Readers of this blog may recall that President Obama takes regular meetings with Mephistopheles – the representative of the Devil – to whom the president has promised his immortal soul, as Faust once did. (Please read the first installment here; and the second installment here.)
Mephistopheles, in human form, often resembles a lobbyist.
Because the Devil has apparently failed to follow through on some of his original promises of unparalleled political success, President Obama told Mephistopheles earlier this year that he is not handing over his soul. No - the president put his foot down. And Mephistopheles left more than a little angry.
Washington is now so enveloped in partisan divisiveness, any reasonable person might wonder – are those two facts related?
Late July 2011
President Obama exhales, frustrated, as his aides, Congressional Democrats and a group of Republican lawmakers leave the Oval Office, having once again failed to come an agreement on the debt ceiling. Pacing, it takes the president a moment to realize one person – one - well, one being – remains in the room. He looks up.
“You,” Obama says. “I should have known.”
“And good day to you, too, sir!” says Mephistopheles, smiling.
“Were you in that meeting all along?”
“Funny, but Congressmen simply can’t tell when the representative of Satan has infiltrated their ranks!” Mephistopheles bounces down on a sofa. “Don’t you think that says a lot about them?”
“What is it that you want?” The president’s voice is clipped.
“Well, to borrow a phrase from you, it’s time to talk turkey.” Mephistopheles is beaming.
President Obama is not in the mood to be pushed around.
“I’ve told you, your boss has been backsliding on our original agreement. An unprecedented mandate to change the national discourse. Matchless political success - redeeming government in the eyes of a cynical electorate.”
“And I am just not feeling it.” Obama looks up. “More importantly, I’m not giving him my immortal soul until he turns around his performance.”
“Yes, well, I took that to him last time I was here,” Mephistopheles says. “You wanna talk fire and brimstone? By Satan he was pissed!”
“I’m not sure I care.”
“Oh - but you do.” Mephistopheles says. “Wildfires across Texas and Arizona? Nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan? Kind of reminds you of wormwood?”
Obama just glares at him.
“Well, it should!” Mephistopheles says. “I thought you knew his handiwork!”
“Listen,” Obama starts - but Mephistopheles cuts him off.
“How dare you suggest that you’re not going to hand over your eternal soul!” Mephistopheles jumps to his feet, yelling. “You don’t dictate terms to Lucifer! You don’t backslide on Beelzebub! You want to wait til he turns his performance around!?!”
“What arrogance! What hubris!” Mephistopheles yells. His voice drops dramatically. “And – if you hadn’t noticed, you reap what you sow.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Satan has given you a return on your hubris ‘a thousand times a thousand.’ Like Dominique Strauss-Khan, like an unregulated Wall Street.”
Obama continues to glare.
“And just where, Mr. President, have you encountered hubris?” Mephistopheles sneers.
Obama’s face falls. “The debt ceiling.”
“But of course!” Mephistopheles can barely contain his glee - he’s almost dancing. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“The debt ceiling – previously a tiny facet of budgetary talks only noted by economists and a handful of lawmakers – is now on everybody’s lips! From the beaches to the Beltway! From hair salons to the Hill!” Mephistopheles is on a roll.
“It’s been extended 79 times since 1960 – seven times in the last administration, and yet your political rivals are playing political brinksmanship with the global economy! The global economy! All to make you look bad!”
Mephistopheles really is dancing now. “That, my friend, is hubris.”
“None of this is news to me,” the president says.
“Oh, but it’s the question of scale!”
He puts on John Boehner’s voice and pretends to weep. “All I want to do is ignore my own party putting us trillions of dollars in debt, defy the basic laws of economics and arithmetic, [sniffle] and make you a one-term president. [Sob] Robbing from the poor and giving to the rich? That’s the American dream! Oh, boo-hoo-hoo!”
Mephistopheles does a quick spin.
“We’ve reached fabulous new lows in the abdication of facts from the national discourse! All because of your hubris! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Obama starts to speak. But Mephistopheles puts on cartoon voices and starts singing both parts of that old duet.
I can do anything you can do, better! I can do anything better than you! No, you can’t! Yes, we can. No, you can’t.
He bounces up to President Obama to deliver the last line.
Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!
“Fine!” Obama yells. It’s so startling that even Mephistopheles stops. “You can have my immortal soul.”
“In full?” Mephistopheles says.
“Just tell me where to sign.”
With a sudden flourish, Mephistopheles produces an old-fashioned quill and a scroll.
“Now hang on,” Obama says. “If I sign this, then we reach an agreement on the debt ceiling that doesn’t drag into the 2012 election cycle, and I win re-election and we get back to fixing the economy, ending the wars, rebuilding our infrastructure and reforming energy policy? And we make Washington a little less broken?”
“Well, once facts are abdicated, you can’t just bring them back like that,” Mephistopheles snaps his fingers, producing a tiny cloud of sulfur. “These things take time. Your best bet is winning the Clash of the Narratives.”
“Let me guess,” Obama says. “The Republicans are hard-working, church-going, fiscal conservatives, whose core values help ensure the American dream for generations to come, and America’s global supremacy? While the Democrats are godless, big-spending, arrogant liberal elites, whose attitudes on everything from the economy to immigration to guns to media to sex to science is the top of a slippery slope toward moral decay and the US’s long-term decline?”
“Aren’t you being a bit hard on yourself?” Mephistopheles grins.
“I happen to believe that our nation is strengthened by its willingness to seize upon complicated challenges,” Obama says. “That the only constant in the world is change. And it’s our progressive attitude toward reforming the mechanics behind the American dream, such as the economy, tax reform, immigration, universal access to health care, gay civil rights - and ending misguided wars while remaining a leader in the community of nations as a force for stability - results in a greater inclusiveness, greater personal freedoms and prosperity for all.”
Mephistopheles is about to speak but Obama holds up a finger.
“While the implosion of the Republican party prompted them to appeal to a Tea Party base that is clinging to a reactionary American past that frankly, never actually existed. And it results in increased social ills like drug addiction and teen pregnancy, the eradication of rights, the endangering of America, and the absolute brutalization of the middle class electorate that the Republicans claim to hold so dear.”
“Well, then-‘’ Mephistopheles hands Obama and the quill.
President Obama signs away his immortal soul.
“The thing I love, love, love about the Clash of the Narratives? Real Americans vs Smart Americans?” Mephistopheles says, while rolling up the scroll. “It’s the exact same elitism, tied up in different color bows!”
Mephistopheles stands. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
And in a puff of sulfur, he vanishes from the room.
Post-Script: THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 1, 2011. WASHINGTON — President Obama and Congressional leaders of both parties said late Sunday that they had agreed to a framework for a budget deal that would cut trillions of dollars in federal spending over the next decade and clear the way for an increase in the government’s borrowing limit.