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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.
May 14, 2010 8:21 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by gerryblog (61 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Actually it looks like financial reform will pass probably pass pretty easily. Everyone wants a piece of the banks to take home as a trophy before the midterm elections.
posted by delmoi at 8:27 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually it looks like financial reform will pass probably pass pretty easily.

What about the climate, though? Hate to seem like I'm validating Rush, but this Gulf oil spill had the best timing evar.
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on May 14, 2010


Sounds like you're validating Kanye.
posted by cashman at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2010


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.
What? I don't know about Virginia, but my impression of the MA election was that people just didn't like Martha Coakley.
What about the climate, though?
Well, I was responding to the "even one more victory" thing. Financial Reform will probably be another victory. It looks like after that they will try to push through immigration reform, and that will probably take on a far more partisan tone. We'll have to see.
posted by delmoi at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2010


DU: the Gulf spill makes the climate bill harder to pass; if we can't give them more offshore drilling there's nothing to bribe Republican senators with.
posted by gerryblog at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oil spill taketh away the bribing carrot but provideth the 'look what your lack of regulation causes' stick.
posted by Babblesort at 8:38 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


if we can't give them more offshore drilling there's nothing to bribe Republican senators with.

We could try bribing them with gay sex and meth.
posted by spicynuts at 8:40 AM on May 14, 2010 [42 favorites]


delmoi, he actually says "on more victory on the order of health care." Perhaps some version of financial reform would qualify, but we'll see what actually passes.

And even health care, as any diligent reader of MetaFilter knows, was filled with compromises and concessions, many of them arguably unnecessary given that they resulted in no Republican support. Whether or not one "supports" the health care package as ultimately passed it's hard not to see it fitting squarely within the critique of Obama as cautious to the point of self-defeat:
...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.
posted by gerryblog at 8:43 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Interesting stuff:
Obama’s calculations, then, are plausible and may pay off; yet he has made mistakes nobody would have predicted. The truth is that he did not come into office a fully equipped politician. He was new to the national elite and enjoyed his membership palpably. This came out in debates and town meetings where he often mentioned that the profits from his books had lodged him in the highest tax bracket. It would emerge later in his comment on Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan: ‘I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.’ One can’t imagine Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy saying such a thing, or wanting to say it. They had known ‘those guys’ all their lives and felt no tingle of reflected glory. Obama has not yet recognised that his conspicuous relish of his place among the elite does him two kinds of harm: it spurs resentment in people lower down the ladder; and it diminishes his stature among the grandees by showing that he needs them.
Interesting point. I've definitely noticed this Obama seems enamored by the corporate world and elites. More then that, the rich and powerful seem to have built up a mythology about themselves -- just read some Tom Friedman columns to get a sense of it. Basically that they are great men of action making the world better place by greasing the gears of commerce and that they deserve the massive rewards they are taking in. They think they have a sort of quantitative mastery of the world.

Anyway, Obama seems to buy it. Kind of annoying, because it's obviously B.S.
posted by delmoi at 8:45 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Oil spill taketh away the bribing carrot but provideth the 'look what your lack of regulation causes' stick.

And that's precisely the sort of argument Obama refuses to make.
posted by gerryblog at 8:45 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have to say, it's a nice change to see Republicans whine about how mean the big bad Democrats are to them.
posted by Kattullus at 8:46 AM on May 14, 2010


if we can't give them more offshore drilling there's nothing to bribe Republican senators with.

Because conservatizing the healthcare bill got SO MUCH of the GOP onboard.
posted by DU at 8:47 AM on May 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have to say, it's a nice change to see Republicans whine about how mean the big bad Democrats are to them.

Uh, they do that constantly.
posted by delmoi at 8:51 AM on May 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


DU: Well, we had 60 votes then, we only have 59 now. We need at least one GOP defector, probably more to cover people like Landrieu (D-BP).

Or we could use more hardball tactics like reconciliation, which would be my preferred strategy—but that would again require Obama to abandon his posture as mediator.
posted by gerryblog at 8:51 AM on May 14, 2010


His voice has proved not so sure a thing. It alters obviously and with discernible intent, according to its audience: taking on King-like overtones for a crowd of black people; in the Midwest dropping the terminal g and dipping into homey cadences (‘What we’re tryin’ to do’); massively sober in speeches to Congress but relaxed in town-hall meetings (with reliance on the word ‘folks’).

That’s a strange criticism to make. First, all politicians do this – I would say all people adjust their speech depending on their audience. Second, why would it be a surprise that the President speaks differently in a town-hall meeting than he does in a formal speech to the entire congress?
posted by Think_Long at 8:51 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Obama, where no response was necessary, chose to say: ‘Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning any more: the election’s over.’ Before the putdown, McCain had looked small and confused – there was dead air all around him – but Obama by his response awarded him the pathos of a beaten man.

I didn't take that away from that exchange at all. I thought that was actually a fairly pivotal moment -- it was a key moment in the health care summit in February that helped turn things in the bill's favor. The author of this essay also chides Obama for being too cautious and plodding. This moment was neither of those things. Besides, McCain has always looked small and confused for at least the past 5 years.

A single-minded leader, one who planted himself in convictions more definite than tendencies, would use the word ‘empire’ often in a neutral and non-endorsing manner. He would make Americans wary of it as an unpleasant fact. And while acknowledging the necessity of this or that measure of emergency defence, he would convey the burden of the unloading of billions of dollars that renders the maintenance of empire untenable.

This guy is smoking crack if he thinks that any American president would use the term "empire" in a way that "would make Americans wary of it." Obama already gets shit for seeming to be uncomfortable with the concept of American exceptionalism. And on the one hand (according to this) Obama's too idiosyncratic, on the other, not "single-minded" enough. This is basically a stringing-together of complaints without much of any coherent unifying theme other than the author's discomfort with Obama's style.

Obama seems enamored by the corporate world and elites.

Few members of the elite class are openly disdainful of the elite class. Franklin Roosevelt could be an exception, as this author says, but he was in a far different time and circumstance. Expecting Obama to aspire to be FDR is absurd.
posted by blucevalo at 8:52 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


But Obama sees himself as a political Kantian, ruling within the Categorical Imperative ("Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."). I don't mean that his policies follow the Categorical Imperative, but his politics: he believes that there is an ideal way for politicians to behave, and that's how he behaves. Obama seems to believe that he ought to make decisions not based on the current political climate or circumstances, but what is "objectively" the correct decision for American life.
posted by Think_Long at 8:53 AM on May 14, 2010


To push through even one more victory on the order of healthcare

How many presidents get even one victory on the order of health care?
posted by callmejay at 8:55 AM on May 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


What? I don't know about Virginia, but my impression of the MA election was that people just didn't like Martha Coakley.
posted by delmoi


She barely even campaigned. Someone who worked for it but had a huge scandal hanging over them would have likely still beaten Scott Brown. Wasn't even the jaws of victory she snatched defeat from, more like the bowels.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:55 AM on May 14, 2010


Few members of the elite class are openly disdainful of the elite class. Franklin Roosevelt could be an exception, as this author says, but he was in a far different time and circumstance. Expecting Obama to aspire to be FDR is absurd.

If anything, the elites were MORE powerful in FDR's time. Perhaps less on their guard because of it, though.
posted by DU at 8:56 AM on May 14, 2010


One thing that I never understood is why the Democrats don't just try to pass a series of small bills that would be politically popular, but Republicans would oppose. Especially since it seems like they are bound to oppose just about anything. It seems like this would allow you to build up some momentum in the popular opinion of your party, while keeping the unpopular opinions of the other party in front of the people.

For example, I'm sure that a bill that would make oil companies responsible for any costs of cleanups of oil spills would be really popular with the public, and fairly unpopular with Republican lawmakers. So just make a really simple bill that says that one thing and pass it, or make the Republicans filibuster it. I think that there was actually a bill in process that would have done something similar.

There are any number of issues that you could find that would fit this description. Just small, simple bills that your party could point to in the next election. Get a conveyor belt of these bills going, don't load things up into big bills that have a bunch of questionable provisions that the other party can point to. Especially helpful are things that are politically popular with both your base and independent voters, like increased funding for adoption services, orphans, mental health benefits for veterans or stuff like that. That stuff is all spending, but I'm sure you could find some red tape to get rid of that would let you claim that you were simplifying the regulations of things.

Big bills are hard to get a large portion of the public behind in the era of Fox news. If you have to do horse trading, just say that we'll make another bill that's about something that you want and vote for that. Just get all of the party on one team that's checking off this list of accomplishments.
posted by jefeweiss at 8:57 AM on May 14, 2010 [9 favorites]


Kattullus: "I have to say, it's a nice change to see Republicans whine about how mean the big bad Democrats are to them."

Oh yes, let's recall the balls out bullying that Dennis "The Hammer" Kucinich engaged in. Wait that was who? Tom DeLay? What?
posted by boo_radley at 8:58 AM on May 14, 2010


For example, I'm sure that a bill that would make oil companies responsible for any costs of cleanups of oil spills would be really popular with the public, and fairly unpopular with Republican lawmakers.

I think you may be confusing "Democrats" with "progressives". The latter would probably love nothing more, while the former would be almost as put-out as the GOP.
posted by DU at 8:59 AM on May 14, 2010


blucevalo: Expecting Obama to aspire to be FDR is absurd.

I feel as though one of us must have misheard Obama during the 2008 campaign.
posted by gerryblog at 9:00 AM on May 14, 2010


jefeweiss: Atrios calls that "making them eat shit" and wonders why the Democrats haven't done more of it.
posted by gerryblog at 9:00 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If this is what we get when he's, at most, disappointed some people with his agenda, I don't even want to think about the wailing that would happen if he actually had a significant political setback.
posted by Copronymus at 9:03 AM on May 14, 2010


seconding delmoi. Every democrat I knew in Massachussets HATED Coakley. Just could not stand the fact that they had to vote for her
posted by slapshot57 at 9:07 AM on May 14, 2010


I didn't take that away from that exchange at all. I thought that was actually a fairly pivotal moment -- it was a key moment in the health care summit in February that helped turn things in the bill's favor. The author of this essay also chides Obama for being too cautious and plodding. This moment was neither of those things. Besides, McCain has always looked small and confused for at least the past 5 years.
I don't really think that's true at all.
Few members of the elite class are openly disdainful of the elite class. Franklin Roosevelt could be an exception, as this author says, but he was in a far different time and circumstance. Expecting Obama to aspire to be FDR is absurd.
I think the authors point, and it's probably a good one, is that Obama should pretend to be disdainful. Part of the problem, I think, is that Obama wasn't always a member of this group. He was only in the senate for 4 years, two before he started campaigning.
But Obama sees himself as a political Kantian, ruling within the Categorical Imperative ("Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."). I don't mean that his policies follow the Categorical Imperative, but his politics: he believes that there is an ideal way for politicians to behave, and that's how he behaves. Obama seems to believe that he ought to make decisions not based on the current political climate or circumstances, but what is "objectively" the correct decision for American life.
Like offshore drilling! But come on, that's the biggest load ever. You can justify anything with that, there's almost no information value in that description. If you make a compromise, like we saw over and over with HCR, you can just say it was being done to move forward with something rather then nothing. On the other hand if you fight for a position, you can argue that it's better to fight for the ideal then compromise with people with bad ideas.

Secondly, it's impossible to know how Obama thinks without knowing him personally, and if you did you would probably say mostly nice things.

I think Obama is just a good politician. We can't weigh in on any of his policies or decisions untill the election, and most voters don't actually pay much attention to these minor issues. But, the rich and powerful, elites, people in the media do. And they influence senators and congresspeople. So it makes sense for him to go after and suck up to those people.

When the election comes around, you can expect to see him pivot to a more populist positioning.
posted by delmoi at 9:16 AM on May 14, 2010


Oil spill taketh away the bribing carrot but provideth the 'look what your lack of regulation causes' stick.

And that's precisely the sort of argument Obama refuses to make.


Obama last night:
"After they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. No! You can’t drive! We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch. We just got the car out.

You would have thought at a time of historic crisis that Republican leaders would have been more willing to help us find a way out of this mess," Obama added. "Particularly since they created the mess."
posted by DU at 9:19 AM on May 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


While the article was quite long, it seems to boil down to two main (and quite popular) criticisms: 1) Obama is one of the elite, we hear it in the way he speaks to the common folk, and the way he speaks about the other elite (bankers, corporations, etc.). 2) Obama is aloof, and refuses to engage in the debate, trusting that everything will according to plan because everybody likes him.

This is an odd way to characterize the president because it leaves no way for Obama to win. If he does not engage with the debate, he is accused of being uncaring and distant. When he does get down and dirty, the author says Obama is condescending and schoolmarmish – “Obama, where no response was necessary, chose to say: ‘Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning any more: the election’s over.’” He literally can not win.

Then there was this bit: “He was new to the national elite and enjoyed his membership palpably. This came out in debates and town meetings where he often mentioned that the profits from his books had lodged him in the highest tax bracket.”

So, being honest about your financial situation is actually rubbing it in our faces? Does the President of the United fucking States really need to gloat about his wealth and success to the rest of America? This criticism is too wide-ranged and unfocused.
posted by Think_Long at 9:19 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


One thing that I never understood is why the Democrats don't just try to pass a series of small bills that would be politically popular, but Republicans would oppose. Especially since it seems like they are bound to oppose just about anything. It seems like this would allow you to build up some momentum in the popular opinion of your party, while keeping the unpopular opinions of the other party in front of the people.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the country has serious problems that need to be fixed? That's what Bill Clinton did in the 90s and he ended up pretty popular, right? Except look at the healthcare system. It was bad when he took office and it's kept getting worse and worse in the past 20 years. Democratic voters would have been pretty upset with a non-universal package (although the current bill does still leave some people out)

Same thing with Climate Change. That's, like, a real actual problem and passing "small, popular bills" is not going to stop it.

That said, the healthcare could have been smaller and more popular, but keep in mind that democratic senators are just as on the take dependant on healthcare industry dollars to get reelected.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, being honest about your financial situation is actually rubbing it in our faces? Does the President of the United fucking States really need to gloat about his wealth and success to the rest of America? This criticism is too wide-ranged and unfocused.
The point was that he should not brag about it. That seemed pretty clear to me.
posted by delmoi at 9:23 AM on May 14, 2010


DU, I saw that and I was glad. If this is the way he talks all summer, I'll be happy. But as the article points out, we can't fall into the trap of confusing words for deeds: ...an odd thing about Obama’s presidency has been the extent to which his speeches are taken to be the site of the real action.
posted by gerryblog at 9:25 AM on May 14, 2010


The point was that he should not brag about it. That seemed pretty clear to me.

I hear that as him being honest, and pointing out that his own policies are going to increase his tax liability.

Ack, I’m coming off as too much of an Obamaphile in this thread, I’m going to step out for the morning. I just didn’t read this critical piece as particularly focused, realistic, or enlightening.
posted by Think_Long at 9:29 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you may be confusing "Democrats" with "progressives".

The Dems haven't been progressive since Clinton redefined compromise as pandering to corporate money while appeasing liberal voters. Obama is the pinnacle of a party that has come to pursue lose-lose compromises as wins. One more "victory" like the health care act and we are lost.
posted by diorist at 9:32 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure quite what to make of this article - some of what it has to say about Obama moving away from popular concerns or the populist base of the democratic party seems reasonable enough.

When it comes to Obama's leadership style and the way that he operates as a politician, though, it seems so wrong that at times it almost seems exactly backwards. Especially in the earlier sections, I found myself thinking "oh yes, that would be very true - if you turned it completely on its head".

For example, he says that "A spontaneous ability to laugh at oneself, or to make a witty remark that doesn’t wound, is always appreciated in a politician, but it has not been given to Obama." - yet I found his books full of quite a bit of wry humour at his own expense. Yes, his judgements can be pretty cutting - but the ability to sum someone up in a very subtle, yet damning, way that immediately crystalises an observer's opinion of them into a final and seemingly rational judgement - that is a great gift in a politician.

"Obama’s besetting political fault is his automatic adoption of the tone of command" - this seems reminiscent of the Conservative talking point that Obama lectures like a Professor. It's an odd complaint for David Bromwich to make, given that he is a Professor himself, at Yale. Anyway, during the 2008 election, it always seemed to me that one of Obama's greatest strengths was that, despite being initially an outside challenger, he somehow could create the air of running as an incumbent.

I could go on. The whole article just seems weirdly... dissatisfied with someone who has actually proven to be a strong and idiosyncratic democrat leader? And the style is a bit pompous, too. Perhaps that is too harsh.

As far as Obama actually changing his style, that seems unlikely. He has a pretty settled way of dealing with things, based on serenely driving towards a kind of enforced consensus. This has worked well in the past, so I don't think he'd abandon it now.
posted by lucien_reeve at 9:37 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hear that as him being honest, and pointing out that his own policies are going to increase his tax liability.

Oh come on. It actually wouldn't have much of an impact at just $400k (which is what the president makes) and the book sales were mostly before the rate hike. Obviously he could write other books and probably will.

But actually I think the point he was actually trying to make was I wasn't born rich, I haven't been rich for a long time, just two years ago I was middle class like you. I don't see the statement as particularly problematic, I just found it odd that you seemed to think the author was saying Obama should brag more about it.
posted by delmoi at 9:37 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


he's a leader of the establishment, not the leader of a party - and his plan seems to be acting reasonable and inclusive while his lieutenants and allies do the dirty work

it's probably the only way he can act and get something done - that it doesn't result in radical change shouldn't be surprising, seeing as he is the leader of the establishment - he wouldn't be where he's at if there was any indication he meant to really shake things up

it's disappointing but realistic - and given that role, his decision to play it in the way he has is an intelligent one
posted by pyramid termite at 9:49 AM on May 14, 2010


"One can’t imagine Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy saying such a thing, or wanting to say it. They had known ‘those guys’ all their lives and felt no tingle of reflected glory."

So only people who have been members of the elite for their entire lives can...what?

This is weird twisted classism.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:49 AM on May 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think you may be confusing "Democrats" with "progressives".

The Dems haven't been progressive since Clinton redefined compromise as pandering to corporate money while appeasing liberal voters. Obama is the pinnacle of a party that has come to pursue lose-lose compromises as wins. One more "victory" like the health care act and we are lost.
What exactly is the genesis of this resurgence of the word "Progressive"? Who came up with it? I had always thought of it is as a sort of grass roots thing, until I heard Hillary Clinton call herself that during the primary debate, and certainly she fit that mold the least. So what does it even mean now? Seems like a fairly-meaningless descriptor, one that people on the left try to apply to their particular set of views and anyone who disagrees as being less then progressive.
posted by delmoi at 9:51 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


lucien-reeve: "Obama’s besetting political fault is his automatic adoption of the tone of command" - this seems reminiscent of the Conservative talking point that Obama lectures like a Professor.

My last comment before I myself step out for a while (in part because I'm sounding a lot more like an Obama-phobe than I really am, as well as unnecessarily cheerleading Bromwich). But there's a necessary second half to this criticism: ...accompanied by a persistent reluctance to be seen as the source of the policy he commandeers. Obama, to a fault, relinquishes his own power in favor of this idea that he's a mediator between two warring sides, Democrats and Republicans, both of whom have their good points and their blind spots. Of course he doesn't always do this, but he does it a lot—and it filters down into actual policy through these continued quixotic efforts to gain even a single GOP vote for legislation.

Bromwich's view, which I happen to share, is that this was exactly the wrong approach for our moment; at a time when Obama could have made a strong case for progressive legislation, additional regulation, and various forms of "big government," he's instead stepped back and allowed much less popular, much less charismatic Democratic politicians make that case instead. His legislation and appointments—not the promises but what the bills actually say when they're passed—likewise reflect a basic unwillingness to fight, even on fights like DADT he could easily win.

By pretending to be above the fray, Obama hasn't done the heavy lifting needed to shift the Overton Window back left. Now it's too late; after November his hands are likely to be tied, and the moment for big progressive gains basically lost. I was hoping that Obama would be the progressive Reagan, but he looks a lot more like Clinton II.
posted by gerryblog at 9:52 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just found it odd that you seemed to think the author was saying Obama should brag more about it.

Hmm, I must have communicated poorly because that’s not what I meant to say at all. I thought Bromwich was criticizing Obama for gloating about his new wealthy status, when it seems to me that Obama wasn’t bragging but making a point, because I don’t believe Obama really has anything to gain by gloating about money when he is the most powerful person in the country.

And yes, I think the phrase also serves as a way to remind people of his middle-class roots – but why can’t it do both?
posted by Think_Long at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2010


Maybe this is a start. Let's see what happens next.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to end the "cosy relationship" between oil companies and US regulators in the light of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Promising "relentless" efforts to stop the oil leak, he rebuked oil industry executives for seeking to pass on blame for the disaster in Congress.

He condemned "the ridiculous spectacle of oil executives falling over each other to point the finger of blame".

posted by saulgoodman at 10:07 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obama, to a fault, relinquishes his own power in favor of this idea that he's a mediator between two warring sides, Democrats and Republicans, both of whom have their good points and their blind spots.

As it happens, I agree with this: the right option when confronted with two extreme positions is not always the middle ground. If you catch a robber in your house stealing your TV and laptop, you'd find it pretty cheeky if he turned around and said "alright, you want to keep your stuff, I want to rob you, let's compromise - I'll just take the laptop". :)

At the same time, I think that Obama's openness, his appearance of balance and judgement, serve him very well as a politician. That's where I disagree with Bromwich.

Still, thank you for bringing an interesting article to my attention. I have always liked the LRB. (They do seem to be consistently wrong about Obama, though - I still have an issue from 2007 kicking around somewhere which contains a review of Obama's books and predicts that he's just too nice, no match for Hillary and will be dispatched in short order).
posted by lucien_reeve at 10:09 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


We got our foot in the door with HCR, it was far less than a sterling victory, but it is a beginning that would not have happened with the GOP at the helm. That said, Obama is not going to save America; he may even make things worse in some important ways. America is always looking for a savior, because the learned behavior over the last 6 decades is that we pull out of messy problems after some hashing around. Not. This. Time.

America is in serious trouble, and we are now on a course of recalibration that results from rather permanent structural changes that have forever changed the power and hubris that we could apply to any one problem.

There is no more liberal; there is no more conservative - there is only pragmatic adaptation. Actually, I think Obama understands this, and as a result he is going to disappoint his base over and over again (and he knows it), but will hopefully make enough small gains to put us in a better position than we would have been if more self-interested politicos were in power. Get used to it America, we are going to have to adapt to change; we can't finesse the cost of our excess anymore - it's time to adapt. Change is difficult - especially difficult if behaviors and expectations that are counterproductive (like not paying attention because things have gone so swimmingly in the last decades). There is no more wiggle room; there is no more white knight; there is only adaptation in a world that is no longer our oyster. Welcome to the New America. I can't wait!
posted by Vibrissae at 10:31 AM on May 14, 2010


Wait, someone is saying that Obama would make more progress if he were more angry and fighty? I'm shocked! This is deeply original thinking!
posted by Artw at 10:31 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


This guy is smoking crack if he thinks that any American president would use the term "empire" in a way that "would make Americans wary of it."

America is "smoking crack" if they they think they can get away with this empire shit much longer. But I agree with you - why should Obama want to point out that America stands on top of a huge, crumbling empire sustained by overwhelming and brutal exertion of military power?

He likes this stuff - look at his expansion of the war in Afghanistan, the brand new "drone war" that's all his - this empire has made him the most powerful man in the world, arguably the most powerful Black man (not just African-American) in history. He clearly doesn't give a tinker's damn about innocent people getting killed - witness his vile jokes about using drones to kill. He's pretty bright, but not smart enough to stand back a bit and see where the US is in history.

If you want my biased interpretation of 20th century history, it's that we in the West were incredibly lucky to have two separate brilliant leaders at two key moments - FDR and Churchill. FDR brought us the New Deal, the engine for America's brilliant 50-year run as the most productive country in history; and Churchill saved Europe from being overrun by the Nazis. It used to be a truism that the tough times brought out the great men - where are they now?

Love or hate Mr. Obama, it's hard not to concede that he hasn't shown any leadership - leading means being ahead of your "followers", leading them in new directions that they might not have expected or even wanted, not continuing the almost exact path of your predecessors. Mr. Obama might be a great conciliator, compromiser or even negotiator (though at least publicly he seems to negotiate about as well as a 14-year-old who has studied the probability tables thoroughly plays poker, which is to say he doesn't make any obvious "mistakes" but still ends up consistently losing because he has no understanding of the betting process and thus his winning pots are much smaller than they should be) but conciliation, compromise and negotiation have little to do with "leadership" and much more to do with "following others".

He is so far, as Harper's very presciently pointed out quite early in his term, the Herbert Hoover of our times. I pray that we be granted an FDR to save us from the consequences of our actions, but I can't believe we'll be so lucky again.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:40 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


No, lupus, George W. Bush was Herbert Hoover squared, and Obama is only the square root of FDR; there stands our problem. (Also that the GOP alternatives are a platoon of Huey Longs)
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:58 AM on May 14, 2010


"What exactly is the genesis of this resurgence of the word "Progressive?"

It can be either meaningless or exclusive, but not both.

Especially in the last couple of decades, progressive has been revived by (and applied to) populists critical of Democratic leadership's increasingly non-populist positions. So, yes, when a DNC darling like Hillary co-opts the term, that usage is inane. Still, progressive generally remains useful in distinguishing liberals from non-Republicans, without actually invoking the tarnished epithet liberal.
posted by diorist at 11:15 AM on May 14, 2010


This is an odd way to characterize the president because it leaves no way for Obama to win… He literally can not win.

Especially where Bromwich mentions Obama is playing The Game.

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.

That's a cute turn of phrase. Obama must steal policy ideas, but doesn't want to be seen as the source of that policy, but also is too commanding in leadership, but he's not asserting himself enough to lead.

I find it ironic that people who continually berated Bush and the GOP in general as being overbearing and authoritarian and dominating their party into lockstep crushing dissent of any kind, fault Obama for not being overbearing and authoritarian and dominating the party and for leading but allowing dissent.

Libertarians are right to see him as an outsize admirer of legitimate authority who relies on state power far too much and too implicitly.

‘Obama – he’s like this, but he’s like that. He’s elite, but not elite enough. I don’t understand what he’s doing sometimes, so that must be wrong.’

Plenty of things to criticize Obama on – civil liberties alone chaps my ass – but this is so abstract and academic.

Perhaps it’s because subtlety hasn’t been a part of American politics for a long time.
Look at McCain and Palin (who is STILL on f’ing t.v. and newspaper front pages for some reason) – their statements are unambiguous declarations of intent and identity like bad Disney t.v. movie characters. “ our men and women in uniform, are a force for good throughout the world, and that is nothing to apologize for” – wtf does that even mean?
It’s all the same pattern: “Blah blah is this. I’m this. You are this. This is good. Not like those other people who think something else.”
That’s been nearly everyone though.

I think what Bromwich is alluding to in some places is that Obama equivocates. That would be accurate. But that is part of his style whether he’s doing it to express nuance or allow for different perspectives or deceive.
Given that he was elected president, I think it’s foolish to say it’s not effective. Perhaps he’s not following the policies Bromwich would like to see, and there are things to be said along those lines.
But when there’s a problem in Dem politics, it seems, there’s never a problem with the party. The Dems are all great, Dem members of congress are all swell folks none of whom have their own agenda.

Churchill saved Europe from being overrun by the Nazis.

Well, yeah, he did. But there’s always this myth that the old guy was so much better than the leaders now. We want to talk precocious politician, Churchill could be the posterboy. And state power in response to crises? Yeah – Mau Mau. Plenty of torture, massacres, etc. People forget he was Gandhi’s principle opponent.
I don’t dispute he was a great man (and he’s got a great quote on greatness) but events and individuals always look cleaner in retrospect.

If Obama had not been a mediator and open to other ideas, if he had been more authoritarian, there’s no way I would have voted for him. As much as progressives seem to salivate at the idea of an authoritarian on ‘their’ side, we really really dodged a bullet in terms of social upheaval.
‘Course, there’s no way to prove that. Like telling someone eating 50 chocolate doughnuts a day laying on the couch all day they might have a heart attack. If they don’t have a heart attack 10 years later they think it’s perfectly ok to keep eating doughnuts.
And if they stop and don’t have a heart attack – well hey, you can’t prove they would have had one.
But I prefer tendency to dogmatism. Doesn't make everything he does right anymore than any other leader in history. But right now, yeah, I think the U.S. needs to learn cool off a bit.
There was never some wonderful period in history where we all listened to each other and considered each others perspectives before making a decision. This is a rare thing for a leader to do. I like that we can have it, at least for a bit, before we go back to the couch and eat doughnuts.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:31 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


just try to pass a series of small bills that would be politically popular, but Republicans would oppose

Oh, you mean like passing a law that would allow gang raped employees the right to bring their attackers to trial? Your theory only works if republicans gave a shit about morality or rights.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:36 AM on May 14, 2010


If you want my biased interpretation of 20th century history, it's that we in the West were incredibly lucky to have two separate brilliant leaders at two key moments - FDR and Churchill. FDR brought us the New Deal, the engine for America's brilliant 50-year run as the most productive country in history; and Churchill saved Europe from being overrun by the Nazis. It used to be a truism that the tough times brought out the great men - where are they now?

Wait, so you're complaining about American empire and the killing of civilians on the one hand, and lionizing Churchill as the man who personally saved Europe on the other? If there was ever anyone who believed that the imperialism for its own sake was a wonderful thing (as long as it was Britain doing it) and damn the Indians, Kenyans, and whoever else, it was Churchill. If he were President right now, you'd be lucky to still have anything in Afghanistan that wasn't a crater.

I think this sort of desire for a President who is both Churchill and Gandhi is exactly the problem of Obama's that this column was sort of unconsciously flailing in the direction of, because so many people seem to want him to be their personal Presidential superhero and not just a President. He's not going to give Boehner a righteous uppercut or shoot Joe Lieberman into the Sun, and I think there's a real danger, if he did, we'd get this same column next year with "Obama needs to understand that you can't do it all alone and why is he such a jerk to people all the time" instead of "Obama needs to start yelling at people and get this stuff done".

In the end, I don't think stuff is particularly more likely to get done if you're confrontational than if you're concilatory, and, all things equal, I'd be happier to have fewer people ranting and raving on my TV, especially people who are representing me to the rest of the world.
posted by Copronymus at 11:42 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Love or hate Mr. Obama, it's hard not to concede that he hasn't shown any leadership - leading means being ahead of your "followers", leading them in new directions that they might not have expected or even wanted, not continuing the almost exact path of your predecessors.
Come on. How many democrats, sitting at home in 2006 thought to themselves "You know what we need? For the government to mandate we all buy health insurance from for profit companies!" And yet, many democrats have signed on with exactly that.

The fact that he's not leading in the direction you want doesn't mean he's not leading. I'm kind of annoyed by all the whinging about how Obama is somehow failing because he's not doing what some particular person wished he would do. People should accept that he's doing what he thinks is best, and that may not be what you think is best. I think he's way off on several issues, but I don't assume it's just because he's not living up to some ideal that he secretly aspires to.

He's following his priorities and he seems to be doing a good job of it.

At least I think he also has an annoying habit of taking credit for and defending whatever the government does. One example of that was that homophobic brief defending DOMA that came out right after he took power. People asked if he stood by the brief and gibbs said he did. But then a month later they reissued the brief with much less homophobic nonsense. So for all we know, maybe he did really want a public option, but just decided to take credit for the HCR bill and act like it was what he wanted all along (Although I kind of doubt it)
posted by delmoi at 12:16 PM on May 14, 2010


I find it ironic that people who continually berated Bush and the GOP in general as being overbearing and authoritarian and dominating their party into lockstep crushing dissent of any kind, fault Obama for not being overbearing and authoritarian and dominating the party and for leading but allowing dissent.

Lots of people would like to see nuclear weapons abolished but oppose unilateral disarmament.
posted by gerryblog at 12:19 PM on May 14, 2010


FDR brought us the New Deal, the engine for America's brilliant 50-year run as the most productive country in history; and Churchill saved Europe from being overrun by the Nazis.

Europe wasn't overrun by Nazis?
posted by electroboy at 12:20 PM on May 14, 2010


At least I think he also has an annoying habit

Hmm, there should be a comma or something there. I mean "At least I think [he is], [but] he has an annoying habit of..."
posted by delmoi at 12:23 PM on May 14, 2010


me: he believes that there is an ideal way for politicians to behave, and that's how he behaves. Obama seems to believe that he ought to make decisions not based on the current political climate or circumstances, but what is "objectively" the correct decision for American life.

delmoi: Like offshore drilling! But come on, that's the biggest load ever. You can justify anything with that, there's almost no information value in that description. If you make a compromise, like we saw over and over with HCR, you can just say it was being done to move forward with something rather then nothing. On the other hand if you fight for a position, you can argue that it's better to fight for the ideal then compromise with people with bad ideas.

Secondly, it's impossible to know how Obama thinks without knowing him personally, and if you did you would probably say mostly nice things.


I'm not happy with this approach, either -- I wish that he were out fighting harder because I don't think there's any chance in our political climate that Obama is going to restore some sanity to the American political system, which seems to be his ultimate goal - remember the whole strategy vs. tactics kerfuffle with McCain? Obama's always been a long man. I personally think this country would have benefitted a lot more if he'd just come out of the shoot, manipulating the national mood to populist/progressive policies. He didn't, and he won't.

Nevertheless, let me try to clarify what I was getting at here. I don't think this description of Obama's approach to governance has 'no information value.' Do you think the description offered applies to Cheney? Or Rove? There are politicians who have political goals, and they utilize any means necessary to achieve them. If that means re-classifying the Vice President as a fourth branch of the government, so be it. I believe the term is Machiavellian?

Obama, obviously, has goals. A lot of them. He made a lot of promises on the campaign trail. However, what I was trying to say is that I think his ultimate goal is a less ruthless governance style, so that many of the compromises we see are due to his unwillingness to use dirty tactics to get what he wants. Of course there are exceptions to this because, like any rational human being with a complicated job, he weighs the costs and benefits of using dirty tactics vs. achieving political goals.

I offered this description of his governance style not in support of it, but as an attempt to understand just why he's been so frustrating over the past 16 months. Things like letting Lieberman caucus with the party, or backing down on the public option, or not even getting all of the judges he wanted through recess appointments. And yeah, as you did in the other thread, you can re-classify this as political cowardice and an excessive sympathy with the elite, but I just don't think that's particularly useful for understanding. You'll just keep banging your head against the wall -- what happened to this seemingly intelligent guy that he became president and just forgot all about the hope and the change. Just as I said, I think you (and I) were expecting the wrong change.
posted by one_bean at 12:27 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


So for all we know, maybe he did really want a public option, but just decided to take credit for the HCR bill and act like it was what he wanted all along

I just don't think that Obama really gives a shit what he wants. I think that he sees the presidency as a leadership position that tries to make decisions for the country based on all available information from his advisors, supplemented maybe by public opinion. I know, I know, it's impossible to really tell what he thinks unless I know him, but again I think a lot of people are really frustrated by his actions because of a misunderstanding of his leadership style. Bush wanted things. Cheney wanted things. Obama has beliefs, but he's so conciliatory that he's willing to change what he believes based on input that he's getting, and probably to seem like he got what he 'wanted' even when he doesn't.
posted by one_bean at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


just try to pass a series of small bills that would be politically popular, but Republicans would oppose
Except that Republicans can then tack on other stuff to the bills that then make them impossible to pass -- such as this report from TPM about Republicans using a pro-state-employees-watching-porn amendment to kill a bill for more science funding.
posted by peacheater at 1:15 PM on May 14, 2010


Dude's gotten more done than anyone could have reasonably expected. And all some people can do is kvetch.

There's a long game here.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:51 PM on May 14, 2010


It used to be a truism that the tough times brought out the great men - where are they now?

times are tough, but they're not THAT tough, not yet - no, i don't think the american people are going to turn to a "great man" until their backs are truly against the wall - and even then, they may choose a lying demagogue who will lead them to catastrophe instead of a "great man"

things have to break a lot harder than they have so far to break people out of their fantasies - and even then, i wonder if people will wake up

remember when things went to hell in weimar germany, the german people ended up with hitler instead of a "great man"
posted by pyramid termite at 9:01 PM on May 14, 2010


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