Deathbed narrations of decadent men fascinate us. These haunted, semi-lucid ravings attract us for their reflective melancholy that dissolves the gaudy veils of wealth and power around rotten cores of misgivings and dejection. Orson Welles created the anguished Citizen Kane who can only call for his childhood sled in his last minutes, and Carlos Fuentes set an entire novel in the dying words of the megalomaniacal tycoon Artemio Cruz. Seeing the finality of our end, often rudely unannounced, brings our suppressed uncertainties to the fore.
Last week, the Obama administration came to see its inevitable irrelevance arrive much sooner than expected. Rather than waiting for the traditional two-year long festival of gridlock and dysfunction celebrated after a President’s last midterm election, the lame duck has unexpectedly begun quacking earlier. Inconvenient scandals, whether real or imagined by obdurate Republicans, along with a disconnected and distant messaging style, will leave the Obama administration only able to communicate powerless swan songs while it waits for its termination.
“I’d call it a cover-up,” Senator John McCain gleefully accused the administration after embarrassing revelations of extensive revision of Susan Rice’s talking points in the aftermath of the attacks in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four Americans, including the American Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens. For a while, it seemed that the Benghazi attacks were the obsessive focus of Republicans and the echo chambers of Fox News because both desired a cudgel to batter Obama’s national security record. Now, like man-children discovering presents on Conspiracy Theory Christmas, Republicans suddenly have an embarrassing inconsistency to exploit.
The IRS, no one’s favorite government agency to begin with, recently apologized to Tea Party and Patriot groups for additional auditing on the sole basis of their group’s name. This actualizes and gives some flimsy support to the parasitic conservative mythology where Obama is a Kenyan socialist, government overreach will destroy capitalism, and Christians are an oppressed majority, as Sean Hannity recently implied when he baselessly claimed that the administration was “cleansing” the military of Christians.
These scandals themselves might not be enough to derail a presidency, but in the hands of the reputable bunch of self-interested Congressmen, it will surely give some legitimate standing to delay needed legislation for political grandstanding. The House recently spent two full days debating an utterly uncontroversial bill on the Federal Helium Program, eventually passing 394-1, in order to avoid actually doing its job of addressing salient issues like unemployment.
Republicans in Congress have made unprecedented, irresponsible use of the filibuster to block nominees to critical government positions like Secretary of Labor or director of the Environmental Protection Agency. After childishly disrupting the government, waiting for a screw-up, Republicans disingenuously blame government in order to legitimize further cuts and disruptions. As Grover Norquist, the anti-tax demigod, tellingly said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
And so President Obama has to realize that the mountains of Congressional hearings, the column inches and sound bites devoted to faux indignation will effectively entomb a Congress that has seemed intent on walling itself off from the public since its election. The prospect of Congress passing actually progressive bills seemed dismal to begin with—expanded background checks were filibustered despite having the support of 90 percent of the public, and the ostensibly bipartisan immigration reform bill was buried under 300 amendments.
The resurfacing of the debacle surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which remains open despite Obama’s strident campaign pledge, highlights the infuriating inefficacy of the administration. Scapegoating Republican obstinacy is a liberal pipe dream that ignores the real failures in the administration’s disdain for outreach. The president’s recent so-called charm offensive, one of those oxymorons flooding the Beltway lexicon, is a step in the right direction, but too little too late.
Instead, seeing the writing on the wall, the administration may begin to wonder what could have been done differently: a less controversial, better-argued healthcare bill, avoiding the detrimental austerity of the debt ceiling, sidestepping the self-harm of sequestration. Arriving at the recognition of his own irrelevance, as the media whips itself into 2016 frenzy and Congress stonewalls, President Obama should ponder the mistakes of his term and consider what could have been done differently.
As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
Idrees M. Kahloon ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @ikahloon.