Pundits Don’t Understand Politics: Obama 1st Anniversary Edition
The HuffingtonPost today is chalk chock-full of Obama: What Happened?
With the special elections today, a documentary coming out, a David Plouffe book being released, this one year retrospective since the election meme is in the air.
Not much of which (not surprisingly) I find really at all grounded or particularly intelligent (this goes basically for both the pro and anti-Obama positions).
To answer Fred Willard’s timely question: I think what happened is pretty much basically what was bound to happen and the people who are acting all disappointed now (or worse think Stalinism is inches away) just became overly wrapped in the emotion/hype of the campaign. A sober rational analysis of the guy’s past I think is pretty well 100% indicative of where we are now.
The three articles I linked to above all start from the premise that the place to begin the assessment of Obama’s presidency is so far is his campaign. Which is a reasonable enough (I guess) place to begin, except that they start from the wrong data to be gleaned from the campaign. Basically my take is that all of them are just basically reading their own political perspective/point of view/ideology into Obama not actually looking at Obama himself. (Again this also on the positive Obama side, say with Jacob Heilbrunn or Joseph Nye or Robert Creamer).
Indeed, reading the book [Plouffe’s book], I often found myself wondering what Candidate Obama would think of President Obama. Would he look at what the White House is doing and say, “that’s what I and my supporters worked so hard for?”
How did the candidate who got into the race because he’d decided that “the core leadership had turned rotten” and that “the people were getting hosed” become the president who has decided that the American people can only have as much change as Olympia Snowe will allow?
Leadership is a quality Barack Obama showed on the campaign trail. It is a quality he has failed to show as president.
Yeah, I’m disappointed, too. I thought we were sweeping into power; I thought change meant Change. I believed all that talk about another First 100 Days, a la Roosevelt. Well, that didn’t happen. The question is, is this as good as it gets from Obama, or is he pacing himself?
Now I’m known as something of a political determinist around these parts, so you can read what I have to say in light of that and argue that I’m just doing the same thing I criticize in the other writes–i.e. just projecting my point of view onto blank slate Obama.
The problem I have with these analyses is that they assume Obama’s campaign message and/or process was in any way indicative of what he would do as president. While on the hand I’m often accused of being very cynical, I’m actually one of these people who think that politicians actually basically do tell you how they are going to be and what they are going to do when President. If you do the supposedly boring (but actually illuminating) work of investigating their actual records.
Arianna, for example, bemoans constantly Obama’s favoritism towards Geithner and Summers and the neoliberal policies they represent, as if it were this unexplainable how could he? Easy–anyone who studied the thing knew from the get go Obama was a University of Chicago Democrat. If you read Audacity of Hope or read David Leonhardt’s pre-election brilliant piece on Obamanomics. It’s all there for anyone who bothered to look at it.
Obama offered the least left-progressive version of health care reform on the campaign. Should anyone be surprised he’s doing what he’s doing now relative to health reform?
Obama campaigned on the fact that he was going to up the involvement in Afghanistan. People thought he was just using that to look tough so he could keep his withdrawal position on Iraq. He wasn’t. He meant it. He said he was going to bomb Pakistan from drones, sovereignty be damned, whether or not the Pakistanis gave him approval. He’s done so.
He wanted to close Gitmo but his own party backstabbed him in Congress, preventing it.
The Iranians are going to get a nuclear bomb–or at least reach Japanese-like level of deterrence–whatever Obama does or doesn’t do. The world is moving to a post-unipolar American world again whatever Obama does or doesn’t do. There the determination is settled, belied by the fact of whether or not there end up being 10,000 or 40,000 or 0,000 more troops sent to Afghanistan. The world is moving into regional bodies and away from US leadership not because Obama is “weak” or “idealistic” or whatever, just because that is where it is going.
He used to be a community organizer–that was a formative experience in his life–and community organizers are generally conflict averse tactically. Or, less negatively put, they let everything play out in front of them and then try to get groups/individuals to take responsibility on their own, form a coalition at the end (amended–see comment). Or at least substantial parts of it. This is exactly how Obama works. There’s no magic involved in it, and it’s completely irrelevant to talk about his promises or what you thought he represented. Emotions from the limbic system are overwhelming rational thought and this latest round of dramatization (on both right and left) is just another ventilating activity continuing the endless process of exploiting and over-inflating and then ennervatingthe body politic.
All of this would be properly learned from studying the campaign instead of studying “Hope and Change”, the elusive promises, and/or how they got a bunch of people to give them s–tloads of money. And then feel disappointed after the fact.
Obama is a postmodern guy in the modern institution of the presidency. The campaign format allowed him to be more him–in a certain political sense not “for real”, whatever the hell that would mean in this context. The institution of the Office of Head of the Executive Branch does not allow, structurally, for that to be the case. The disconnect between those two realities is covered by the fact that the President is basically a celebrity.
Obama came into the office with Iraq already having been decided for him. The first round of the bank stimulus already having been decided (though given his University of Chicago Democrat-ness, he of course was on board). i.e. He’s totally on board with centralized monetary reserve inflating the money supply and thereby deflating its value and attempting to build an economy on credit instead of real productive value.
He runs a bureaucracy built for a different era–an era for the nation-state as opposed to the current networked market-state in which we actually live. He’s got a broken Senate specifically and Congress generally to deal with, and a Supreme Court that is verging on a kind of self-imposed obsolescence. Meanwhile when he takes over the Executive Branch he’s going to have to fill it (as he did) with Clinton appointees, not people, as in his campaign, who would be built around his point of view and on board with his mission.
Moreover seemingly forgotten is his repeated pledge that he would be President of both the Blue and Red America. I still think he meant that (naive as I apparently am) and thinks of himself very differently in his role as President than as a Candidate, which is why I think looking to his campaign as some kind of arbiter to deciding how he’s doing is such an ignorant way of proceeding.
Now I think there are still some things Obama can and should be criticized for. I think his biggest mistake is around bipartisanship, but not in the way it’s normally criticized (cf the Arianna quotation or the Westen article above): namely that he has a kind of bipartisan fetish and will sell his soul for (usually only one) Republican votes. To the degree that Obama thinks bipartisanship means Republican involvement, this is a fair critique. But the bipartisan thing is not a fetish so much as a reality. A point many of us at the League commonly make around here is that there are 3 parties in the government: Republicans, Democrats, and Centrists. The majority of the centrists are Democrats. Bipartisan means governing from the coalition of the Democrats and the Centrists and Obama in some ways seems to get that and in other ways publicly doesn’t admit to and still (publicly if not on the Hill privately) calls bipartisanship “Republican” support. What “Republican support” Obama has is GOP members of the Centrist Party.
Also, Obama has been craven on repealing DADT and DOMA I believe and deserves nothing but scorn in that arena seems to me.
I think the most dangerous thing for Obama is that the social mood is negative. Following socionomic theory, mood causes social effects not effects causing mood, as is commonly presupposed in political science, economics, and sociology.* In other words, by that theory’s interpretation, Obama is a well meaning guy, a very smart politician (in terms of getting elected in the current media politico-entertainment age), but is heading into buzz saw that is not of his own creation, is way bigger than him, and there’s very little he can do about it.
* My own view is that both endogenous and exogenous causation are mutually arising and self-interacting, but the socionomic view is a very helpful counterbalance to the overly materialistic bias of social science.