commentary on Politics and a little bit of everything else

President Obama is neither weak nor stupid… nor a progressive….

By Laurence Lewis@ Dailykos….

A lot of people are wondering why President Obama keeps offering compromises and capitulations to the Republicans before negotiations have even begun. A lot of people are wondering why he appears to keep effectively unilaterally knee-capping himself. A lot of people accurately argue that it would be great optics at least to try to stand on principle, and it might even produce better policies. Some say he is weak. Some question his intelligence. Some do one or both in less than polite terms. But many are overlooking a possible alternate explanation. Many are overlooking an explanation that is hiding in plain sight.

President Obama is no fool. He’s actually extremely smart. One need not recount the entire litany, but suffice to say that one doesn’t become president of the Harvard Law Review, get invited to teach at the University of Chicago Law School, or compose on the fly a riveting Speech on Race that galvanizes much of the nation– even many inclined to be critics– unless one has a rare and assiduously honed intellect. The argument that President Obama is stupid fails at first thought.

A more common refrain is that President Obama is weak. That he gives in too easily and doesn’t know how to fight. This argument sometimes lapses into terms that shouldn’t be acceptable even to the harshest of the president’s critics, but many believe the president either doesn’t know how to or is unwilling to stand his ground. But this belief also doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

President Obama would not be where he is today if he was weak or timid. He has had to overcome a host of personal and structural hurdles, and to dare even to try to become this nation’s first black president takes a level of courage and determination almost beyond comprehension. Every president takes risks, but President Obama challenged and defeated presumptions that even many of his strongest supporters had taken for granted. He prevailed because he is smart. He prevailed because he is tough. He prevailed because he is almost fearless.

So, why would a person of such intelligence make what seems to be so many foolish political decisions? Why does he appear not to come to understand the nature of his opposition? Why does he seem to get rolled on so many issues on so many occasions? Call it The Obama Paradox. Or realize that the answer may lie in the nature of the questions.

The Obama Paradox presumes that the president is a liberal or a progressive, and that he is ceding his principles based on faulty strategies or a disinclination to face confrontation. Many of the president’s more ardent supporters also buy into this presumption, but rather than accept that the buck stops in the Oval Office, they concoct a series of ever more ridiculous rationalizations. It’s always someone else’s fault, and the blame usually falls on Congress, particularly the Republicans, the Conservadems, and the Blue Dogs. But it’s time to consider the possibility that the problem lies with the presumption underlying all these questions and explanations. It’s time to consider that the president accepts centrist and conservative policies because he himself is a centrist or conservative.

This does not mean that President Obama is a Republican, or anything close to a Republican. The Republican Party is not conservative, it is extremist. But as the Republican Party has drifted farther and farther to the fringe, much of the establishment Democratic Party has intrepidly moved into the ideological space the Republican Party abandoned. The Republicans lead this movement to the right, and the Democrats follow, taking the political center with them and leaving the traditional left ever more disenfranchised, disenchanted, and politically alienated. The problem with Barack Obama isn’t that he is worse than establishment Village Democrats, the problem is that he is one of them. He didn’t change Washington, but he is changing what some who consider themselves liberal or progressive are willing to tolerate, accept, and even support.

Nobody forced President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Nobody forced him to expand oil drilling in the Arctic rather than make the case that we need an emergency effort to end our addiction to all fossil fuels. Nobody forced him to have his Department of Justice ignore the Bush administration’s criminality. Nobody forced him to continue secret renditions or a policy of denying suspected terrorists the human right of due process. Nobody forced him to order his DOJ to appeal court rulings that would have ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Nobody forced him to open a discussion about the deficit which even puts Social Security and Medicare on the table when the economy desperately needed and needs more Keynesian stimulus. Nobody forced him to keep on Bush’s Defense Secretary. Nobody forced him to hire a neoliberal economic team and ignore the traditional liberal economists who had been almost alone in predicting the economic collapse. None of these moves was forced on him by the Republicans or the Conservadems or the Blue Dogs.

It’s conventional wisdom to believe that the  president gave away the public option for which he had campaigned, while accepting the mandate he campaigned against, and again the arguments are largely about what he might have gotten had he tried. Or the optics of trying. But again the presumption is that he wanted to try. The same goes for the inadequate and ultimately politically disastrous stimulus package. But he himself later admitted that the public option hadn’t ever been that important to him. And his political team, like his more passionate supporters, continually hyped every isolated cherry-picked uptick in economic data as proof that his stimulus plan wasn’t so inadequate after all. Take it at face value. He thought the stimulus was enough. He didn’t care that much about a public option. The agenda so desired by liberals and progressives just wasn’t his agenda.

Last February, writing about the health care reform meltdown,Glenn Greenwald offered a theory:

The primary tactic in this game is Villain Rotation.  They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it.

But it’s worse than that. It’s not only about creating a shifting cast of villains, it’s about creating a consistent facade of false blame. Someone else has to be the bad guy. That on every single issue there are means of challenging, and sometimes thwarting, the bad guy can be debated and argued and ignored and otherwise muddled in consciousness. But the fights are never truly fought, and then the compromised policies are marketed as great successes, not as capitulations. Take that at face value. One doesn’t attempt to celebrate when one is left unsatisfied, rather one wakes up the next day determined to fix what needs fixing. But there has been no such determination. Instead, there has been much marketing of these false successes.

The Republicans are a convenient foil. To anyone paying attention and not under the sway of the corporatist media, they would be almost an amusing carnival were they not so dangerous in that their destructiveness now has legitimate political currency. But they didn’t force the president’s hand. He pursued the policies as he chose to do, and he fought the fights he chose to fight. He and his team have mocked and disparaged his party’s traditional base. That doesn’t mean he is a Republican. It does indicate the degree to which he buys into what is now conventional thinking among Village Democrats. President Obama is not stupid and he is not weak. He is very smart and he is very courageous. He is pursuing the politics he is pursuing not because anyone is forcing him to, and not because he is being beaten at the political game. He is pursuing the politics he is pursuing because it is who he is.

Politicians are but political tools, and they are not the only political tools. They are only as useful as the agendas they are willing to pursue. We don’t owe them our loyalty, they owe us theirs. There are other political tools, and there are means of organizing that transcend the elective political game. It’s about the issues. Given the gravity of the stakes, we have to focus on the issues, without excuses, and in some cases without compromise. That means we have to accept some politicians when there are no immediate alternatives, and we have to try to push them to do better and to be better even when it is counter to their own political ideologies, but it also means we can’t pretend they are something they are not; and it also means we have to create a climate where there will be better and legitimate alternatives.

Crashing the gates was but a first step. There are more gates to crash.

December 5, 2010 - Posted by | Blogs, Breaking News, Counterpoints, Government, Law, Media, Men, Politics, The Economy, Updates | , ,

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