Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The Trouble with Obama

with 17 comments

Obama’s besetting political fault is his automatic adoption of the tone of command, accompanied by a persistent reluctance to be seen as the source of the policy he commandeers.

The trouble with Obama, from David Bromwich in LRB. Via Vu.

To push through even one more victory on the order of healthcare, Obama will have to give up the posture of mediator that comes naturally to him. He will have to admit in his political practice that there are parties; that he is the leader of a party; that there is a worse and a better cause; that it feels like a fight because it really is a fight. This does not mean just the adoption of a new set of tactics. It will require almost the emergence of a new character.

Written by gerrycanavan

May 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

17 Responses

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  1. Also worth quoting:

    His sense of personal invincibility was always accompanied by an extreme cautiousness. Many people think this has served him well at a time of crisis. I don’t agree; I wish Obama had acted more boldly, and think he could have done so. The large majority who admired him a month into his taking office included people disgusted by two wars, by the Cheney-Bush encroachment on civil liberties, and by the scale of the support being requested from taxpayers for the banks and brokerage houses. The war party and the ‘banksters’, as they are now called, were discredited; the time was ripe for a change and Obama had run with the idea that he would be its executor. It was a moment in foreign policy to pull back from militarism, and in domestic policy to create jobs and reroute the economy without following the advice of those who had ruined it. There were opportunities for reform of a sort that comes less often than once in a generation. Yet Obama acted on the assumption that the establishment is one and irreplaceable, and must be served in roughly its present form.


    May 14, 2010 at 10:44 am

  2. The results of off-year elections seem to bear out that hope. On 3 November last year, Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was elected governor of Virginia; on 19 January, a Republican who describes himself as independent, Scott Brown, won Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts. The scale of these victories made them particularly ominous. McDonnell took 59 per cent of the votes and Brown 52 per cent, in states where Obama a year earlier had pulled 53 per cent and 62 per cent respectively. Interviews suggested that these contests were interpreted by voters above all as referendums on the Obama presidency.

    This is classic cherry-picking. Since Obama was inaugurated there have been six special house races. Dems won all six. How does that fit into this narrative?

    Bill Simmon

    May 14, 2010 at 4:00 pm

  3. This is one that really kills me: “He has not yet given an entire speech that unfolds a coherent policy in any area of governance.” Really? How are we defining “coherent policy” in this context, because it would have to be razor thin for this sentence to make any sense.

    Bill Simmon

    May 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm

  4. The one that kills you rings true to me (though I would emphasize the piece’s larger critique that we need to judge Obama on actions, not words). We know that we’re supposed to support the things Obama supports when he supports them, and give up on those things when Obama gives up. I have increasingly less idea what those things are supposed to be at any given time. What happened to the public option, or Medicare buy-in, or the ERISA waiver? Why is DADT still around? Why is Guantanamo still open? Why does Obama now support offshore drilling? What are the actual policy goals for #finreg and how will they be achieved? What happened to card-check? Why the needless capitulation on Miranda? What is our here-and-no-further point for negotiations on climate change and immigration? I remember very well the days when Obama used to end speeches with “Let’s go change the world”; obviously he and I have very different opinions on the scope of that ambition. (Of course I knew this at the time — but I admit to being surprised by just how small some of his let’s-go-change-the-world ambitions now seem.)

    I’m obviously an Obama supporter, and honestly a strong one, but I don’t think we should just support him blindly. If we’re simply loyal foot soldiers we’ll never get any of the things we want. Honestly I like Alex’s idea; I think the progressive caucus should try to hold Kagan hostage until they get some real and immediate concessions out of the White House.


    May 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm

  5. Honestly I think six House special elections is more cherry-picking than losing Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. After November, barring some real lucky breaks, it’s going to be very clear that the time to pass legislation with teeth was 2009-2010. I think we could have gotten much more if Obama understood himself to be the leader of one political party rather than a mediator between two.


    May 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

  6. Gerry, just about every question you asked has a ready explanation, most of which have to do with tactical and process-oriented considerations. Some of those tactical considerations are subject to reasonable debate (I certainly have my own disagreements with respect to certain issues). But while it’s cheap, easy, and condescending to say that some of the leftist criticism of Obama seems to be the product of naivete, some of it, well, seems to be the product of naivete.

    -DADT is on a glide path to repeal. Obama has publicly supported its repeal.
    -The public option and Medicare buy-in were killed by Lieberman (and perhaps other centrist Dems hiding behind him). Obama publicly supported the former and obviously would’ve been happy with the latter.
    -There is literally not enough time and space on the calendar for card check. And I certainly don’t hear organized labor, which has been hand-in-glove tight with this administration, complaining about it.
    -Re: Miranda, you may have point; first I need to figure out what the hell Holder was trying to say.
    -On climate change, I’m not sure what you mean, but I agree that Obama really needs to step it up on this and make a major push for Senate passage this summer. I expect to be disappointed.
    -On immigration, there isn’t the time, space, or political will to get this through.

    Other issues are a matter of genuine disagreement. Obama didn’t suddenly start supporting oil drilling,

    People who do this stuff for a living have the benefit of intimate knowledge and experience, and the detriment of an echo chamber that can easily distract from a sense of purpose and perspective. The reverse is true for folks on the outside. I think that both play an indispensable role, but on balance, I think the criticisms from the outsider left are more often missing the mark than hitting it.

    As for the Bromwich article per se, it’s illustrative of a certain kind of abstract theoretical criticism of Obama that is heavy on psychoanalysis (Obama’s commenting that Blankfein and Dimon are savvy businessmen evidently showing off his need to bask in their reflected glory due to his non-elitist upbringing) and light on basic factual knowledge (Obama’s people probably didn’t call his plan Medicare for Everyone because it wasn’t). As much disdain as I have for the stenographic approach to political journalism that pervades these days, you can’t write these kinds of pieces without any reportage at all.

    Shankar D

    May 14, 2010 at 5:28 pm

  7. One other thing.

    One of the pervaisve problems with debates on the left about Obama is that people bring in all kinds of substantive assumptions about policy positions are “progressive” and meritorious. Obama’s support for nuclear power is therefore assumed to be a pre-concession rather than a substantive policy view, and that “concession” is asserted to be centrist/reactionary in character. Well maybe he supports nuclear power on its merits, and maybe there’s nothing especially “progressive” about opposing it.

    Shankar D

    May 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  8. yup. What Shankar D said.

    Bill Simmon

    May 14, 2010 at 8:50 pm

  9. Well, I learned long ago not to go up against Shankar D in an argument, but I’m not even sure how much we disagree here — it seems to be mostly a question of the sort of spin we put on our frustration with what’s coming out of Washington. Shankar thinks the bulk of the problem is entrenched individuals and institutions outside the Obama White House. I agree those things are huge problems and perhaps they are the biggest issue — but I also think we should recognize that the Obama White House itself (1) is far too cautious and (2) often has wrong or deeply flawed policy goals. As traxus has commented here a few times, I think we have to take seriously the idea that Obama isn’t just a victim of circumstances, but that he actually wants the wrong things. It’s useless and counterproductive for the progressive left to assume that Obama would do the things we want if only some long list of circumstances were different. (Even when circumstances do change, as they did several times during the health care debate, a new set of excuses inevitably materializes to justify the original compromise.) In fact, in many cases the Obama administration is itself responsible for producing the conditions that make these compromises “necessary” in the first place — most directly in the continued acceptance of the filibuster as a hard limit despite the existence of well-worn tactics that could get around it, beginning with the simple act of demonizing the opposition and moving quickly into budget reconciliation.


    May 14, 2010 at 10:01 pm

  10. One of the pervaisve problems with debates on the left about Obama is that people bring in all kinds of substantive assumptions about policy positions are “progressive” and meritorious. Obama’s support for nuclear power is therefore assumed to be a pre-concession rather than a substantive policy view, and that “concession” is asserted to be centrist/reactionary in character. Well maybe he supports nuclear power on its merits, and maybe there’s nothing especially “progressive” about opposing it.

    One of the things I’ve been hammering, more in offline conversations than online, is the fact that the term progresssive describes the coalition between the center-left and the hard-left that formed in opposition to the Bush administration. That’s why “progressives” keep arguing about what’s “progressive” and what isn’t; the term only ever meant not-Bush.


    May 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm

  11. […] socialists among you may blame Obama, but perhaps it really is just all Rahm’s […]

  12. the greenwald argument on white house excuses re: the public option:

    “The attempt to attract GOP support was the pretext which Democrats used to compromise continuously and water down the bill. But — given the impossibility of achieving that goal — isn’t it fairly obvious that a desire for GOP support wasn’t really the reason the Democrats were constantly watering down their own bill? Given the White House’s central role in negotiating a secret deal with the pharmaceutical industry, its betrayal of Obama’s clear promise to conduct negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN no less), Rahm’s protection of Blue Dogs and accompanying attacks on progressives, and the complete lack of any pressure exerted on allegedly obstructionists “centrists,” it seems rather clear that the bill has been watered down, and the “public option” jettisoned, because that’s the bill they want — this was the plan all along.”

    my sense is that obama supports a lot of things ‘on their merits’ over political pressure to act otherwise. like nuclear power, telecom immunity, targeted assassination of american citizens, the war in afghanistan, torture facilities, offshore drilling, centrist supreme court justices, etc. he is just not that far left, and it seems pretty straightforward for leftists and even left-liberals to challenge him on those points. one doesn’t even have to feel betrayed, though i still think his marketing campaign justifies that feeling to a degree. of course he has enacted significant legislation (including health care), and financial reform is turning out a little better than i thought it would, but the idea that people who share my political views still identify with him (are still ‘fans’) is bizarre to me.

    anyway, it’s not ‘naivete’ to believe the u.s. government consists of more than a set of established procedures and stable realities that function with machinelike precision regardless of circumstances or the views and ability of the individuals who carry them out.


    May 14, 2010 at 11:51 pm

  13. Vu, that article was written in August 2009, which makes it largely irrelevant to the actual demise of the public option. Reid included it in the merged Senate bill and only after Lieberman said he couldn’t support it (OR the Medicare buy-in compromise) did they scuttle it. It wasn’t about getting Republican votes, it was about getting Democratic ones. In the end, they passed a bill with the minimum amount of support necessary, which didn’t include any Republicans.

    I agree that leftists (and anyone) who disagrees with Obama on the merits should make and defend such arguments. But I’ll note that the people who use these areas of disagreement to characterize Obama as a “centrist” are setting a standard that would probably rule out the possibility of any President in American history being anything but a centrist. Maybe that’s the case, but that just goes to the uselessness of these labels.

    Shankar D

    May 15, 2010 at 1:06 pm

  14. Reid was also promising a vote on the public option for later this year, even after the scuttling. I suppose the year’s not over yet, but I’m not holding my breath.

    In the end, they passed a bill with the minimum amount of support necessary, which didn’t include any Republicans.

    My understanding is that they could have passed either the public option and the Medicare buy-in through reconciliation, in which case they still had 9 or 10 votes to spare (even/especially after the main bill was passed with 60 in December). OpenLeft had nearly 50 on the record as supporting this strategy before Reid and the White House shut them down. That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make: whatever else might be said about the merits of their approach, we have to recognize that it’s *their own strategy* that produces the conditions that continually make these compromises “necessary.” Under a more aggressive strategy they could have passed both the public option and Medicare buy-in too; I think they should have.


    May 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm

  15. But by that point, they couldn’t get the public option passed through the House.

    I do think there’s room for reasonable debate and disagreement about tactics. While it’s sometimes difficult to tease out the counterfactual scenarios and to get a handle on the many moving political and legislative parts, that certainly doesn’t prevent me from having my own critiques (e.g., re: the stimulus), so I don’t have a problem with you or anyone else offering theirs. But I do think it’s important to keep the forest in mind even while haggling about the trees. On health care, Obama had lots of reasons not to go big, but he did. Making the initial decision to do it, to stick with it through the fall, and to really double down after Scott Brown and get it done in the face of relatively weak public support – that’s exactly the kind of anti-Clintonesque ambition and boldness that he bragged he would bring, and it’s no small thing.

    Now, I’d like to see him do the same on clean energy and climate change, but I expect to be disappointed.

    Shankar D

    May 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  16. […] I’ve been here quite a while. […]

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