By Ken Feltman
Time is the dimension that keeps everything that will ever happen from happening all at once.
Ever since Einstein, scientists and laymen have increasingly referred to time as the fourth dimension. Some physicists have debated whether time is a dimension after all. Others have tried to define it so everyone can understand. More than a few of the definitions are incomprehensible. One works for me: Time is the dimension that keeps everything that will ever happen from happening all at once.
Perhaps because I can apply that definition to politics and well as physics, I like it. The fourth dimension is very useful in politics because there are always those who are anxious to do everything now. Politics is the ultimate “immediate” game. If you can do it, do it now, while you can. There may be no tomorrow. Many campaigns, and a few presidential administrations, have shriveled because all the effort, all the ideas, everything, was expended immediately. And immediately was too soon.
When everything happens all at once there are signs. One bellwether is the criticism by eager and shiny faced younger staffers that another staffer, usually far more senior, is not working long enough hours. These human perpetual motion machines, fortified by the heady surroundings of the White House as well as coffee, cola and pizza, expect everyone to rush around doing something, anything, all hours of the day and most hours of the night. When they find someone who does not share their random surging from this issue to that task, they coalesce. Then they attack.
Sure enough, National Security Advisor Jim Jones has been accused of working only 12 hour days, not the 15 or 16 hours that are routine for Obama’s hyper-active troopers. The disciplined Jones, former Marine commandant, always seems prepared and gives concise, accurate responses to questions during oval office sessions. The youngsters don’t attend those meetings so they judge Jones against their standard: Night after night, Jones is not there when the kids do their bed checks.
All the other signs are there, too, ending with the increasing willingness of Obama loyalists to talk about what is going wrong at the White House. At first, those loyalists tip-toe. Eventually, they run so they won’t be the last to spill their leaked story to a reporter. That spillage usually comes in the third year of a presidency. It started in the fourth month with Obama’s people.
Do you hear the footsteps? No?
President Obama knows. He discounts the destruction that these dedicated youth can do. He sees the polls. His advisors take the pulse. They know, too. They probe beneath the continuing good will, even adoration, extended to Obama by Americans and people elsewhere. They press on. In the frenetic burst of activity, they do not hear the footsteps. But the footsteps are getting a bit louder.
Those footsteps are Obama’s own. Are they catching up with him? Oratory is a powerful tool. A leader who can inspire people with eloquence can go far – even to the most powerful office in the world. But uplifting oratory can catch up with the orator. Oratory alone cannot satisfy indefinitely. The faint echo, trip-trip-trip, grows louder.
Americans are beginning to question, to criticize, to voice concern. We hear it in the focus groups. We see it in the polling. We know it from White House actions. Just a few click-click-clicks on the pavement. Obama hears them. What will he do?
The click-clicks are suggesting that although Obama is well intentioned, highly intelligent, creative, forceful and compassionate, he may also be wrong – not on everything, but on a few things. Here is what Radnor focus groups suggest, with a general conclusion first and a representative but illuminating comment following:
Obama is taking on too much: His take-over of the auto industry troubles me and a lot of my neighbors.
Obama has not managed to get stimulus money to Main Street: It’s all gone to Wall Street. That’s where the crooks who got us into this mess came from. Reward them? Why?
- Obama gives very good speeches: His government does not seem to be up and running yet.
- Obama is restoring America’s image throughout the world: Great!
- Obama is restoring America’s image throughout the world: So? The world is fickle. They want to see us struggle.
- Obama may not understand terrorism the way most centrist Americans see terrorism: He better be right because if we’re attacked again, he’s finished.
Mixed with those general conclusions are a few others:
- African-Americans are divided, with a growing number concerned that Obama has either deserted black issues or put black concerns on a back burner: McCain couldn’t have done less for people of color.
- Organized labor is discouraged and disenchanted: He sure f***ed us.
- Big business is circumspect, even regretful: This will teach us to send all the campaign money to Democrats. This is socialism, the biggest restructuring of business and government in the history of the world.
At times, Obama seems to be trying to convince himself that he can do everything, all at once. He uses his best weapon, oratory. Using any weapon so often diminishes effectiveness. It also causes carelessness.
The limits of oratory were demonstrated when the White House reacted to former Vice President Dick Cheney. The increasing attacks on the Obama administration’s decision to close Guantanamo, and the whirling dervish atmosphere of the White House, caused a misstep: Cheney was planning a major address at a right-of-center think tank. So the White House decided to use the power of the presidency and scheduled a speech by Obama at exactly the same time.
Eloquence versus monotony
The president spoke with uplifting eloquence. His background was the founding documents of American democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was Lincolnesque, appealing to the “better angels of our nature.” His sweeping theme drew us to a proud past and contrasted that past with a tarnished, more recent past. He blamed the Bush administration. When he finished, the television networks turned off the cameras at the National Archives and turned on the cameras at the think tank.
Cheney droned on with the monotone regularity of tumbrels delivering victims to the guillotine. One after the other, his charges went with a swift thud. He is the Republican that most Republicans hope will keep quiet. Democrats have been positively overjoyed at Cheney’s coming out. But here he found a role. He proved that when you hold the high ground, as Obama does with waterboarding, you should not let your opponent drag you into the debate and, possibly, down into the dirt.
Cheney drew a clear line. He put Obama on notice: If the United States is attacked again by terrorists, Obama will have only himself to blame.
Is this presidential politics or dirty politics? Cheney would contend that he is speaking out only because Obama keeps blaming the Bush administration for everything that has gone wrong or may go wrong. Obama is subscribing to the political fourth dimension: If it happens on my watch, it’s because it can happen on anybody’s watch, or everybody’s watch, or nobody’s.
Cheney wants clear breaks in the timeline. Now, with terrorism, the baton has been passed: If you change the Bush strategies, you can’t blame Bush for what happens. Some commentators suggest that Cheney will jump to the top of the GOP presidential candidate list if the U.S. suffers another terrorist attack. Is this a calculated way to run for president? Ghoulish, isn’t it?
Whiner to presidential candidate
The Obama team made a mistake in letting Cheney join the issue. Before the back-to-back speeches, Cheney was a whiner, an apologist for torture. He was unwelcomed by almost everyone. Now he is a possible candidate for president, the leader of the “whatever it takes to protect American lives” faction.
Meantime, Obama wants to change the conversation and is counting on healthcare reform. But healthcare may be the new third rail of American politics, replacing Social Security as the issue that no one can solve. Obama will have troubles with healthcare even if he gets his way because, as Obama’s plan has evolved, most people disagree with Obama’s proposed solution. Americans want something done but they do not believe that Obama should bite off healthcare reform now, while the world economy is muddled. Fix one thing at a time, people say. Do it right. Concentrate your attention on the work already begun.
Otherwise, voters may agree with the focus group participant who said: “He’s just trying to distract our attention with all these new plans because he hasn’t really done anything yet except spend trillions of dollars.”