably so; for they have underwritten failed policies. The first two have had the perverse effect of allowing the moribund Republicans to tap into the fears and frustrations of Americans anxious as to their future and angry at those who have so badly used them. The last is an albatross weighing down the presidency indefinitely while chewing up money and national will badly needed to revivify a demoralized country. In the process, Obama has estranged the very people who placed their trust in him.
As a result, there are slim grounds to expect a forthright reform agenda ever to emerge from the Oval Office. The moment has vanished - whether November brings a rout or just a defeat. More important, Obama has neither the conviction nor imagination to set it - much lest to fight for it. We have next to no evidence that his mind or his heart leans in that direction, other than fading campaign oratory. His dearest wish, other than extending his White House lease, quite clearly is to preside over a mawkish feast of bipartisanship. This despite the curt rejection of his repeated advances by the Republicans. Obama turns the other cheek not because he is saintly but because deep down he seems to feel that they are actually the true guardians of the sanctuary that holds enduring American sentiments - even if temporarily they are a bit out of line. Certainly progressive Democrats are not the legitimate guardians - in his mind's eye.
What of all his bright ideas, the pinwheel of perpetual motion that constantly is throwing off sparks? A closer look as those sparks reveals that the dazzle has little that is original or compelling behind it. They fall into three categories. One is composed of hashed over, once trendy ideas that created a stir when first put on parade a decade or two ago. The outstanding example is the infatuation with schemes for breaking up the nation's public school system - charter schools, firing thousands of supposedly incompetent or lazy teachers, 'accountability.' A closer look exposes those ideas as bogus slogans - poorly thought through and unable to deal in a meaningful way with the shortcomings of American education - whether for the inner city poor or upgrading skill levels generally. Read the mea culpa of the apostate Diane Ravitch on this.
In a second category, we find all those big initiatives rolled out with drums and flourishes that quickly shrink into insignificance. Think of the tragic orphaning of real health care reform; of financial re-regulation - not even a Consumer Protection Agency that Robert Gibbs defined out of existence last week (and the fate of the 11th hour 'Volcker' plan surely will be the same); of the promised restoration of our civil liberties that was transmuted into just the opposite.
The last category is filled with the shriveled vestiges of those shiny, hallowed principles that were supposed to galvanize a brave rededication to the core virtues of the Republic. A transparent government, a government newly responsive to its citizens, a clarity of moral vision, etc, etc. None of these seeds were planted, tended and cultivated. They merely had been trotted out for yet another remake of a quintessentially American bit of ritualized public theatre. That optimistic passion play never ceases to thrill us for those brief moments of suspended doubt. This time, the disappointment cuts deeper. For the country really needed and wanted to have the virtues of our civic religion reaffirmed.
The ensuing disillusionment is fertile ground for those who hold a twisted conception of what American is and should be. Ruthless and single-minded, they pose an ominous danger. Obama has been their unwitting ally. His diffidence, his equivocation and - above all - his instinctive reaching out for a hand never proffered. For the Republicans' merger with the crackpot right means that Barack Obama actually is shaking hands with the devil.
Our last, forlorn hope it that we avoid the worst. That this confused, self-absorbed man just hangs on long enough for those frightening forces to expire from an overdose of their own noxious eruptions. It's not about positive change any more; it's about warding off calamity.