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Time to Reset Our Moral Compass

Progressives are suffering from debilitating cognitive dissonance. Incapable of reconciling President Obama’s rhetoric with his actions, they have created an elaborate, but flimsy, structure of rationales to harmonize this dissonance. These rationales began shortly after Obama took office, with progressives blaming all those nasty triangulating, progress-by-tiny-increment advisers from the Clinton Administration, who were leading him astray from his principles. From the outset, the Administration supplied it’s own excuses for its failure to achieve audacious goals: “Change comes slowly” and “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Then, despite control of the House and a sizable Democratic majority in the Senate, the party was deemed the problem, because it couldn’t keep its troops in line to get the 60 votes required to pass his agenda. This morphed into a much larger obstacle—the Republicans, following the 2010 landslide. In the recent debt-ceiling debate (and particularly with progressives’ denial that he would actually cut Social Security and Medicare) we’ve seen a rebirth of the meme: “He's playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.” Numerous current articles indicate that we now face an epidemic of “he’s just not a competent negotiator” rationale.

Dorothy ParkerGlenn Greenwald adroitly addressed this in his April 14, article, “Why Do We Assume Obama’s Actually Trying to Enact a Progressive Agenda.” The crisis is now so threatening that a rational mind can no longer make such excuses credible. His supporters correctly maintain that he’s a man of extraordinary intelligence. They seem blissfully unaware that it is impossible to hold this belief concurrently with the notion that he is just not capable of learning the most basic negotiation skills, or that his advisers, who have been both hardened politicians and businessmen and who, after all, include a vice president who was a senator since 1972, are incapable of instructing him in these arts.

Let’s look at the argument that his advisers are preventing him from delivering on campaign promises. Name a manager any field who is not held ultimately responsible for hiring choices. Again, if we assume that the fault is with the advisers, we must concede that Obama was so politically ill informed or did such a poor job interviewing these people that he had no idea what they stood for—not to mention that he refused to fire them upon learning they were reading from a different play script. Further, we would have to entertain the absurd idea that he is powerless to override his appointees’ suggestions. Beyond that, we would have to acknowledge that not only did he make poor choices with his first appointments, but also that he chose badly the second time around, i.e. William Daley and Jeffrey Immelt.

We are long past the expiration date for denying that the Obama we now know— through his actions rather than his words —is anything other than the real Obama. We must come to grips with the fact that much of the rhetoric we heard during the campaign was fraudulent—or more charitably, that we heard only what we wanted to hear. How many ominous signals did we ignore during the campaign?

• The choice of Joe Lieberman as his mentor in the Senate. And his campaign on behalf of Lieberman over the anti-war candidate Ned Lamont.

• NAFTA. Obama professed to seeking changes in this trade law, but when he was about to give a speech in Ohio (a state devastated by NAFTA), Austin Goolsbee delivered a message to Michael Wilson, Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S., that his criticisms of the agreement should be considered campaign rhetoric, not to be taken too seriously.

• Reagan as hero: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

• FISA. Though an Obama campaign statement declared, “Senator Obama is unequivocally opposed to retroactive immunity,” for telecom companies participating in Bush’s warrantless wiretappging, he still voted in the telecoms’ favor.

• Safety net. Politico pointed out before inauguration that Obama echoed “Bush’s claim of an entitlement ‘crisis’, warning of ‘red ink as far as the eye can see’ in Social Security and Medicare. Obama promised that those programs would be a ‘central part’ of his plan to reduce the federal deficit.”

Should liberals blame themselves, as so many are suggesting, for missing these red flags? How can we when so many were convinced of his sincerity? He is the most gifted orator in generations. He made us hear what he wanted us to hear. We so needed to find hope after eight dispiriting years under Bush that we had to believe—the alternative, that he was just another slick-talking politician, would have been nihilistic.


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We must stop making excuses for him and stop blaming ourselves for blindly supporting him. Rather, our fault lies in not holding him accountable and pushing back firmly when early in his presidency it was clear that he was not putting up even an appearance of fighting for the changes he promised.

If memory serves, it was during a press conference in which he was defending himself against socialism charges that he astoundingly said: “In many places in the world, I would be considered a conservative.” This may be the most revealingly honest statement he has made, but it’s certainly not what his campaign was about.

By continuing to absolve him, we are unable to move forward with any progressive policies or to demonstrate to Congressional Democrats that we still hold firm beliefs in justice and fairness. The madness of the Republicans has lowered the bar to such an extent that Obama’s capitulations seem sensible by comparison. In the 1930s, Dorothy Parker said, “Which is worse—the perpetrators of injustice or those who are blind to it?” Friends complained about Bush’s war mongering and civil rights abuses, declaring, “Not in my name, do you do this.” Now Obama is expanding these wars (note the Administration’s drive to convince Iraqis to let our troops remain beyond the signed deadline—and remember, ending the Iraq war was central to his campaign). He also is accelerating civil rights abuses, yet I hear not a word of criticism from these same friends. Our silence is surely leading to the death of liberalism—and of hope. What sort of moral compass allows us to condemn actions by one administration only to be silent (complicit?) when our own candidate commits them?

We sit passively as Obama appears intent on proving that his hero, Ronald Reagan, was right: “Government IS the problem.” Progressives must not allow this to happen.

Norman Mathews

Norman Mathews is an award-winning composer and playwright. He has written for the concert stage and the musical theatre. He has been news editor for Dance Magazine and managing editor of Sylvia Porter's Personal Finance Magazine.

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