A President Adrift, a Politics Without Focus
David Atkins confronts the aimlessness of Obama’s presidency and finds no one to blame but the President himself,
Those same people often state that rhetoric doesn’t matter–that only votes matter, and that votes are a product of local, economic and institutional factors, not Presidential persuasion. But if that’s the case, why bother with a rhetorical pivot to jobs?
If rhetoric and framing do matter, why would the President state that cutting spending and reducing deficits is a bad framework when he himself has done so much to promote that framework through a Grand Bargain?
This is precisely the sort of thing that is making his Presidency seem adrift. It is adrift.
The understandable reaction by many on the left is to, at least partially, lay the blame for this at the feet of Republicans in the House and Senate. If not for their intransigence, wouldn’t the President have moved the country forward on the economy, immigration, and gun control? With those legislative achievements under his belt, wouldn’t the presidency be perceived as a liberal success story?
The answer is that, whatever the merits of those individual policy battles, the unwillingness of Republicans to make compromises isn’t why the Obama presidency feels adrift. The real reason is true lack of direction overall; the lack of a guiding liberal narrative which puts the Democratic Party’s priorities in focus.
As Digby emphasizes, part of this can be chalked up to a fundamental mismatch between Obama’s temperament and his attempt to appropriate Reagan’s pragmatic, reconciliatory attitude. The fact is that Reagan was divisive, and only a uniting figure in so far as he re-situated his political opposition to the point of being outside the circle of “you, me, and us.” To be a liberal Reagan would have meant precisely for the President to ostracize his radically conservative opponents, and redefine them as quintessentially “other” to the working class. Something he has flirted with on occasion, but never committed to.
The aimlessness of Obama’s presidency isn’t the result of being outgunned by political foes, or attempts by Republican states to “nullify” it, but rather because of his own double-speak and hypocrisy on a range of domestic issues. It is hard enough to appear ideologically coherent when leading a party that is necessarily, in large part, a coalition of the disenfranchised. But that job becomes even more difficult when that party leader attempts to be the negotiator-in-chief rather than the figurehead of a political movement. When getting the deal becomes more important than what’s in it, you necessarily open yourself up to all manner of inconsistency and double-speak.
This is especially the case when supporting policies which are necessarily at odds with one another, not just from issue to issue, but within each issue itself. The President’s position on the economy is at odds with his goals for the environment. Even within his position on the economy though, his emphasis on “smart” and “lean” government is at odds with calls for more public investment. His support of natural gas goes against any plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. His education agenda is at odds with his rhetoric on state workers and unions. His rhetoric on the War on Terror and the supreme importance of the Rule of Law are at odds with the policies and actions of his administration.
Whether or not this should come as a surprise is neither here nor there–the reality is that the President’s agenda is as fragmented as his litany of campaign promises.
He is the President of Main Street, even as the bulk of his policies disproportionately favor and support corporations. Wall Street and the auto companies are recovering just fine while unemployment numbers and wages, especially for the least well-off, continue to be abysmal. That is the presidency adrift.
Or perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be to a ship which the wind is blowing in one direction even as the men and women on it continue to row in another. It has a direction even if its actual course bears little to no resemblance to the one originally stated.