In my office, I’m staring at a frothy, animated fellow who looks like the Brawny paper towel man in a $7,000 suit shout about how determined he is to replace my boss. Normally, this public coup d’etat desire would merely be off-putting to us employees and perhaps a time to silently hide under our desks until it all blows over.
But not in this case. My boss is Barack Obama, and the next year is going to get weird.
Watching the governor of Texas say mean things about your work and your employer on television is strange enough. There’s a funhouse mirror quality about being bad-mouthed as a vague hypothetical entity while also simultaneously eating a turkey sandwich. But the oddity of the moment for me stems back to Election Day ’08. I don’t want to speak for anyone, but when Barack Obama became president maybe you felt a twinge of joyous relief? Perhaps you watched the inauguration and sensed some kind of delighted satisfaction? I remember those feelings. They definitely happened.
And I wasn’t alone. Vast majorities of Americans told pollsters that a President Obama made them feel more hopeful about their government and their country. It was going to be a New Day for public service. People would see government as a place where folks can come together to help Joe Q. Public and his Costco-sized shopping list of real-life problems. Financial regulation, long since shredded by a playbook from a rococo libertarian fever dream, would be welcomed back and would at least make the country-club plutocracy ask politely before using the economy as a sandbox toy. Instead, President Obama and his policies have produced Nixonian approval ratings and a national electorate looking to Washington with shoulder-slumping, Phantom Menace-esque disappointment.
And now the campaign to find me a new boss is up in earnest. Though my job is ostensibly political in nature, I’m what the Washington HR people call a “career” employee, which basically means I stick around the bowels of government even if there’s a change in administration. In other words, the paychecks will keep coming even if President Obama is replaced by, say, Fox Sports’ dancing, guitar-wielding football robot. There are 2 million of us civilian employees in the federal government, though 85 percent work outside the Washington, D.C. area. You might know us best as fat that needs to be cut – the over-paid, under-worked, lampoonishly inefficient laggards who are sacrificially offered up any time wages need to be cut or hiring freezes need to be implemented to appease angry mobs.
At least that’s how we’re perceived during a GOP primary. This campaign—a nonsense-delivery mechanism devoid of any stated ethos beyond italicized exclamation points—is from my professional vantage a bit sickening to watch. It’s like following a high-production reality show that lets the dim-bulb who balanced on a narrow wooden perch the longest get a 50/50 shot at dictating the lives of an entire city’s worth of employees. It’s cliché in Washington after decades of asinine ur-narcissists sprinting to D.C. to save us from ourselves, but the constant battery does have an effect on a town’s psyche. Role-play might help; let’s pretend your name is Steve Fine. Now pretend that the animate piece of beef jerky that is Rick Perry is going around telling anyone who will listen that “Steve Fine is what’s wrong with America.” Or that wild-eyed mouth-breather Michele Bachmann goes on TV and says, “Steve Fine is literally to blame for your troubles.” You get the idea. And millions of Americans are happily lathering themselves in Perry’s dim aggro bluster and Bachmann’s earnest incoherence and on and on down the horror show list of hopefuls. We know how the rest of you feel about us, and frankly it makes us want to go into therapy.
Of course, I shouldn’t over-generalize—half of Washington would be giddy at the sight of the Obama family’s packed Samsonite on the First Lawn awaiting the moving vans. I have a good relationship with my neighbor; we wave hello at each other; we alternate turns rolling the recycling bins to the curb. None of that changes the fact that on any given day, he is rubbing his palms together in glee at the prospect of the absolute ruination of my nascent career. To be fair to him, it’s been a long three years in the wilderness for the young Reagan-worshippers. (It’s been enough time for Polo shirt collar-popping to seemingly run its course, like the swing music revival or defenses of waterboarding.) Though this city still probably leads the country in people who willingly describe themselves as WASPs, when President Obama was handed the conch and Democrats began settling in, those of us who’ve been here for years started seeing a lot less seersucker and a lot more boho-chic.
At the same time—to go back to my first point—the country really seemed to view Washington as something new and shiny. We weren’t just going to be the city with the fattest tourists and the worst bagels in the country. No, this was our time now. The Real World rented a house down the street from me. Nancy Pelosi diced vegetables on Top Chef. A couple filming The Real Housewives of D.C. snuck into a State Department function at the White House and proceeded to be both ubiquitous and boring for months. There was a perceptible buzz in town; the Obamaglow was making us all hipper through osmosis. And it was this glamour and energy that was going to make government work itself cool too.
Oh well. Still, the murmuring din of disapproval from our fellow Americans will be child’s play to the outright abusive opprobrium us government employees will get should this town change over. D.C. is a transient place with an inherently cyclical determination of populist attitudes, but even for lifers that switch-over can jostle at the soul. Whoever happens to be running the show dictates how we live, how we work, how we feel about ourselves. Politics is the central economy here and is similarly ingrained into our over-saturated brains. (Even those who’ve managed to avoid working in the industry have to hustle double-time to avoid getting hoovered into countless conversations that even I admit become just kind of fucking gross in their repetitive and obtuse dullness.) For those of us who depend on the whim of the Oval Office to give our lives purpose, election-time tends to hand us a professional kind of schizophrenia, turning us into the kind of people you learn to be unreliable narrators in latter sections of Philip K. Dick stories.
In any case, the campaign season throughout this next year will be beguiling in its own way, though the degree to which it will be tolerable will be determined by how much hypertrophic assholishness the candidates choose to employ. The exhausting campaign calls back to a book by Stephen King (written under his nom de plume Richard Bachman) called The Long Walk, which follows 100 boys who start walking south from Maine and any time—any time—they slow down past four miles an hour, they get a warning. Three warnings gets you eliminated, i.e. shot in the head with a gun. Last kid still on his feet wins the prize. That’s the kind of soulless, anhedonia-inducing marathon that following presidential campaigns can be. But it’s just the fate of the country, the world and my professional sanity at stake—so, you know, here’s hoping for the best.