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Back to Obama
posted 24th March 2010
But when it comes to everyday politics, my reflexive responses against corporate power and the lyrics of folk songs exalting “the people” may make me feel good and virtuous, but provide little political guidance. My politics are built on an awareness of both the character of the American public and culture and how our political system works, and, as a result, understanding the necessity for compromise and getting legislation passed that is better than what exists. (A far from inspiring, but for me, a sensible point of view.) I usually tend to be analytic and pragmatic rather than rhetorical or emotional when trying to stake out say, a position on health care. For example, I support single payer health care, which cuts out the avaricious health insurance companies, and has proven to work well in a variety of forms in Western Europe. But for me it was just a fantasy, given the American public's willingness to buy into Republican attacks on it as “socialized medicine.” I even try to tamp down my rage (seeing it as cathartic but futile) against Senators like the sanctimonious opportunist Joe Lieberman, right wing talk show demagogues and hacks like Beck and Hannity, and a Republican Party who seem to have no other commitment but to undermine the Democratic legislative agenda.
This brings me to trying to make sense of Barack Obama's first year in office. Clearly, I have a stake in his success, believing that if he doesn't achieve a modicum of social change - health care, cap and trade, financial regulation - it will be years before the opportunity arises again. I also have admired the self-possessed Obama's intellect, eloquence, literary gifts, and reflective, graceful style. And to be honest, given the racist nature of our past, I root for our first black president to achieve more in office than the white men who preceded him in the last four decades. New Yorker editor Hendrik Hertzberg, a writer who is very sympathetic to the “centred” Obama, echoed some of my positive feelings towards him in his collection of essays 'Obamanos!' (Penguin Press): “The chance to elect a black president…a black president who would also be a progressive president, the most progressive since Lyndon Johnson at his domestic best - might not come around again….” But obviously none of those qualities, including being black, are sufficient to make him a successful politician or President, and should not absolve him from criticism.
Barack Obama was always a pragmatic liberal, and never really committed to a progressive agenda. A year is too short a span to make conclusive judgments on what Obama will accomplish. I also refuse to pillory his every wrong move and lurch rightward, or turn Obama into the symbol and cause of everything that I'm disenchanted with politically. Still, if not a progressive, Obama came into office as an idealistic transformational figure, who was bound to let down many of those who believed in him. And now the attacks on him in blogs and from liberal advocates have begun. It's self-evident that campaigning is not the same as governing - for better or worse, ideals often get modified and even betrayed in the process of getting something done. So despite the large Democratic majorities in the Senate and House, Obama has had to gain votes from moderate Blue Dog Democrats, often from red districts and states, to get legislation passed. Of course, he has also to deal with the threat of the filibuster in the Senate.
But has Obama been sufficiently aggressive or committed in pursuit of his own purported ideals? Obama is not in the Harry Truman mode, an everyman politician who gave his political enemies hell. His style is more intellectual and dispassionate - a matter of temperament. And I think there is a wariness of operating as an angry black politician - an image that would play right into racist stereotypes.
Obama has also never surrounded himself with liberal/left advocates like Howard Dean, but with a hardball playing politician like Rahm Emanuel, who knows how to pull all the levers of power in Washington, and whose legislative strategy seemingly starts with compromise as a first principle. So Obama's idealism is constantly tempered, and activist liberals justifiably feel rejected by an administration that spends most of its time courting Olympia Snow and Ben Nelson rather than Bernie Sanders.
I am disappointed with Obama's seeming passivity and risk-adverse decisions on unemployment, bank loan practices, and financial regulation, and a number of other issues. But if I'm now less enthusiastic, I know he's the only game in town, and our only real hope for change. Neither a courageous, outspoken liberal like Dean nor a populist radical like Dennis Kucinich could have been elected President in this political climate. Yes, it feels better when you take principled stands, and do not make too many concessions to your opponents.
But one can't govern
maintaining one's purity, and there is often no simple right decision, and no
way to forget about the political consequences of your choices. So we live with
imperfection, and keep prodding Obama to do better on health care and other
issues, and to remember that some semblance of transformation is a necessity. I
expect nothing transcendent, just something better that survives the daily