Monday, November 15, 2010

Hostage Situation

I found myself in close to full agreement with The Shrill One's latest column today, The World as He Finds It.  I thought Krugman's observation that Obama negotiated everything "with himself" before trying to engage others was of a piece with Sean Wilentz's New Republic article about the failure of the Obama movement to achieve anything of worth.  As the Krug notes, echoing Wilentz (my emphasis):

The obvious point is the contrast between the administration’s current whipped-dog demeanor and Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric as a candidate. How did we get from “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” to here?

But the bitter irony goes deeper than that: the main reason Mr. Obama finds himself in this situation is that two years ago he was not, in fact, prepared to deal with the world as he was going to find it. And it seems as if he still isn’t.

In retrospect, the roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America’s problem as one of process, not substance — we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions. ... He could do uplift — but could he fight?

So far the answer has been no.
I don't find it a mistake that Krugman used the term "transcendence" when pointing out Obama's promises about healing divisions right after Wilentz contrasted transformational and transactional politics in his article. This self-negotiation is like a theater of the absurd version of the famous scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little takes himself hostage. Where Little used it as a ploy to escape an angry mob, we watch Obama use it as a way to talk himself out of anything that might offend the political opposition by refusing to accept the political world is the way it is - partisan, intractable, unsentimental and a group activity. The personal distancing so crucial to his role as movement leader has become a bubble to fend off the demands of the all-too material world of partisan politics. Whatever world he inhabits, it is not on this earth.

Krugman is right in diagnosing the structural reasons for the failure, an almost pathological avoidance of conflict, ascribing the failure to timidity, that Obama is talking himself out of bolder action by believing in a political world that never existed anywhere outside of his fantasy of himself. As Krugman says after rattling off a list of possible actions, "But none of this will matter unless the president can find it within himself to use his power, to actually take a stand. And the signs aren’t good."

As a result, the American public is now held hostage to Obama's interminable negotiations with himself.

Where Krugman goes wrong is confusing political courage with political temperament, which will be the topic of another post.


Update - I received a lot of comments on this post. I will not be posting any more apart from the two already released. Most are of questionable taste. Some are simply juvenile hateful rants. I'm not going to wade through them to separate wheat from chaff.

One of the things I am trying to do with my blog posts is to avoid joining the general blogospheric rants about how awful Obama the person must be. This includes discussing whether he's a crypto-Republican, a paid lackey of Wall Street, too stupid for words, can't speak without a teleprompter, hates the poor, doesn't floss regularly, secretly votes for Bristol Palin on DWTS, or whatever. I drew my own conclusions about the personal temperament of the guy (the Cossacks obey the Czar, after all) back in March 2007, long before most of the commenters here cared that he existed. He's no more or less venal than the average occupant of the White House and ranting about how unworthy he is makes for really, really boring comment threads.

What I'm trying to do here is discuss political types and their points of failure. Treating Obama as a singular phenomenon (a mode of behavior that perfectly echoes his campaign, ironically enough) is wrong for several reasons. It allows criticisms to be brushed off as mere spite or personal hatred. It gets in the way of extending the critique to other actors or to use it to get at systemic problems. It encourages conflating politics with personages, which leads to politics as personal assault. It allows detractors and adherents alike to look away from institutional faults and remedies. It doesn't help with the next pack of rat bastards crawling their way up the sewer pipes.

I have to disagree with MLK and say that the content of someone's character is irrelevant. Actions are what count. Actions need to be judged on political terms, not personal ones. Railing at Krugman (or me) for not beating the same angry drum as the rest of the blogosphere tells me you aren't getting the point of the posts. Do you really think Paul doesn't know what a political failure this guy is? Krugman is diagnosing the political problem, not the personal one. He's mixing in a pretty hard slap at the self-indulgent "reality based community" (He's looking at you, Brad DeLong) using Obama's failure to cope with the world as it is, not the world as he wants it to be, to point out the same flaw in the coalition that threw their weight behind this cipher two years ago. He's pointing out the political failing of the left to rationally evaluate this person in the first place (the comical campaign sloganeering vs. the hard, cold truth of transactional politics), and is using the image of Obama holding himself hostage to illustrate the way in which technocrats and Democrats have argued themselves into losing positions before going into battle.

If you want to rant about Obama the person, you'll have to do it elsewhere.

Nothing personal.


Koshem Bos said...

I don't care what Obama does inside his mental world. Whether he negotiates with himself or just looks for an easy way out, he is a disaster and the Democratic Party enabled him in 2008. Foreigners I met knew then that this is going to happen.

What is wrong with us.

StephenAG said...

Hmmm. More food for thought. Along with a tease of something more. I think I'll stay tuned for the next installment!

As I scope the blogosphere, I see others making a similar formulation as Krugman does. "Lack of a spine", "Republican", "Conservative", "weak" and many others have also been bandied about. None of these adequately describes our present situation nor Obama's condition. Right now, I think that the one statement that best describes him and his political temperament is: Community Organizer. His toolkit is not wide and deep enough to fight off thirty years of conservative memes that have polluted our political discourse. If his previous experience included fighting for the civil rights of others or a real, face-to-face struggle to provide for his wife and children and keep the lights on and put food on the table, maybe things would be different. Sometimes, I get the impression that he has been sheltered from too much pain and sorrow.

It will be interesting to see how these hostage negotiations turn out.