Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Hollow Man
I'll admit to a great deal of personal embarrassment, almost to the point of shame, at how wrong I seem to have gotten Barack Obama. He was elected, in my view, above all else to change the story we Americans had been telling ourselves about the role of the public sector in the life of our country, and there was reason to believe he'd do this superbly.His 2005 Knox College commencement speech, which I've written about here many times, is an absolute masterpiece in this regard.

But Obama either no longer believes that story, or doesn't feel he can tell it. For all the political and policy successes his defenders can point to--and they are real--he hasn't done anything to restore the view held by Americans of past generations that government was on their side, actively defending their vulnerabilities and advancing their interests. As has been pointed out many times, he's bent over backwards to exonerate and incorporate many of the same Wall Street figures who were involved with the meltdown. The result is that If anything, the dysfunction of the federal government has people thinking even less of their representation than was the case three years ago--and increasingly drawing the conclusion that the system itself is broken. Hence Joan Walsh's piece in a couple days ago (which I was going to write about at greater length, but I think it fairly speaks for itself) making a strong case that the real "crisis of confidence" in the country is that of government, and Democrats as the "party of government."

Yesterday I wrote about the disappearance of the Left, the absence of any force to balance the Zombie Army of Tea Partiers that has emerged from the closed informational loop of FOX News and right-wing radio, identified the many choke points within the system devised by the Framers and dragged our country rightward... and down. I think it's a fair charge that almost everyone who worked so hard and gave so much to put Obama into office has faltered badly since then. But the other side of the argument--that Obama himself sold us a bill of goods, and has proven to be someone very different from the inspirational progressive leader and impassioned reformer we thought we had elected--is valid too, and today in the Times has perhaps its most powerful and persuasive case that I've seen, by the researcher and consultant Drew Westen.

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

The point that technological/economic change always precipitates a concentration of wealth as the best-connected use their informational advantages to take a disproportionate share, and the role of centrist populism (my words, not Westen's) in pushing through reforms in response to re-level the playing field, is 100 percent correct. I'm a little embarrassed that this hasn't previously occurred to me; that is *exactly* what happened with both Roosevelts, abetted by their successors of both parties (Taft and Wilson, Truman and Eisenhower). FDR was successful enough in creating a new regime of regulations and domestic institutions, in response to the Great Depression, and international institutions toward end of and following World War II, that the half-century after he died saw the flowering of the most successful civilization in human history--the America we all grew up in and expected would last indefinitely.

During the '90s and '00s, that order began to break down and things got badly out of whack. In addition to a new technological revolution (a tide that initially lifted all boats, as the lowest quintile saw income gains, and certainly did more than anything else to make Bill Clinton's presidency successful), we had the end of the Cold War, which had held things in check; the politically driven erosion of the New Deal regulatory apparatus; and the increasing role of money in politics, which was regarded widely, and on a bipartisan basis, as an enormous threat... but was never really addressed, at least not in a lasting way.

Clinton either didn't see all these things coming or didn't realize it would present such a problem; in any event, he owns a large share of this through his signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall which did a tremendous amount to set up the damage of a decade later. And of course George W. Bush was perfectly cast in the McKinley/Harding/Coolidge role of self-righteous schmuck who actively made things worse, throwing in unnecessary and calamitously expensive tax cuts and wars for good measure.

Elected in 2008 to set all this right, Obama seemed like our last, best chance to put everything back into balance. In this, it's hard to judge him as anything but a near-total failure. Westen tries to figure out why:

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. [...]

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. [...]

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

A lot of this stings. I read "Dreams From My Father" in summer 2007 while on vacation in California, and it moved me from likely favoring Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination to absolute, active, full-throated support. I left the book with a friend whom we stayed with and haven't re-read it since. I loved the idea of a president who was a better writer than me, but it also seemed clear that this was a man with unusual gifts of observation and analysis. As Westen observes, though, the truth is that he didn't really do that much in his pre-governmental career. And the "present" votes, in both the Illinois legislature and the Senate, seemed like such a transparently political attack that I shrugged it despite a slight tug of concern.

The last part especially registers, though. Obama's dual and dueling platforms were a perfect match for many of us conflicted ("self-hating" seems strong but maybe not inaccurate) liberals, who both wanted fundamental progressive reform and an end to the zero-sum politics of the previous twenty years, the Wars of the Clintons and Bushes. Our mistake, and maybe Obama's, was in thinking that this was somehow inherent to the Clintons: that the epistemic closure on the Right might open itself to a transparently temperate individual who both seemed to embody the possibilities of America and went out of his way to honor the perspective of his political opponents, even leaving rhetorical offerings at the Shrine of the Blessed Reagan. We thought that maybe Obama could win his political fights by co-opting his enemies rather than destroying them.

He could not, and in trying to do so only hurt his cause, and ours. The rising frustration so many of us now feel probably involves both our own culpability and increasing disbelief that he's still trying, rather than recognizing and responding to the true nature of an enemy that bears him a relentless, implacable and essentially lizard-brain hatred.

Edit: See here a vehement disagreement with Westen's argument. If you read it carefully, though, I think it's clear that 1) the writer's issue is less with the content of Westen's message than its form and some of the devices he uses, and 2) he blames liberals of Westen's stripe for seeing what they wanted to see in Obama rather than the candidate/president himself. Both points are fine, but neither really rebuts Westen's diagnosis of the problem: Obama isn't fighting, and as a result he, and progressivism, is losing. Badly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dave - OK, but what would you have Obama actually do? It seems to me that he would need to exercise the bully pulpit pretty strongly, something that both of the Roosevelts did - but that is against his temperament. If anything, FDR thrived on conflict. Furthermore, I think the bigger issue is that Obama has been unwilling to tell the American people at large to suck it up, the party's over. Unfortunately, Obama likes to talk about grand solutions but he's usually short on details and unwilling to really lead off by confronting the issues on his side of the table - he prefers, instead, for Congress to reach some deal he can approve and/or wait for the Republicans make make a first offer to compromise (which they generally won't at this time). Ultimately, Obama never was able to explain how he would reform Washington in light of his lack of a track record reforming the Senate, of which he was a part at the time - in that respect, he was weaker than McCain. In general, I like Obama's vision much better than that of the Republicans, but it's hard to argue, in spite of his legislative achievements as president, that he's winning the rhetoric game now. Finally, with respect to the recent spending-cutting bill to raise the debt ceiling, my view is that his efforts to have a "balanced" bill were undermined not only by the Republicans in the house, who consistently refused to budge, but also by the Democratic leadership in the Senate, who agreed to / announced a proposal that included no tax increases. Once both chambers of congress had proposals on the table that had no tax increases, Obama's only leverage was to threaten a veto - something that would have been likely reckless unless he was willing to make an end-run around Congress to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling (which itself would have been reckless on a different front). All of these points are to one side of the larger truth, which is that there is no appetite at all, in the White House or Congress, for an actual balanced budget, which is too much political pain despite being common sense.

FDR's conduct did define transformational leadership but also raised serious questions about whether he was staying within the boundaries of his constitutionally-granted powers. The constitution makes the president fairly weak on domestic issues - and I have little confidence that Congress is capable of making the tough decisions our country needs. I doubt Obama is willing to push the line, though if he makes a second term and no longer has another election to worry about, perhaps he would consider going on the offensive. That might be really effective, but it would go against much of what he ran on in 2008.