What are we to make of a president who appears to be on the verge of winning reelection, who only has to look bemused at each and every assertion of his opponent and say, “Hmm, that’s not what you said last week/month/year,” but who, instead, looks like he wants to run away?
Answer: Maybe that’s exactly what he wants. Maybe, deep down, he just wants out. Maybe he’s suffering from a classic case of depressive realism.
Depressive realism is described by psychologists as a condition where a person is depressed not because they have a warped view of reality, but rather because they have a more accurate perception of reality than the rest of us, and without the illusions that the rest of use to cope with reality.
One thing you can be quite sure: Four years from now, regardless of who wins the election next month, we’ll all be worse off. Eight years from now, and 12 years from now, things will be worse again. There’s no way around it: Life at home, life abroad, and life all over the planet is on the decline.
And you can be fairly sure that Barack Obama knows it. He can’t not know it. He can’t not know that dire times lie ahead and that there’s nothing the president of the United States can do about it any longer. He knows we’re in a deeper hole than we can possibly get out of. He knows that, at very best, all we can do now is a) mitigate the damage that’s now making itself known, and b) adapt to the new circumstances in which we now begin to find ourselves.
Yes, like any other politician, he knows he can’t tell the truth all the time if he wants to stay in the good graces of the electorate. But unlike Mitt Romney, he’s just not that good a liar – neither to the American people, nor to himself.
Four years ago, he almost certainly and honestly felt he could make a difference. But much of that self-confidence seems to have evaporated in the face of reality.
The latest piece of news about what’s happening to our planet came yesterday from the independent NGO Climate Central, in an article about the so-called Methane Bomb, a huge store of natural gas that’s buried under the Arctic sea floor. And if the once-frozen ocean there warms enough, as now looks all but certain, the methane gas will start escaping into the atmosphere. It’s already happened at least once before, about 55 million years ago, leading to a rapid temperature rise of 11° F at the time, causing, among other things, mass extinctions of species.
Meanwhile, the government agency NOAA’s State of the Climate report for September shows that September was the 16th month in a row with above-average temperatures for the lower 48 states of the U.S.
The President has to know, too, that it’s just not possible any longer to “grow” our way out of the continuing recession.
The President has to know, too, that it’s just not possible any longer to “grow” our way out of the continuing recession. The standard prescriptions, be they government spending or tax cuts, are no longer effective. The debt is too big, and there’s nowhere new to go or to grow into. We’ve fished the oceans to extinction, mined the Earth beyond what’s possible without poisoning ourselves to death, and are still cutting down what remains of the forests for commercial purposes. The oceans are turning to acid, and the warming atmosphere has brought on droughts leading to crop failures and massive fires. Forests that aren’t burning down are being brought down by infestations of insects who thrive on sick trees.
Obama can’t not know that according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, one in four of all mammals on Earth is now headed for extinction (including all the elephants, big cats and great apes – our own closest relatives), along with one in three of all the coral reefs (where most fish are birthed), and 41 percent of all amphibians. Or that according to the journal Nature, we’re now looking at the loss of three-quarters or more of all species over the coming generations.
He was like the one of those heroes of legend who simply lower their sword and allow their enemy to strike them down.
All of this is known to President Obama. And he can’t not know that the only possible way of mitigating the damage – to the natural world and to ourselves – would be drastic action involving a way of living that will be completely unacceptable to a pampered electorate until that new way of living is simply thrust upon us by Mother Nature.
Commentators from all sides of the political spectrum were stunned that Obama simply allowed Romney to slash away at him last week without pushing back. He was like the one of those heroes of legend who, knowing something that their opponent doesn’t know or prefers to ignore, simply lower their sword and allow their enemy to strike them down.
Writing about the presidential debate last week, the British Independent asked:
Does Obama’s poor performance last week indicate a subconscious desire to quit the White House and withdraw to Harvard or Chicago to write books? He could be forgiven. In December, the US government faces what the Federal Reserve chief, Ben Bernanke, has called the fiscal cliff, the expiration of tax breaks and the beginning of deep budget cuts, which will increase federal revenues by about 19 percent, yet will plunge the US into a double-dip recession.
Faced with the choice between debt and recession, the government will eventually opt for the first, but the result of either course is not good. In addition, the victor will face the fallout from Europe’s economic problems, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the poisonous atmosphere in Washington DC, which certainly won’t be at ease with an Obama victory. For an individual such as Obama who is not wholly a freak or narcissist, the job entails unique psychic fatigue.
The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic wonders whether Obama is ground down by the endless horror of the wars he finds himself prosecuting:
If there’s something that seems shut down in our once ebulliently optimistic president, it most likely has to do with the wars. Obama is a naturally empathic individual … If his heart didn’t seem in it last night, I wonder if it’s not in part because the last thing he needs to consider in his work on a day-to-day basis is his heart. It’s a long way from being a community organizer, civil-rights lawyer and anti-war state senator to running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat.
Newsweek’s Michael Tomasky says the same thing:
Someone needs to ask the cut-to-the-chase question: is he enthusiastic about keeping this job, or he is just maybe tired of being president?
In the Washington Examiner, Byron Yorke notes that despite some impressive achievements, “he hasn’t achieved, and won’t achieve in four more years, the ‘fundamental transformation’ of American society that he envisioned.” Yorke suggests the only reason he keeps going is that he would naturally want to avoid being labeled a loser, to avoid joining Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as presidents who couldn’t win a second time.”
Which would be worse: losing now after a not-too-bad four years, or squeaking in again for another, and much worse, four years ahead?
And conservative but pro-Obama columnist Andrew Sullivan believes Obama is deliberately, if perhaps unconsciously, throwing the election away. The fact, he says “that we are having this discussion at all reflects the enormity of Obama’s implosion.”
Does the President, then, have a case of depressive realism? It wouldn’t be surprising. He can’t not know that whoever takes on the next four years is doomed to preside over an escalating decline, punctuated perhaps by brief fits and starts of stimulus involving one step forward and then two steps back – economically and, most depressingly, ecologically.
In terms of a legacy, which would be worse: losing now after a not-too-bad four years, or squeaking in again for another, and much worse, four years ahead?