The day Zach Galifianakis saved Obamacare.
October 18, 2019 8:41 AM   Subscribe

“ Obamanauts have a passion for office and state, a calling for power distilled of all impurities. Pfeiffer may have wanted to help Obama “achieve his place in history,” but his ultimate intention in the White House was to serve “not just my president but the presidency itself.” Even so, theirs is an agile sense of service that bends to more self-serving claims. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says that after 9/11 he was so compelled by patriotism—and repelled by the New York left’s “preemptive protests against American military intervention” and “reflexive distrust of Bush”—that he made the trek uptown to talk to an Army recruiter under the Queensboro Bridge. After giving the matter some thought, he decided that army life wasn’t for him; he could better serve his country by joining a think tank in DC.” The memoirs of Barack Obama’s staffers, considered (Dissent)
posted by The Whelk (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
repelled by the New York left’s “preemptive protests against American military intervention” and “reflexive distrust of Bush”

Well. How's that working out for you?
posted by thelonius at 9:11 AM on October 18, 2019 [17 favorites]


The defining achievement of Barack Obama is operating the US presidency for eight years with a high degree of competence and no major scandals, while only committing well-established and socially acceptable war crimes.

That's quite an accomplishment by modern standards, and one not easily replicated.
posted by allegedly at 9:17 AM on October 18, 2019 [65 favorites]


After giving the matter some thought, he decided that army life wasn’t for him; he could better serve his country by joining a think tank in DC

On second thought: maybe instead of being one of the poor schmucks getting their genitals blown off by IEDs I could help direct the murder of american citizen children with flying death robots in comfort and luxury
posted by Rust Moranis at 9:28 AM on October 18, 2019 [20 favorites]




This is a great if painful read.

For that, we need the third element of Obama’s public philosophy: a moral minimalism that rendered him not so much ill-prepared for a fight with the Republicans as ideologically indisposed to the very idea of a fight. “Yes we can” was a sonorous but empty phrase: yes we can what? When Obama got concrete, he might stay in that register of grandness—there was that moment when the rise of the oceans would begin to slow, and so on—but more often than not he opted for unapologetic avowals of smallness.

There's something to be written -- maybe it already has been -- about how Obama's agonizing minimalism maps to the Alinskyite (and more specifically Gamaliel) model of organizing, where people power is cultivated but then carefully directed toward pre-selected "issues" and "targets." In practice, when not paired with urgent radicalism, this exclusive focus on winnable fights often leads to the same kind of pre-compromised symbolic "wins" on the community scale that we all became so excruciatingly familiar with on the national scale under the Obama administration.

(Obviously there was a lot more going on with Obama and his administration than just that, but having recently worked with some Gamaliel-linked organizers, I'm rather struck in retrospect by the parallels.)
posted by Not A Thing at 10:00 AM on October 18, 2019 [17 favorites]


But whatabout all the bad things Obama did?

Arguably this piece provides more insight into the good things he didn't do.
posted by atoxyl at 10:50 AM on October 18, 2019 [8 favorites]


I liked the title and lede.
The Obamanauts
What is the defining achievement of Barack Obama?
And this:
[…] But the self-styling [in these memoirs] is a tell: of how a supposed unfitness for politics makes you all too fit for politics, of the conflation between insiders and outsiders that is common to the Obamanauts, regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Outsiders are supposed to be good because they bring the perspective of, well, outsiders. Before he worked in the Office of the White House Counsel, Shomik Dutta was pressing his street cred to the fundraising arm of the Obama campaign. His pitch? “You need someone who really understands the mid-Atlantic—the less established donors, the real-estate-developer folks.” That’s what passes for heterodoxy in these quarters. So does promising to take out Osama bin Laden, says Rhodes, who recalls “the purity of [that] event” and notes wistfully how “nothing would ever feel this right.” Outsiders are also good because they’re unstuffy; they have ordinary people problems. Which is why Mastromonaco devotes eleven pages to her diarrhea, Pfeiffer has an entire chapter on the time he was in the White House and the seat of his pants split open (“Something Pants-Splittingly Funny”), and Rhodes opens his memoir with a story about riding in the presidential limousine with no socks. There’s a word for people like this. My eleven-year-old tells me it’s “try-hard.”
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:57 AM on October 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


Corey Robin is so fucking good.

The bizarre extent to which Obama's staff based their policy and methods around West Wing fandom is absurd. I forget who tweeted it, but the idea that, for the modern Democrat party, even the wet-dream fantasy of success is a compromise absolutely rankles.

(A podcast I really like is The West Wing Thing, in which two left-learning writers who used to love The West Wing rewatch it episode-by-episode with a post-Obama critical lens. They bring up how, a few episodes in, Jed Bartlet gives a stirring, rousing, inspiring speech in front of a banner that reads "Practical Idealism", and one says that it's the Obama administration in a nutshell: all the bombastic, progressive speech, all the lofty words, combined with undercutting your own ideas even before the opposition has a chance to speak out. And their running thesis, which is that Obama ran on change and governed on incrementalism, set the stage for Hillary Clinton, who ran on incrementalism and governed on whoops)
posted by rorgy at 12:22 PM on October 18, 2019 [17 favorites]


Sorry, by the way, about the extent to which that comment paints Obama in more black-and-white terms than he deserves. The man did some wonderful things in the time he had. But the rot at the heart of the Democrat Party was in place long before he arrived to claim to change it.
posted by rorgy at 12:24 PM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


Cass Sunstein called him a "visionary minimalist".
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:31 PM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


> Obamanuts

That's from paragraph 32 - "But that assessment—that the Obamanuts made an error of judgment—"

Typo or deliberate--you be the judge . . .
posted by flug at 1:28 PM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


a key Republican staffer... ...tells him, “Jim, we’re not going to compromise with you on anything. We’re going to fight Obama on everything.” He plaintively replies, “That’s not what we did for Bush.” She says, “We don’t care. We’re just going to fight.”

I hate to give the right any credit at all, but it would have been good if Jim here had learned from her politics while dating.

Why on earth they were dating across the political divide is unclear, but I'm going to assume they may have a few shared interests, so to speak.
posted by Acid Communist at 3:17 PM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


Damn. Corey is like the satire of a cranky old man.
posted by hilberseimer at 5:52 PM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'd be cranky too if I had read that many Obama staffer memoirs.
posted by Cezar Golescu at 9:33 PM on October 18, 2019 [12 favorites]


The defining achievement of Barack Obama is operating the US presidency for eight years with a high degree of competence and no major scandals, while only committing well-established and socially acceptable war crimes.

Well, our demand for an absolutely perfect Democratic president who will fix everything sure worked well in 2016, didnt it?

And I'm certain that the same standards will be applied in 2020, especially if the nominee is a woman. Success is guaranteed!
posted by happyroach at 11:02 PM on October 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


president who will fix everything

You realise you're characterising a desire for a president not to commit war crimes as an unreasonably high bar to apply?

Like the comment you're referencing, to my eyes, acknowledges that this is considered a pretty tough demand, but we can recognise the hard choices and limited avenues of reality while still retaining at least the memory of our principles.
posted by Acid Communist at 11:15 PM on October 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


> Cass Sunstein called him a "visionary minimalist".

For your delectation, the letter that Cass Sunstein wrote in support for Eugene Scalia as Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. Say what you will about Obamanauts, they understand how the wheels of power are greased.
posted by tirutiru at 7:10 AM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


You realise you're characterising a desire for a president not to commit war crimes as an unreasonably high bar to apply?

In the context of the 21st century we find ourselves in, and given how everyone seems to define war crimes as they please, it pretty much is.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:18 PM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


You realise you're characterising a desire for a president not to commit war crimes as an unreasonably high bar to apply?

I'm sure that when we hit election season, you'll find SOMETHING the Democratic candidate did that you can define as a war crime. No matter who it is.

But dont worry. We'll always have Jill Stein, pure as the driven snow...
posted by happyroach at 9:26 PM on October 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


One thing that strikes me about these kinds of essays, as a genre, is how even folks who are super-aware of US history and political philosophy like Robin refuse to identify this slippery thing -- "neoliberalism," "practical idealism," "minimalism," etc -- with its historical name in American political philosophy: pragmatism. I guess the resistance is that even leftwing critics kind of like the idea of being pragmatic and don't want to cede a positive term to their center-left opponents, and so they end up with "neoliberal" and the like. And it's also the case that "neoliberal" has a long post-pragmatism tradition to draw on in 20th century US history. But nevertheless, it's still odd how folks like Robin seem to struggle to reinvent the wheel, when American pragmatism has laid out almost all of this stuff quite explicitly a century or more ago: most importantly, the pragmatists already worked out for themselves the most notable and slippery part, which is how you define a philosophy-less philosophy, a politics which resists naming because it is all about common-sense resistance to ideology. The refusal of the modern center-left to accept any ideological term or definition is what makes them so maddening for folks like Robin to grapple with: they say, Well, we probably mostly agree with you ideal-wise, but there's no real point in getting into the fine details since we're focused on what pragmatically can be achieved right now. And Robin and his ilk clutch their hair and struggle to argue with them, saying No, that's an ideology -- that assessment of what can be done right now and how, and that refusal to think through the "utopian" end goals -- that's a thing with a history and tradition, it's that thing Obama does, and Bill Clinton before him, and Hillary Clinton after him (fighting words!) -- if you don't like "neoliberalism" call it something else ... but I know you won't, because part of your ideology is that it's not an ideology and thus can't be named. And now Robin has pulled out more of his own hair. But it is a thing, that move to deny its own thing-ness is exactly what American pragmatism was all about. And it seems like the cost of ceding them that positive term is less than the cost of losing that whole illuminating beam of American philosophical history.
posted by chortly at 9:40 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


I love James, Peirce, Dewey and Rorty to pieces, and should probably go back and reread all of them, but I'm going to need some help unpacking the connection between pragmatist philosophy and the kind of granular political decisions discussed in this review.

To the extent we're talking about the lay sense of pragmatism -- i.e. the sense in which one would usually describe Obama as politically pragmatic -- then one does have to deal with the problem that announcing one's devotion to this sort of "take what we can get" pragmatism up front is essentially just a way of telling one's enemies where one's weak spots are and how to push one around. Which, as we've seen, isn't really a very pragmatic thing to do.

This is well-trod ground of course, but if we're going to link the traits that Robin discusses with any particular philosophical tradition, the Burke-Oakeshott lineage of "small-c conservatism" seems like a much easier fit. (Although I'm still not convinced that it maps well enough to specific decisions to have any real explanatory power.)
posted by Not A Thing at 10:21 PM on October 19, 2019


I'm sure that when we hit election season, you'll find SOMETHING the Democratic candidate did that you can define as a war crime. No matter who it is.


I can certainly understand the Western liberal instinct of "perfect is the enemy of good", but is the bar so low that "don't do war crimes" can't even be cleared? If that's the case, that seems like quite the indictment of the entire project of Western liberalism.
posted by Ouverture at 8:33 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm sure that when we hit election season, you'll find SOMETHING the Democratic candidate did that you can define as a war crime.

Even Bernie Sanders has said drones have their place and he has voted for the AUMF for Afganistan and for the military budget increases under W and Obama. Participating in war crimes is hard to avoid even for our most dovish politicians.

Rather than focus on one person who will not follow the other 45 down the path of war crimes, it would be better to create a movement to dismantle the American empire. The true challenge of this is to do so while also not allowing bad actors like Erdogan to commit genocide while we stand by.
posted by asteria at 9:16 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


This is well-trod ground of course, but if we're going to link the traits that Robin discusses with any particular philosophical tradition, the Burke-Oakeshott lineage of "small-c conservatism" seems like a much easier fit.

I'm not a philosopher by any means, but I think there are arguably a couple related strands of "anti-ideology" in Anglo-American political philosophy, on the (center-) right and the (center-) left. Your Sullivan article summarizes the center-right version well:
And conservatism — from Burke and Hume to Hayek and Oakeshott — has always been, at its core, a critique of ideology in favor of reality. The world is as it is, the conservative argues. Any attempt to drastically overhaul it, to impose a utopian vision onto a messy, evolving human landscape will not just fail, it will likely make things worse. To pretend that the present exists for no good reason — and can be repealed or transformed in an instant — is a formula for ruin.
This anti-ideology in preference for absolute reality is not, I think, where Obama and his tradition are quite coming from, though they certain believe in scientific truth. It's more reflective of modern, center-right conservatism, which of course mistakes many socially-constructed inequalities as "reality." But it's similar in that it does privilege incrementalism, pragmatism, and short-term goals, as well as its denial of itself as an ideology. And of course it has shared historical roots.

The left version of Anglo-American anti-ideology I see as more in the Dewey tradition, and perhaps even more so as reinterpreted by Bell or Rorty. This Jacobin essay (in defense of Dewey as it happens) lays it out in the traditional way:
Dewey’s experimentalism, or “pragmatism” as he often called it, has long been viewed with suspicion by many leftists, who see its aversion to far-reaching theories as a precursor to Cold War liberalism’s proclamations of “the end of ideology.” [The title of Bell's book.]
And just at random, here's another passing bit from Arendt and America:
As John P. Diggins has stressed, pragmatism came to mean so many different things by the 1950s and 1960s that it is hard to arrive at a single, agreed on meaning. Besides being a philosophical position, it was a form of pernicious relativism to conservatives, synonymous with opposition to "ideology" to liberal Cold Warriors, and just another name for realism in defense of the war in Vietnam.
And here is Rorty's version, who takes what is arguably a mis-reading of Dewey and makes it central to a newer, more explicitly center-left liberalism:
In politics [Rorty] argued against programs of both the left and the right in favour of what he described as a meliorative and reformist “bourgeois liberalism.”... This general view is reflected in Rorty’s political works, which consistently defend traditional left-liberalism and criticize newer forms of “cultural leftism” as well as more conservative positions. Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy. The key imperative in Rorty's political agenda is the deepening and widening of solidarity. Rorty is sceptical toward radicalism; political thought purporting to uncover hidden, systematic causes for injustice and exploitation, and on that basis proposing sweeping changes to set things right. ...An important reason for the high temperature of much of the debate that Rorty has inspired is that he appears to some to reject the very values that are the basis for any articulation of a philosophical view of truth and knowledge at all.
So anyway, I see Obama et al more in this tradition, particularly its Dewey-esque emphasis on dialogue, democratic process, building bipartisan solidarity, and so on, though again more in line with modern center-left interpretations of Dewey rather than the original, ambivalent but more democratic socialist Dewey. In any case, as I see it, all these versions tend to justify incrementalism over radicalism in terms of honoring process rather than in center-right terms of the inherent resistance of reality. But the key similarity, and the part I had more in mind in my original thought, was the anti-ideological move, and the way that, as the end of the Rorty snippet makes clear, it can be so hard to argue with these sorts of pragmatists (or, I expect, the anti-ideological center-right, not that I've tried). Denying an ideology or even a philosophy in favor of some mix of realism and process-ism makes it very hard to argue with, especially since unlike the center-right, the center-left isn't quite as ready to identify their own intellectual tradition (IMHO). So this refusal to discuss end-goals as "utopian" or ideology as useless philosophizing can make for a maddening argument where the opponent refuses to be pinned down and strongly resents any label such as "neo-liberal" that attempts to define the center-left. And that slipperiness, as the quotes above illustrate, is what makes makes Robin's targets seem particularly pragmatist-like, although there are many substantive overlaps as well. As the quotes also illustrate, though, this is all far from a novel observation, it just seems odd that Robin so infrequently makes the connection in his various efforts to situate the "Obamanauts" -- though perhaps that just illustrates how well the movement succeeds at effacing its own origins.
posted by chortly at 1:37 PM on October 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


Rather than focus on one person who will not follow the other 45 down the path of war crimes, it would be better to create a movement to dismantle the American empire.

So, Trump 2020 then? After all, that's pretty much his goal in international politics. Just wait until his next term when he pukksmus out of NATO, the WTO and the UN...

The true challenge of this is to do so while also not allowing bad actors like Erdogan to commit genocide while we stand by.

Look up the term "power vacuum". At this point, self interested actors like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia will call the shots- and they simply dont care about genocide. You can also be sure politicians ranging from Kosovo, to the Baltics, to Scandinavia are looking at the realignment of political fortunes and making their own calculations about what is going to fill this vacuum. Personally id say its going to be a damn good time to be in the business of selling nuclear weapons tech.

If its any consolation, the American Empire didn't do much to stop genocides in Africa, so you can always shrug and say "c'est la vie". Or something about omolettes and eggs. A lot of people did that in the 80s and 90s, after all.
posted by happyroach at 5:09 PM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


So, Trump 2020 then? After all, that's pretty much his goal in international politics.

Never let it be said that the Blue is too fancy for good old reductive horseshoe theory.

Trump and his fashy friends aren't opposed to American empire, they just think it's a bit soft and weak now and could do with some renovations, demolish the old servants wing and find a good spot for a new extension.
posted by Acid Communist at 5:42 PM on October 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


The irony is that calling leftist ideology a kneejerk reactionary impulse that divides the party has, itself, become a kneejerk reactionary ideology that divides the party.

While we're at it: the assumption that the "right" way to play Democrat Party is to blindly support the pragmatic warmongers essentially declares that, of the two views of the party, one is right and one is wrong—and that the right side is the one that isn't trying to change the national conversation and is blithely okay with starting foreign wars.

I'm not opposed to pragmatism in and of itself, but it's irritating how the more centrist proponents of the party act like they're not half of the fight that's raging these days: like they're inherently the "reasonable" ones, from whom all deviation is divisive and disgusting. It goes hand-in-hand with the neoliberal idea that politics is simply a matter of finding the "right thing to do", and then getting everyone else to agree with it. Which is why, thankfully, I think the centrists will lose control over the party: they're too blind to the idea that politics ought to be a fight to deal with people who see the 2019 political landscape for what it is.
posted by rorgy at 6:36 AM on October 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


I found this piece late but I thought it was excellent. Up there with Coates’ ”My President was Black” as a legacy-defining piece, especially given that I don’t think Robin’s piece dealt well with how race (of Obama and his opposition) is inescapable here. (I’m still waiting for a detailed piece on Obama’s failure to fully grapple with women’s equality inside and outside his admin.)

While Robin’s piece is scathing about Obama’s belief in smallness, I don’t know that the man himself would disagree that his vision was never one of radical change. He was always a small-c conservative. But that doesn’t mean his election was not a monumental change in some ways. A generation that came of age realizing their government could blow trillions (not to mention countless human lives) on an unnecessary war and we could not stop them learned from “Yes We Can” and the ACA fight that we do have some power to make change—as Robin says, though, we’re still left with “yes we can what?” and perhaps that’s the question we’ll answer this election.

I do think any discussion of legacy will need to incorporate Obama’s memoirs, which we don’t yet have. We shall see...
posted by sallybrown at 9:21 AM on October 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


A small correction, there is no official US party called the “Democrat Party,” it is the Democratic Party if you’re referring to Democrats.
posted by JLovebomb at 1:01 AM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]




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