Monday, March 10, 2014

David Bromwich's Obama

I find David Bromwich's analyses of President Obama's politics consistently helpful because he pays close attention to his public persona and parses the President's words carefully. So he often highlights important moments for understanding Obama's politics.

On the other hand, Bromwich sometimes overgeneralizes from the attitude Obama takes toward liberals and progressives. And he tends to psychologize Obama's politics a bit much for my taste.

We see the virtues and shortcomings of Bromwich's approach in The Leader Obama Wanted to Become and What Became of Him Huffington Post 03/09/2014. For instance, he writes:

In Confidence Men [2011], the most valuable study so far of the character and performance of Obama as president, the journalist Ron Suskind noticed the tenacity of the new president's belief that he enjoyed a special connection to the American people. When his poll numbers were going down in late 2009, or when his "pivot to jobs" had become a topic of humor because he repeated the phrase so often without ever seeming to pivot, Obama would always ask his handlers to send him out on the road. He was convinced: the people would hear him and he would make them understand.

He sustained this free-floating confidence even though he knew that his town halls, from their arranged format to their pre-screened audiences, were as thoroughly stage-managed as any other politician's. But Obama told Suskind in early 2011 that he had come to believe "symbols and gestures ... are at least as important as the policies we put forward."
I'm not sure about the original context of that last quote from Suskind. But it's something that I often think, that Obama is substituting "symbols and gestures" for substance. This is something all politicians do to some extent, of course.

But I would focus on Obama's version differently. It seems to me that Obama is particularly inclined to make the assumption that liberals and progressives will be satisfied with the symbolic satisfactions and not expect policies to back them up. But his pursuit of Bipartisanship has meant that he was far too willing to give conservatives the policy options they preferred.

The sequester is a case in point, one of his signature bipartisan compromises. It meant big cuts in domestic spending, something very much in line with conservative priorities and against liberal priorities.

His Grand Bargain, whose core turned out to be Obama's repeated proposals from 2011 to early 2013 to cut benefits on Social Security and Medicare, was definitely a substantive policy proposal. It wasn't just "symbols and gestures." Liberals were energized in opposition to it. And Republicans were so uninterested in Obama's treasured Bipartisanship that they passed up the opportunity to put those programs on the road to abolition and be able to blame Obama for it.

Suskind's Confidence Men spends a great many pages on the economic policy of the first Obama Administration, in which Obama deferred heavily to figures like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, who were Democrats but very much on the conservative, lighter-regulation, don't-hold-the-banks-accountable-for-misdeeds side of those debates.

The psychologizing can be illustrated by this passage:

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama's words and his actions does not support the use of the word "conviction" at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions -- and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in "this war we're in" (which he declines to call "the war on terror") was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama's belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing. [my emphasis]
This and other parts of Bromwich's article suggests that Obama generally lacks conviction. But is that really justified?

In the immediately following paragraph, he suggests that a lack of conviction leads Obama to value conformity with the views of The Successful, and also includes one of those interesting observations I hadn't heard mention before, Obama's aversion to any association with Jimmy Carter:

More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in. He has a horror of unsuccess. Hence, in part, his extraordinary aversion to the name, presence, or precedent of Jimmy Carter: the one politician of obvious distinction whom he has declined to consult on any matter. At some level, Obama must realize that Carter actually earned his Nobel Prize and was a hard-working leader of the country. Yet of all the living presidents, Carter is the one whom the political establishment wrote off long ago, and so it is Carter whom he must not touch. [my emphasis]

The appeal of conformity to the rich and powerful is easy enough to understand. On the other hand, being President of the United States is the standard proverbial definition of American Dream success. You know, we're the country where any child can grow up to be President! Which means that Presidents have a considerable number of options for pursuing success, both in office and in their post-Presidential careers.

It seems more likely to me that Obama is generally committed to the conservative Democratic vision he's largely pursued: neoliberal economics, a conventional continuation of the US positions as a global hegemon with a pragmatic emphasis on not getting stuck in protracted wars, extreme secrecy, the staggering domestic electronic surveillance, moderate regulations on banking, and a significant expansion of access to private health insurance. He's made some good court appointments, and the average democratic appointee to Cabinet departments and other parts of the bureaucracy are presumably on the average more liberal than a Republican President would appoint. His stimulus in early 2009 was enough to kick the economy into a better state than a continued free fall would have been. Whether the weak economy of right now will be seen as in a weak recovery or as a weak recovery in the middle of a longer depression remains to be seen.

Obama is a President committed to a transactive leadership style of relatively gradual tinkering with existing policies, not a transformative one who wants to create a new New Deal or Great Society. Even taking into account the extreme antics of the current Republican Party in Congress, I don't see any reason to believe that he lacks conviction in the general direction he's leading as just described. What looks like timidity to liberals - the restricted nature of the stimulus, the dropping of the public option from health care reform, his muted response to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - isn't reflected in any lack of commitment to the more conservative policies he's adopted. The White House pushed back hard against liberals and progressives who wanted to keep the public option in the Obamacare package, for instance. And his steadfast defense of the NSA spying and his legal war on whistleblowers don't show evidence of timidity or lack of conviction.

Tags: , ,

No comments: