Friday, January 23, 2009

Is the Obama Presidency a Bellwether of American Ingenuity on Its Deathbed?

[This piece was first posted January 23, 2009 on (]

So much has already been made of President Obama’s lack of substance.  It has been suggested by conservative writers that he is everything from an empty suit to an emperor with no clothes.  Perhaps he is just a man who has been told his entire life that he was special without ever being made to prove it.  If the latter is true, the conspicuous lack of detail in his agenda stems from necessity; he carefully avoids scrutiny, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain.  But the problems facing the United States are more substantial than simply finding a way back home to Kansas; solving them requires more than pyrotechnics and smooth baritone oratory. 

The common thread between President Obama and the causes of the American predicament is a shortage of new ideas; thus we are forced to resolve a dilemma.  Despite his liberal use of the word "change," the itinerary for Obama’s plan to change America was never unfolded for our inspection and approval and yet, voters pulled the lever.  How can we expect a majority of Americans to participate in the process of innovating when the bulk of us voted for change by proxy and without form?  How is the nation expected to redefine its place in the world when it has chosen a leader who does not have the will to define himself?

For his part, Obama may be remembered as the politician who is to American politics what Andy Warhol was to American culture -– a borrower of iconic ideas and imagery, but in truth, a creator of nothing truly original; a manufacturer only of symbols.  He weaves elements of Kennedy, Reagan and both Roosevelts’ characters into the fabric of his persona, with the effect of buying unearned merit badges and stitching them onto his Boy Scout sash.  The success of his campaign, with its emphasis on an unspecific black box of genius plans, shows just how restless the electorate has become.  Were Obama to have run against a candidate with even a modest amount of inspiration, one who could communicate a clear vision for the future, we would have had to wait at least four more years to experience the catharsis of swearing in our first African-American president. 

The failure of the populace to demand more debate, more discussion, more specifics, may be the canary in the American coalmine; evidence that the marketplace of ideas is no longer functioning as needed.  If so, there are huge implications for our future, implications not confined to the intangible realm of philosophical and political debate.  Has the engine driving American prosperity for centuries, our uniquely voracious appetite for new ideas and inventions, slowed or stopped?  Patents (both applications and issuances) and copyright registrations have been flat for nearly a decade.  President Bush’s call for a national effort to land a manned mission on Mars met with the equivalent of dismissive laughter; the plans have foundered from lack of congressional support, stemming naturally from public apathy.

In our culture, popular entertainment is certainly a useful barometer for the public appetite for creativity, and we would have to conclude that the public does not have much of an appetite for new things.  Television schedules choke on a glut of “reality” programming, each show as unique as Tweedledum from Tweedledee.  For viewers who do not favor that sort of thing, hack through the strangling bramble of the CSI and Law & Order franchises, which soak up precious dollars that would otherwise be available to foster some diversity.  Even in movies and live theater, the norm is to stick with known properties and avoid taking any risks.

The free market has always operated best in an environment that teems with new ideas.  Contrary to the flawed notion that free markets abhor risk, just as in nature a forest grows taller and stronger when its hide is tested by wildfire, so competition is the policing agent that enforces businesses and individuals to be mindful of efficiency.  Corporations, as units, may try to avoid risk through regulatory lobbying and other legal means, but they do so at their own eventual and inevitable peril.  It is by embracing the delicate interplay that occurs in a free society that the ways out of our current mess will be identified most quickly.

What Obama can do to spur a creative renaissance in America is find new ways to remove the challenges that face innovative Americans.  Stripping away most of the steeplechase of red tape and providing reasonable protections against frivolous litigation would do ninety percent of the blasting work to dislodge the impediments to economic and cultural growth.  He should also resist all temptations and encouragement to demand more of the fruits of American ingenuity, perhaps even overhaul a federal tax system that now closely resembles the relationship between feudal lords and tenant farmers in ages past and places distant.

For our part, when our temptation might be to ask Obama to do more to encourage innovation, we must remind ourselves that the question would wrongly assume that we need a moderator.  Unless we are on the cusp of converting to a centrally planned economy, there is no conceivable reason for the president or the government to be involved in the creative side of public life as anything more than a referee or an observer.  More importantly, although Obama’s talk is strong about supporting a broad conversation in which no ideas will be considered off-limits, he has not demonstrated that he has anything to bring to the discussion.  Nor has he given much indication that he will, in practice, support such a discourse if he is not in control of the outcomes. 

We the People do not need the permission of our president to conduct this discussion; we do not need a stamp of approval to begin to change things.  We simply need to start talking.

Politicians like President Obama will always be lining up to offer near-sighted solutions wrapped in shiny packages and decorated with false promises.  As a nation, in terms of human age, we are in the phase of adulthood, and as such we can begin to make choices based not on cravings, but on need.  Americans need to reclaim their heritage as creators and demand that our leaders – even The One – step aside and let the nation begin working again.


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