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Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School


A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux


Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Back to Obama

posted 24th March 2010

For my whole adult life my emotional sympathies have been with the Left - albeit of the social democratic rather than the ultra or sectarian Left variety. I'm still stirred by and take pleasure singing along with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. In the 60s and early 70s I marched and played an active role in the civil rights, anti-war, and educational reform movements, and I remain committed to a more radically redistributive tax structure, and expanded welfare state, and have only antipathy for bankers, investment firms, and insurance companies, whose machinations I want thoroughly regulated.

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 political muck.