Failure Is Always an Option
How Obama can prepare himself (and us) for the coming bad times.
Some possible new slogans for the Obama administration:
"Yes, we might."
"The buck stops in my general proximity."
"Failure is not an option, except when it can be sold as a mere strategic retreat."
I recognize that such slogans might be a hard sell, since optimism, success, believing in oneself, defying the cynics, having gobs of that "hope" stuff, and general indefatigability are the hallmarks of the Obama Age. But someone's got to take a stand on behalf of defatigability. Enough with the optimism! Who speaks for failure?
Anyone with a thimble of brains knows that despair is an essential element of a healthy emotional armature. There's nothing sadder than someone who gives in to hopelessness in situations where that should have been the starting point. It rankles me that, somewhere along the line, words like quitter and loser and hysteric started to sound like pejoratives. You call it defeatism; I call it managing expectations.
Yes, there was a lot of fanfare and pomp and hoohaw a week ago when the new president stood on the West Terrace of the Capitol, looking out at a crowd of, what, about 1.8 million people, not counting the 100,000 or so purple-ticket holders trapped in the Third Street Tunnel. And, yes, he's young, handsome, smart, hip, and has a gorgeous family and a reliable jumper from beyond the arc. No question, he is now the most powerful person on the planet. But he can't let this go to his head.
That's because failure is inevitable in any presidential administration. Failed presidencies are one of our last thriving industries. If the president can't inflict failure upon himself, there are legions of people who will do it for him. Failure is literally part of our constitutional infrastructure. Our government is designed to be nugatory. Our Constitution was written in such a way as to turn even the best idea into a watered-down compromise in a House-Senate conference committee that will subsequently be mired in bureaucratic red tape and eventually annulled by an obscure federal judge.
Even the Bill of Rights is a list of things government can't do. Compared with our Constitution, the Ten Commandments are a call to hedonism.
Obama did seem to acknowledge, in the first few minutes of his inaugural address, that our nation is in dire circumstances and that things will get worse and that people may want to start curling into the fetal position immediately. He had that nice phrase about "the winter of our hardship." And then there was this wonderful passage: "Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights."
Why not end the speech right there? What a great walk-off line. Keep it short, simple, shattering. Leave 'em weeping.
But no, the president continued onward into the fairyland of hope and possibility, declaring "an end to the petty grievances," which certainly made me wonder how I'll occupy myself in the years ahead. At this point in American history, it may just be best to say that, soon enough, we will all be living in the woods, stalking squirrels, and foraging for tubers. At least then no one will be able to accuse you of overpromising.
Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.