My Private Obama
We in the progressive community have projected our own visions onto Barack Obama ever since we first noticed him as a remarkable political novice. It was clear from the 2008 campaign that he was a basically a centrist and seeker of common ground. But sometimes a crisis makes a presidency. And history has seldom delivered a more graphic, teachable crisis than the one that Obama inherited. So we voted our hopes that events could compel Obama to govern as a progressive.
We are still waiting, and we are a cheap date. Throw us a few bones and we brim over with gratitude:
On health reform: a brave speech to the House Democratic Caucus and some rare hands-on leadership with two outs in the ninth inning -- and hey, we knew he had it in him. Finally, the real Obama! (But it didn't really last.)
Or a seemingly tougher line on BP, and the company meets Obama's demand for $20 billion to pay claims (though the small print reveals that BP limits what it considers fair claims.)
Or a reluctant firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (with a denial that it was for insubordination and a preservation of the general's four-star retirement benefits).
And some nice, isolated one-liners about the callous Republican refusal to extend unemployment insurance or support financial reform (oddly divorced from a larger narrative or strategy.)
But even a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof president. He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism. Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.
None of this has stopped the progressive community from trying to put words in Obama's mouth. A superb example is William Pfaff's short piece in the current New York Review of Books, "What Obama Should have Said to BP."
It includes these choice lines:
I have...given orders that the American functions of this company be provisionally seized or placed in temporary receivership...In no circumstances will company, proprietary, or stockholder interest be given priority over measures to terminate this emergency and to safeguard the assets or interests of the United States public or government.
He then could have concluded his speech by saying to his political opponents that any Republican or Democrat who wishes to run for office in November as an opponent of these Obama Administration crisis measures - and as a defender of BP corporate and stockholder interests - as against the national interest of the United States and redress of the damage that continues at this moment to be done to the United States and its citizens, would be more than welcome to do so.
Quite so. As Drew Westen keeps observing, the voters admire leadership and toughness, especially in a crisis. They certainly don't admire Obama's feeble trademark, "If someone has a better idea, I'm happy to listen to it." As presidential declarations of resolve go, this is on a par with taping a sign, "Kick Me," to your rear end.
In my imaginary speeches, Obama gets serious about the jobs crisis -- and then dares Republicans to try to block his efforts to put Americans back to work. But Obama and his political advisers have convinced themselves that economically vulnerable people somehow care more about the abstraction of the public debt than the immediate threats to their livelihoods.
Even if relentless conservative propaganda had moved public opinion in that direction, which in fact it has not, the job of a president is to educate. For the definitive refutation of the elite misreading of the public views of the deficits and debts, see the fine testimony of Larry Jacobs and Ben Page, two scrupulously insightful political scientists and public opinion scholars.
But despite our hopes, Barack Obama is unlikely to offer bolder policies or give tougher speeches any time soon, even as threats of a double-dip recession and an electoral blowout in November loom. This is just not who he is. If the worst economic crisis in eight decades were going to change his assumptions about how to govern and how to lead, it would have done so by now.
Come November, as Republicans break out champagne, the usual commentators will offer the usual alibis and silver linings.
The party of the newly elected president always loses Congressional seats. Not always: viz. Roosevelt, 1934, or Bush II, 2002. The two men shared nothing, except resolve in a crisis. That should tell you something. Where's Obama's resolve?
Having a smaller majority will force the Democrats to be more disciplined. This is delusional. Do you really think, with the loss of a working Democratic majority, that corporate New Dems and fiscally hawkish Blue Dog Dems will be more inclined to support their president? If anything, they will be emboldened to freelance at his expense.
Losing one or more house of Congress will compel Obama to realize that he tried to govern too far to the left and to move closer to the Republicans. Too far to the left? Only in Limbaugh-land. And we've seen that there is no compromise with the Republicans. Unless you embrace their whole program, they vote you down.
Even with big losses of House and Senate seats, there is plenty of time for Obama to recoup and win re-election in 2012. Maybe, but at the rate we are going, we face a long period of high unemployment, weakening defense of much that progressives hold dear, and a presidency increasingly under siege. The more protracted the economic slump, the easier it will be for even a lunatic-fringe Republican candidate to beat Obama.
Now, who am I to second guess the cleverest politician to come along in decades? Well, I am old enough to remember the Vietnam era when the Best and the Brightest were just dead wrong, and the kids had a surer sense of American foreign policy than the experts. I have also watched Obama's loyal opposition -- people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair -- be proven right by events, again and again. So there are alternative paths, as there always are. But the White House has disdained them.
And I've noticed that it is the populists among Democratic elected officials who are best defended against defeat in November. That tells you something, too. Why should the project of rallying the common people against elites in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the media, be ceded to the far right? But that is what this White House is doing.
Progressives by nature are optimists. We believe that things could be better than they are, and that a decent society is worth fighting for. We're hopeful, sometimes bordering on wishful. A counsel of despair is not our thing. We tend to look for the best in people. That's why we keep playing Charlie Brown to Barack Obama's Lucy.
Obama was consistently underrated during the 2008 campaign. Nothing would make me happier than to say in six months that I was underrating him on July 4th, 2010, and to eat a big helping of crow.
But I reluctantly conclude that whatever progressives might desire in our private visions of who Obama could yet be, he is who he is. It is like watching a needless accident in slow motion. Without a drastic and abrupt course correction, the missed opportunities will continue to accumulate this summer and fall. The whole country, not just the progressive movement, will pay dearly.
Robert Kuttner's new book is A Presidency in Peril. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos.
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