Congress’ overwhelming rebuke of President Barack Obama on a bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia — and the bitter finger-pointing that followed — was a fitting coda to the dysfunctional relationship between the Obama White House and Capitol Hill.”
Thus began a Politico article by Seung Min Kim posted last week.
But it was the headline — which she probably did not write — that really completed the picture: “Congress disses Obama one last time.”
That word, “disses,” is just too perfect. For eight years the press has treated Obama like the protagonist in some stage play, personalizing his policy struggles as a heroic effort of one noble man fighting an army of partisans, racists and plutocrats. Even the word “dis” — with its hip, slightly edgy connotation — taps into the Cult of Obama, which sees any setback for the president as a personal, often illegitimate affront to his dignity.
For the record, the vote against Obama’s veto was 97-1 in the Senate and 348-77 in the House. Were all of those Democrats trying to “dis” the president? Is dissing one of the congressional powers listed in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution? Or do we need an amendment to the Bill of Rights stating that “Congress shall make no law dissing the first African-American president”?
As I’ve noted before, the best explanation for what I’m talking about was written by the influential anonymous blogger Ace of Spades, in a 2013 post titled “The MacGuffinization of American Politics.” In film lingo, a MacGuffin is anything the hero desires. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be the blueprints to a secret Nazi weapon, the formula for a cure to male pattern baldness or virtually anything else. In “Pulp Fiction,” for example, we never learn what’s inside the briefcase. In any story, all the audience needs to care about is that the hero cares about getting something.
Throughout Obama’s presidency he has been the hero, and his agenda has been the MacGuffin.
“This is a movie,” Ace wrote. “And Barack Obama is the Hero. And the Republicans are the Villains. And policy questions — and Obama’s myriad failures as an executive — are simply incidental. They are MacGuffins only, of no importance whatsoever, except to the extent they provide opportunities for Drama as the Hero fights in favor of them.”
Ace adds: “It doesn’t matter why the Hero Barack Obama wants the Lost Ark of Sensible Gun Control, or the Shankara Stones of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or the Democratic Holy Grail of Affordable Health Care. These are very minor details and only matter to the extent the Hero exerts himself to achieve them.”
I should add that on the actual policy question, I agree with Obama about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). I think it’s a bad idea, pushed by trial lawyers. But in “Politics: The Movie,” lame duck Obama is outranked by the hero-victims of 9/11 in pursuit of their MacGuffin.
Alas, Obama didn’t get script revisions.
“It’s a dangerous precedent, and it’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard,” Obama said last week. “And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard.”
This Olympian disdain for the motives of his political opponents has played well for Obama in the past. Which is why his scolding about hard work is so ironic.
Obama has always seen working with Congress as beneath him. I know that the opening chapter of Obama’s historic presidency was all about how he was bitterly opposed by wild-eyed partisans from Day One. But, oh, this dramatic license. Obama sought no input from Republicans on the stimulus and then was shocked when they opposed it. Obamacare, too, was rammed down the throats of Republicans, though by that point they had locked into their opposition thanks in part from learning that opposing him on the stimulus was to their political advantage.
As the Politico story makes clear, the White House was MIA on JASTA.
“There’s been zero involvement from the White House. Zero,” Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told Politico, forming a “zero” with his fingers to emphasize his point. “When you have a veto like this, it takes involvement, constructive involvement. I mean, there’s nothing.”
Asked why the White House stayed on the sidelines, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, responded: “I have no idea. I don’t know enough about the way the White House works.”
Why would even a Democratic senator know such a thing? That’s never been part of the movie.