Barack Obama


At the current moment, I find myself in a state of ennui with respect to the president. I don’t know why, but I’ve been reflecting recently on the missed opportunities of the first two years–the chance to really alter the face of the finance industry in the wake of TARP instead of waiting and passing something less ambitious, the completely missed opportunity to push for Card Check or something else to help out labor, the lack of swiftness on rolling back Bush-era detention policies (which was probably the only way they could have been done), and so on. I mean, I do think that a lot was accomplished that was worthwhile, but as the possibility of a shutdown becomes more concrete, I find myself wondering just how things could have been different, and why I’m experiencing this particular ennui. Kevin Drum has this to say:

Obama has long followed a strategy of letting other people fight pitched battles for a while and then parachuting in toward the end to act as peacemaker. And there’s a case to be made for that sometimes. He did it with healthcare because Bill Clinton tried it the other way in 1993 and got his hide nailed to the wall, and in the end Obama’s strategy worked. Would a more active intervention have worked better? Maybe, but there was a pretty good case to be made for doing it the way he did.

But over the past year this trait has become almost pathological. Maybe the power of the bully pulpit is overrated, but Obama seems unwilling to even try to move public opinion or take a leadership role in his own caucus. At this point, I really have no idea what he thinks of taxes, the deficit, Medicare cuts, or much of anything else on the domestic agenda. I guess he’s figuring that if his political opponents insist on digging themselves into a hole, he might as well stand back and let them. But if he keeps this up much longer, there’s going to be nothing left of his presidency except “Well, I guess he’s better than the wingnuts from the other party.” That may win him reelection, but it won’t do much more.

There’s something to this–passion begets passion, and Obama has been showing precious little of it these days, though I still wouldn’t underestimate Obama’s strengths as a campaigner. Anyway, this isn’t about how Obama doesn’t fight battles he’s not absolutely certain he can win. I expect that from a politician. It does seem, to me anyway, as though the administration does seem to lack a certain activist tone and energy. I loathe comparing a sitting Democratic president to Franklin Roosevelt because that’s like comparing a basketball player to Michael Jordan–comparing anyone to the best ever is just going to make the guy being compared look bad. It’s just a loaded comparison. But surely it’s okay to say that a basketball player doesn’t have the drive, the motivation, or the passion of Michael Jordan. Those are things players should try to emulate! Not everyone is as gifted as Jordan was, but trying as hard as Jordan did sure should be possible. And surely it’s okay to note that Franklin Roosevelt–even when faced with more conservative congresses that made sledding difficult–never stopped pushing for more programs, more help for people, and putting more power in the hands of the voters. Even when he lost (which did happen), even when he did something regrettable, he never lost that drive. He always kept pushing. And that I do prefer.

What’s become clear to me is that Obama is no pusher. He let Max Baucus have whatever time he wanted to try to convince people who didn’t want to vote for health care reform. When the votes looked close, he tried to woo Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins instead of heading over to Maine for some tough, bracing speeches on health care. After pushing the stimulus, there wasn’t a constant drumbeat of new initiatives and speeches on the economy–focus shifted onto other issues, and it was obvious that the Administration was basically just waiting for their policies to work and for things to turn around. In other words, they surrendered the initiative and gave Republican critics an opening. Note that all this isn’t necessarily the same thing as letting one’s self get pushed around–he never abandoned health care, after all, when he was pushed to by Republicans and even some Democrats post Scott Brown–but since the midterm election it’s gotten even worse. It really seems as though Obama has no desire to play the partisan warrior that he has no choice to be now against John Boehner, and I wonder if the Libya operation became more attractive to an Obama frustrated with domestic politics than it would have been to, say, Obama circa June 2009. Wouldn’t be the first time (or the four hundredth time, even) that we heard that story. Obama doesn’t seem to want to play the role progressive activists want him to play–we’ve known that for a while–but the thing is that there really isn’t a choice right now. The Republicans are pushing everything they can before the public wises up and tosses their asses out of power. They certainly won’t be completely successful (as I said before, the last thing Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe want next year is to run on ending Medicare and slashing Medicaid), but let’s not forget that they can inflict a lot of damage in the process. There’s just no need right now for an aloof executive frustrated by not being able to play the bipartisan conciliator. One of the signs of a strong leader is to adapt to changing circumstances and to become what the public needs as the needs change. I think it’s time for that to happen, and it’s time to start pushing.

  1. Metavirus says:

    from your keyboard to the FSM’s ears but I wouldn’t bet my money on it. sure, he’ll come out with a bit of punching for the 2012 election but I’ve just relegated myself to the fact that Obama has just flat-out decided that he doesn’t want to publicly fight for anything. he does some nice things behind the scenes, like ordering the halt of deportations of foreign gay spouses, but when it comes to trying to move the needle of public opinion on an issue he feels passionately about: mostly bupkis.

    he’s always gonna be 2 million times better than McCain/Palin but who really gets pumped up by repeating that over and over.

    • Lev says:

      Perhaps he’s concluded that he isn’t very good at the slashing role. He actually did a fair amount of it in the runup to 2010, though it wasn’t terribly effective. He doesn’t really have the instinct for populism, I think. But I’d give him more credit if I saw that he was trying.

      • meh, my bet is on his predisposition toward showing a conciliatory and likeable face to the public. which is a whole bunch of bullshit in my mind. there are just so many opportunities to turn the other cheek before people start calling you a lilly-livered pussy.

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