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Our foundering father: At least we’re entertained as we try not to notice that no one’s in charge

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Kathleen Parker
March 22, 2009
— What a relief to hear Barack Obama tell a California audience the other day: “I am the president of the United States of America.”

Who knew?!


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 here.” 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.


I don’t begrudge Stewart his artful takedown of CNBC’s Jim Cramer, or his role in keeping audiences abreast of the news with humor. We need that. And a financial guru whose program has more bells and whistles than FAO Schwarz at Christmastime—and treats audiences like kindergartners at a Dow Jones Camp—is surely fair game. Leave it to the comedian to point out to the former hedge fund manager that the financial market “is not a … game!”


At least we’re entertained as we try not to notice that no one’s in charge.


Except, of course, for Fox TV’s Glenn Beck, who is now channeling televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, choking back tears on his Friday the 13th special—“We Surround Them, You Are Not Alone.” On his Web site, Beck asks: “Mob rule in Washington?” while he hawks T-shirts with pithy slogans such as “Hate U” and “Torches and Pitchforks.”


Whose mob goes there?


Yes, we’re all angry, especially at the AIG culprits who keep paying themselves bonuses with our money. That the payouts caught Obama by surprise does not bode well for confidence in his leadership, especially when, as Time reports, Treasury Department staff knew of the bonuses as early as Feb. 28, and Secretary Tim Geithner knew at least two days before word reached the president.


Even so, a little bit of outrage goes a long way, and those who crank out emotional pleas for populist retribution should beware what they hype. Mobs eventually want a prize for their trouble, and gladiators are in short supply.


With the stage so crowded with actors, meanwhile, Obama may want to focus on the role for which he was elected, lest Beck’s question become an assertion. Repeat: “I am the president of the United States of America.”


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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