So here we are not quite two months into the Obama presidency, and the comedown is in full effect. Some are wondering why the economy still sucks--why it's getting worse, if anything. Others are baffled and infuriated that the country is still enmeshed in two wars, and hasn't entirely rolled back the Bush/Cheney "War on Terror" policies. The president's approval ratings seem no better than average for this point in a new term, and a meme is taking hold that Obama is trying to do too much, too soon--force-feeding an activist government agenda down the collective maw, with the increasingly likely result that he'll trigger a national gag reflex.
That extremists on the right are shocked and outraged that a liberal president has embraced liberal priorities, and that extremists on the left are incoherent with fury that an essentially conservative president in liberal disguise hasn't immediately and effectively undone all the damage they perceive from the last forty years, is both to be expected and probably a plus for Obama. But like every presidency, this one is in danger of being overtaken by external events--in this case, of course, the economy. The AIG bonus payments might represent less than a drop in the raging river of money we've redirected toward failed financial institutions, but I think that if the administration fails to get them back, Obama's whole agenda is probably compromised beyond salvation. The situation makes him look weak--helpless in fact--and for once, the man's eerie calm is a disadvantage, not a strength. People want him to seem as angry as we all are.
The financial bailout in general, and the AIG bonuses in particular, has such resonance because it reinforces a view that's emerged over the last decade across lines of party, class, race, and culture: the big shots play by a different set of rules. It's the one thing that binds together Bill Clinton's infidelity, the financial scandals of 2002 (Enron et al), the dumb and pointless war the administration took us into and the subsequent alleged war crimes of Cheney and Rumsfeld, and the crash of 2008. Those at the bottom--the grunts at Abu Ghraib, the people who took mortgages they couldn't afford--suffer the consequences of their own mistakes and misdeeds. Those at the top--criminals in suits--not only get away for the most part, but are rewarded with Medals of Freedom or additional millions.
Obama's candidacy and presidency was supposed to represent, among other things, a long-overdue shift back toward meritocracy: every action would carry a consequence, all would get what they deserve, for better and for worse. It's hard to imagine anyone less deserving of rewards than the men who staffed the Financial Products division of AIG. If they get paid for their failures, it will undercut everything this president hopes to accomplish and further disillusion millions of Americans who already are wondering if they were once again sold a bill of goods.