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What the Frank Underwood Administration Tells Us About the Obama Age


[Mild spoilers ahead.]

The conventional wisdom has it that The West Wing’s chief executive Jed Bartlett was liberalism’s shadow president during the George W Bush years. Where Bush was the gut-based “decider,” Bartlett was a deliberative, Galileo-quoting economist; where Bush found every reason to launch war in the Middle East, Bartlett never fought harder than when he was avoiding it. Bush presented himself as invincible; Bartlett was enfeebled by multiple sclerosis. The difference was less legislative than elemental. Jed Bartlett was the answer to the question: what if we had elected the exact opposite of this guy?

With Frank Underwood‘s ascendancy to the Oval Office, the Obama age finally has its own shadow president.* That Underwood’s a Democrat is a fact that you’d be unlikely to divine if you started with Season 3; his administration is arguably to the right of what we’d have gotten under Mitt Romney.

But party affiliation is where the similarities between Obama and Underwood end. In the newest season of the Netflix show Underwood becomes the repository for the last few years of anti-Obama anxieties, worries that we reelected a feckless and weak commander-in-chief who pathologically distrusts action to the point of paralysis.

Not so Frank Underwood. Underwood is the dramatic engine of the show: the plot sometimes struggles to keep up with him. If one move doesn’t work, he reverses course and tries the opposite; entire episodes worth of effort are tossed aside in a single scene. He moves before he thinks; if his improvisations are successful he plays them out; he seems to follow his actions, distrusting deliberation as a sap on boldness. A chess board is seen often throughout the show, but Underwood displays none of the game’s methodical pace; his strategy much more resembles the shoot-em-up games he plays to decompress, rounding a corner and firing rapidly at whatever’s there.

This is the president pundits have been calling for since the 2011 days of congressional gridlock. Why, asks article after editorial after Sunday show guest, won’t Obama lead?

Why, for instance, won’t he act on entitlement reform, which will cause mass economic hemorrhaging any minute now? Lo and behold, the very first thing the Underwood administration does is offer entitlement cuts to free up money for a jobs program. It’s a plan that could have been and partially was designed by the likes of David Brooks. Obama has been criticized (incorrectly) for refusing to compromise with Congress to effect entitlement compromises. Well, Underwood damn near kicks down the door in his meeting with Congressional leaders, yelling, threatening, demanding, cajoling, and ultimately attempting to snooker them to get it. Action!

Next Underwood is seen squaring off with a Putin-like figure over a crisis in the Middle East, where Underwood simply cannot wait to deploy troops. Many have questioned Obama’s strength in standing up to Putin — for continuity’s sake, here’s David Brooks doing it — to the point of crediting Putin with being a “real leader,” as opposed to Obama’s bumbling around. Underwood doesn’t stand for it: he flies out to the Jordan Valley his damn self, in military fatigues, like a certain real life president-warrior. This is the very mano a mano brand of bellicosity a certain strain of pundits have been begging to see from Obama. Action!

To lead is to act, to act is to lead. In the real life cognates of the above examples, it’s not the result that matters, but the symbolism of the action as an action. We must enact severe entitlement reform (at the cost of the poor and elderly) because it shows We’re Serious, and we must Be Serious about entitlement reform; the solution begs its demand. We must act in foreign theaters because it shows America Leads, that leadership comprising nothing more than the proof of itself. If any of these actions result in suffering, all the better, all the more Serious, all the more ennobling. As Underwood says at the close of one episode, “At least I did something!” The pundits have literally not put it any better.

Alas, Frank Underwood is a villain, of the Richard the Third variety, the type whom the play follows because he won’t be stopped. He is, in short, dramatically effective; he can be counted on to induce the next episode. That, not presiding, is his job. Tom Scocca once wrote that Brooks’ entitlement reform urgency was essentially aesthetic, objecting to the waste of people who needed the benefits. The Underwood administration reveals the criticisms of Obama as essentially dramatic: pundits want him to act, boldly, in fatigues, and no matter what the cost.

But just as conservatives’ brief love affair with Putin’s “leadership” soured upon a whiff of the despotism to which that antagonism leads, so is the fixation on action implicitly undermined by Underwood’s use of it. Underwood’s economic and military policies quickly pile upon themselves; actions beget improvisations, which trigger desperation; more than once Underwood or his wife wonder aloud how they arrived where they are. This is the corner Obama seeks to avoid. Where Underwood intuitively trusts his movements to secure his passage, Obama suspects their ramifications ten years out in the Middle East, a generation out domestically — hence the disinclination to engage militarily, the unwillingness to machete the social safety net in the midst of a recession. Underwood struts upon the stage, believing the strut will carry him; Obama sees the prancing as dangerous.

Not incidentally Obama’s original opponent was much farther out on the maverick scale, a fact the viewer is reminded of when candidates in Season 3 want to suspend their campaigns ahead of a hurricane. Senator John McCain suspended his campaign at the start of the 2008 financial collapse, a gambit viewed at the time as impetuous. He lost. House of Cards asks what would have happened if he’d won.

* Excluding Scandal’s President Hard-on.

[Image via screengrab]

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