Our Foundering Father
What a relief to hear Barack Obama tell a California audience the other day: "I am the president of the United States of America."
Lately, it's been hard to tell whether Obama himself knows that he is the leader of the country formerly known as The Most Powerful Nation on Earth. Obama's self-identification centered around the American International Group's bonus problem, which, Obama reminded us, he did not create, but . . . "the buck stops with me."
That cliche is awfully busy these days.
Most presidents doubtless have to pinch themselves for a while after arriving at the White House. The campaign over, Mr. President suddenly realizes that he is, in fact, in charge. The successful courtship ultimately leads to marriage, and reality pitches a tent where hope once crooned the night away.
Giving the man his length of slack, Obama has had more reality than most. As he has said more than once, he'd be delighted to have just one crisis or just one war to deal with, but he's got a couple of each. Still, one can't help wishing Obama would pinch himself a little harder and get on with it.
The White House mess, to steal a title from a Christopher Buckley book, sure is. Who's in charge over there?
"I think they're drinking water from a fire hose even more than we were," a Bush White House official said to me a few days ago. "I actually feel sorry for them."
That fire hose apparently is tapped into the Dasani Aquifer. The plugging-leaks-in-the-dike metaphor is no longer adequate to the titanic episode now engulfing the nation's capital.
Despite civic rage and political blame -- even death threats aimed at business executives -- there is a carnival air of unseriousness and grotesquery loose upon the land. Life has become one grand, comic burlesque, a vaudevillian game show where plumbers are journalists, war heroes twitter and the president hits the late-night circuit in the midst of crisis.
Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's show Thursday night -- joking lamely that his bowling is "like Special Olympics or something" -- is symptomatic of a broader blending of the serious and the comic that makes sane people feel slightly displaced. Infotainment isn't a new topic, but the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live?
Although Obama is the first sitting president to appear on "The Tonight Show," his presence is historically significant only if you believe that Jon Stewart is Edward R. Murrow and Rush Limbaugh is William F. Buckley.