With this week's release of Oz, The Great and Powerful, Disney continues its relentless campaign to blaze a trail of death through our most beloved fairy tales like Sherman through the South (see "Tim Burton's 2010 Alice in Wonderland corpse" for details). I freely admit that I have yet to actually see the movie, but judging from a trailer that gave me a seizure and some of the worst reviews I've ever read, it appears to largely consist of James Franco making his "it's good to be stoned" face at cheap-looking CGI. Still, even if the prequel is a bit of a turd, hopefully folks will use it as an excuse to re-watch the classic Judy Garland original.
The Wizard of Oz's songs and campy set-pieces are obviously great fun in their own right; and ever since L. Frank Baum's book of yellow brick roads and silver(!) slippers was first interpreted as a parable for the gold-vs.-silver standard debate of the Gilded Age, columnists and political cartoonists have found topical meaning in everything from the witches and munchkins to the aggressive mustaches.
I did my best to watch the 1939 film with a child's uncorrupted eye, but purple horses and flying monkeys are simply more profound to a 26-year-old than a toddler, and it was tough to not appreciate the sociopolitical satire, still relevant seventy years later. Indeed, to contemplate the recently shifting criticisms of our own ruler is -- wouldn't you know it -- to explore the varied facets of the Oz Administration.
You will recall that for most of Obama Term I, the GOP alternated between two seemingly contradictory critiques of the president: First, that he was a man of menacing power, determined to shape the nation to his will using sinister, dark magic (offensive adjective intended, in this context), one who believed in his own idolatrous mythology and held himself high above his subjects with the hubristic superiority of a demigod. Second, that he was an unqualified, incompetent fraud -- a charlatan, carnival barking foreigner who had floated in, out of nowhere, on a hot air balloon of windy rhetoric, and somehow duped the entire country into worshiping him using "empty theatrics" and sleight-of-hand.
But here's the thing about munchkins and Emerald citizens: They don't get to vote. The country got a long, good look this time at the Man Behind the Curtain, and despite President Obama's aloofness; despite his, at times, naïve rhetoric; and despite the fact that he has used his office to wield tremendous -- some might say unconstitutional -- power, the nation decided to return him to the throne. As George W. Bush so immortally put it, "Fool me once... shame -- shame on you... fool me... you can't get fooled again!"
Thus, since the election, conservatives have appeared to drop both Obama distortions. Although electoral victory no longer earns you a mandate of cooperation from the opposing party, it does win you a minor downgrade in demagoguery. So Republicans have sketched a new caricature of the President for Term II: Obama, the Great and Powerful Yes Man.
The deficit will and should be the decade's defining issue, and conservatives assert that the president has refused to make the hard choices to compel the country to live within its means. As they counsel prudence and responsibility, GOP leadership insists, the president acts as though government's resources are as limitless as the Wizard's black bag of trinkets. (What is The Wizard of Oz, really, if not a tale of four welfare queens looking for a government handout? This is the adult cynicism I was afraid of.)
Like Oz himself, Mr. Obama is the infuriating "gift-giver" of Mitt Romney's waking nightmares, content to buy our love peddling entitlements we cannot afford, but instead of brains for the Scarecrow and heart for the Tin Man, it's college loans and universal health care. The Fed floods the market with currency and the White House fudges budget projections with bookkeeping gimmickry to preserve the outward appearances of fiscal soundness and growth; and yet, like the sparkling facades of the Emerald City itself, it is all built on a lie -- the pleasant fiction that tomorrow our rulers can keep the promises they keep today. We are all Dorothys who will one day sweetly ask "is there anything in that black bag for me?" and the answer, conservatives warn us, will eventually be no.
The Wizard doing some deficit spending he has no business doing...
Our course, much of this is unfair. We are not a nation of moochers who, like the Emerald City's citizens, drain the state treasury living in wasteful splendor, and bedazzle ourselves in jewels the color of money, celebrating our laziness in song ("We get up at twelve and start to work at one / take an hour or two for lunch and then we're done / Jolly good fun!"). Most of the country is still getting hammered in a stubbornly anemic economy and the majority of our debt has come from pre-Obama wars and financial crises. Above all, we should remember that the President of the United States is not all-powerful, or able to accomplish much of anything without cooperation from Capitol Hill.
What's interesting, though, is that Republicans have softened their case to one of stewardship, not of morals and legitimacy. It's a far more valid argument, as fiscal responsibility will not be the reason this particular president goes on Mount Rushmore. For all his gifts and successes, he has not (yet) led on deficit reduction.
Perhaps somebody should bring him a broomstick or something.