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02.08.10

Obama's Sham Bipartisan Show

The coming health-care summit is just the latest example of how the president prefers public discussion of problems to rolling up his sleeves and fixing them.

Three cheers for democracy! Obama's appearance at the Republicans' retreat in Baltimore was so well-received that the exciting new format is back by popular demand, with the president now planning to hold a televised "bipartisan summit" on health care at the end of this month. Barack Obama might not have a clue as to how to get his legislative way, but in his own private war against the indecency and incivility of politics, he is winning.

If ever there was any doubt that Barack Obama loves civics but hates politics, it was dispelled during the "fascinating" and "groundbreaking" exchange Obama had with the Republicans last Tuesday. This is a president who blames the media for trivializing politics at the same time he is abandoning politics for media-savvy talk-a-thons which accomplish nothing.

Obama is Oprah with a presidential seal. Does he really think that posturing in front of the cameras is the antidote to haggling in the proverbial smoke-filled room?

The Baltimore event had commentators making swooning comparisons to the witty, erudite, sometimes vitriolic repartee in the British House of Commons. Yet the tedious 85-minute-long encounter between the president and his persecutors consisted of an interminable overture by our now-you-see-him-excitedly talking, now-you-see-him-depressedly disappearing leader, long-winded questions restating boilerplate GOP grievances ("You don't listen to us!"), and long-winded answers restating the president's democratic virtuousness ("I do too—plus, my door is always open").

Why anyone would be excited by the prospect of our politics coming to resemble the utterly insincere and fabricated rituals in the House of Commons—where the conflict is often between accents, not people—was hard to grasp. It was even more difficult to understand the source of popular acclaim for the moribund exchanges in Baltimore. The general feeling was that we were being ushered behind power's curtain and allowed to behold the truth behind the appearance of paralyzing political strife. But at the retreat, it turned out that the reality behind the legislative stonewalling and the outrageous accusations of the last 10 months was more stonewalling and more accusations, this time in the form of a more intimate domestic quarrel with which we could all identify.

Bob Kerrey: How I’d Fix D.C. GridlockNevertheless, the public reacted ecstatically to Obama, as if this latest advance in "transparency" and "access" was a compliment paid by the government to the people. Nowadays, it seems, all we need to calm our anger at a dysfunctional government is to feel that we are being allowed to participate in the dysfunction.

But the dysfunction is only growing stronger. What's really happening is that Obama is all but explicitly washing his hands of democratic politics. He doth protest his commitment to the chaotic business of governing—i.e. playing hardball when the other side won't play ball at all—too much. For the umpteenth time in public, he told his Republican audience that he welcomed debate: "that kind of vigorous back and forth—that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is—is at the heart of our democracy." But the messy, vigorous back and forth between Democrats and Republicans has been going on almost since his inauguration; it's just that, after expecting the awfulness of the Bush years to create a consensus for liberal change during the Obama years, Obama has been stunned to find that he cannot govern without making all the people who didn't vote for him, and by now some that did, unhappy. As he did in the State of the Union, he's once again invoking the messiness of democracy only to implore his adversaries to rise above its stink.

On February 25, under the pretext of transcending messy politics, Obama will plunge into the stink with intensified vigor. Rather than truly delivering on his (impractical) promise to finally make the legislative process of health-care reform transparent, Obama will be daring the Republicans to start playing politics on his turf. What will be at stake is not health care—you cannot reconcile John Boehner's weaseling demand for "step-by-step improvements" with genuine overhaul—but the fate of Democrats in the midterm elections. They will be angling to portray the Republicans as stonewalling villains; the Republicans will be angling to portray the Democrats as tyrannical monomaniacs. At the televised summit, the portraying will eclipse the talking.

The talk-show rounds he made as a candidate seem to have gone to Obama's head. In over a year of being president, he has not once addressed the country from the Oval Office, where a president looks the people directly in the eye; rather, he averts his gaze and goes on Katie Couric's show to announce the health-care summit. Chatting with a friendly anchor or a late-night host is, after all, so much more gratifying than doing imperfect, messy governance. Obama is Oprah with a presidential seal. Does he really think that posturing in front of the cameras is the antidote to haggling in the proverbial smoke-filled room? Does he expect to shame the Republicans at the upcoming summit by exposing their obstructionist perfidy to the American public? On the contrary. He is turning the party of no's spectacular defiance into must-see entertainment, even as he himself is abandoning the White House for the green room.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.