Point Austin: Who Needs a Drug Test?

Welcome the president, but please stay hungry

Point Austin
Watching the spectacle of a reigning president paying a public visit to his subjects – the words "citizens" or even "constituents" no longer seeming much to apply in post-imperial, teleculture America – I couldn't help but notice the difference between 2010 and 2007. A little more than three years ago, I wrote about the young man running for president: "For one afternoon at Town Lake, in the gray shadow of Downtown, it was possible ... to imagine that this fine young son of Illinois, more professorial than grandiloquent, could indeed 'galvanize a movement for change'; that he could take his place in the hallowed tradition of abolitionism and women's suffrage and unionism and civil rights, all these common achievements that he sketched out briefly for us in the twilight rain. 'The arc of the moral universe is long,' he said, quoting Martin Luther King, 'but it bends toward justice.'" (See "Point Austin," March 1, 2007.) There were thousands of people standing in the rain along the lake, and they hadn't had to apply in advance for tickets, and their candidate hadn't arrived at high speed in a heavily guarded motorcade, and he and they seemed genuinely to believe that a new day in American politics was truly possible.

President Obama also recalled that occasion Monday afternoon, delivering a workmanlike but inevitably less inspiring speech to a much more select crowd at UT's Gregory Gym – the students and the site chosen for their appropriateness to the issue of the day writ large: "Education." "It was a drizzly day," the president recalled of that long ago February, "the kind of day that usually dampens turnout. But when I got to where the rally was, over at Auditorium Shores, there was a huge crowd of around 20,000 people – people of all ages, races, and walks of life.

"And as I said that day, I knew you weren't there just for me. You were there because you were hungry for change. Because you believed in an Amer­ica where all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from, can reach for our dreams, and make of our lives what we will." (Actually, that long-ago day was not an occasion for bland sentimentality, but perhaps the president's speechwriters remember it differently.)

Your Call Will Be Answered ...

From there came the segue into the day's policy subject: what the Obama administration is doing for education. He's going to improve graduation rates, eliminate the corporate middlemen on student loans, increase the size and extent of student Pell Grants. Admirable ambitions all, but not the sort of thing to inspire lofty national engagement.

Also of that day in 2007, I noted, "the loudest ovation ... was when Obama declared, 'It is time for us to bring this war to an end.'" At the time, "this war" meant only the U.S. invasion of Iraq; now, three years and many, many casualties later, the president reiterated this week, "I said we'd end the Iraq war as swiftly and responsibly as possible – and that's a promise we're keeping." The arc of the moral universe is very long indeed, when "swiftly" has come to mean "with all deliberate speed," and the diminution of one war has meant only the expansion of another.

He continued, "I said we'd make health insurance more affordable and give you more control over your health care – and that's a promise we're keeping." It is indeed terrific that more money will begin to flow to community health centers; otherwise, that one I'll have to file under "I'll believe it when I see it," as I wait for one more ruling from my insurance company over what it will and will not cover, while hoping that the recent corporate merger of my current cardiologist's practice won't end like the last one – less responsiveness, longer waits, eventually negative health consequences.

Never Been Satisfied

Some time ago Obama described the process of U.S. political change as akin to turning around an aircraft carrier: long, slow, and tedious. I'm not so shortsighted as to conclude that this administration is the same as its predecessor – on the wars, on health care, on education, on drug policy, on environmental and financial regulation, Obama's regime has indeed been incrementally better. Yet when you're already waist deep in a muddy ditch, digging more slowly doesn't quite seem to address the problem. And on too many matters – secrecy and civil liberties, covert war and warrantless wiretapping, general national security state expansion, etc. – the administration has either defended illegal Bush policies or else embraced them.

None of this is necessary to governance; none of it improves American security (indeed, it inexorably manufactures new enemies); none of it is a consequence of needing those damned "60 votes" in the Senate. It is self-imposed, by a centrist Democratic administration that appears determined to strengthen the executive power that it denounced when it was in Republican hands.

It doesn't help, of course, that when some observers point these things out, the president's press secretary berates the administration's progressive critics as members of the "professional left ... who ought to be drug tested." Gee, Mr. Gibbs, one might think that a presidential press secretary would be a little more thick-skinned – or at least more attuned to the predicament of a president who campaigned forthrightly in response to "hunger" for progressive change and who now finds himself defending his beleaguered party on a record of heavily compromised half-measures.

Maybe I ought to be drug tested, too. Beyond middle-age prescriptions, they won't find much – in this economy, who has the cash for recreational intoxicants? How about instead we start a drug-testing program for those professional "realists" who thought it was a great idea to start two ruinous imperial wars, without reason or even foresight, and yet who still receive official and media deference as the "experts" on what to do next? Or how about some urinalysis for the latest self-appointed crew of economic wise men, for whom the only thing that matters is the federal deficit – while unemployment officially hovers around 10%, cities everywhere are shutting down essential services, and the best available kick-start is federal investment in infrastructure?

Too much to ask, I know. We must focus on the politics of the possible, and what's possible ain't much. Well, we're still here, Mr. President. And we're still really hungry for change.

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Barack Obama, health care, Iraq war

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