Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Barack Obama, Centrist Extraordinaire

As an initial reaction to President Obama's recent speech on health care reform, I decided to repost my earlier blog entry, "Barack Obama, Centrist Extraordinaire".

When it comes to receiving public approval, President Barack Obama appears to be in a thankless situation. To his right, he finds an ever-growing faction of ideological zealots and general malcontents, who are quick to accuse him of every form of extremist and tyrannical behavior they can think of (words like "Hitler", "communist", "socialist", "fascist", and "indoctrination" keeping cropping up, as well as more kooky conspiracy theories than you can shake a stick at). To his left, among the people on whom Obama had assumed he could rely on for support, he finds the once-bountiful esteem in which he was held quickly diminishing among liberals who decry what they perceive (accurately or otherwise) as an excessive willingness to make concessions on the issues they hold most dear, often without any compelling reason being immediately apparent (particularly on the issue of health care reform). In short, conservatives insist that Obama is too liberal, liberals insist that Obama is too conservative, and no one seems to like him just the way he is. The question that no one seems to be asking, though, is why does Obama choose this path? What approach is Obama taking to the shaping of policy in his administration, and what does he hope to gain for either himself or his country by taking it?

The answer is as obvious as it is simple: Obama is being a centrist. In a time when the ideological poles are drifting farther and farther apart, Barack Obama is a man who insists on finding the halfway point between left and right and planting his flag as squarely as possible smack dab between the two of them. Like most centrists, he isn't doing this because his personal opinions actually are centrist in nature (very few people actually have a truly "centrist" outlook); throughout history, centrists have almost always been those politicians who, for whatever variety of reasons, realize that the best way to win elections and/or effectively govern the country is to compromise their more extreme beliefs in the hopes that a more moderate package will get wider political and public support. Yet what makes Obama so different from his centrist predecessors is that he seems to be staking out a centrist course when it works AGAINST, rather than toward, his ability to govern and his political career. At a time when the most effective way to govern and the best way to help his political career clearly rests in creating as much liberal change as possible using his vast reservoirs of political capital (derived from high approval ratings, large majorities in both houses of congress, a strong mandate to lead due to the unpopularity of his predecessor and his own highly charged presidential campaign), Obama seems adamant in throwing it all away in the name of the very centrism that most politicians only use as a last resort (such as the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). The reason for this is that, unlike most centrists (both now and throughout history), Obama is not motivated by pragmatism. Indeed, quite to the contrary, Barack Obama may very well be the first president in nearly two hundred years to be a centrist for almost purely idealistic reasons.

To better understand what I mean by this, one must first look at Obama's past (reading his memoir Dreams From My Father is very helpful in this regard). Here is a man who has spent his entire life, from childhood to the present, belonging to two different races - white and black - in a society that in countless ways forces its members to define themselves by the color of their skin. Throughout his life Obama struggled to find a way to reconcile these two warring aspects of his identity within his own soul, and create a meaningful personal identity as a result of it. This internal civil war was what ultimately drove him into law school, a career as a community organizer, the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, and finally politics. There is every reason to believe that that struggle still exists within his soul today, and from there one can easily see how it is, and always has been, the defining feature of his political character (especially since it is what led him into politics in the first place). The ancient Roman historian Tacitus, when writing about the emperors who united and then ruled the modern Western world, observed that every political leader - no matter how complex - is ultimatley driven by a "master passion", a single driving impulse that for better or worse underlies everything they say and do when they are put in positions of power (from there he speculated that Nero's master passion was cruelty). Barack Obama's master passion appears to be one very rarely seen in the modern world - a burning desire, an agonizing need, to bring people together, to get them to see past their petty squabbles and fears and to celebrate rather than deplore their respective differences, and in so doing to create a solidarity of purpose and unity of identity between all peoples and ideological factions, both in America and throughout the world (and in some small way, by doing this, within himself).

The signs of this were clear from the very beginning. In all of Obama's campaign speeches, he spoke of the need for "change", but it is noteworthy that he never did so with the rhetorical trappings that suggest a progressive intepretation of the term: Talk of economic inequalities, social injustice, and a need to fight for the rights of the oppressed always existed as the ornamentation placed upon a message of bringing people together, rather than being the focus in their own right. Whenever he could he refrained from focusing on themes like "reform", and at no point did he attempt to articulate a new version of the liberal philosophy as applied to the specific circumstances in which he sought the presidency. Instead it was his wont to preach the need to build bridges across racial, ideological, socio-economic, and religious barriers in order to solve our country's problems as one America. There is hardly anything new about articulating such sentiments; indeed, preaching about transcending that which divides us is as old and well-worn a political cliche as pledging to lower taxes and sweep out corruption. It is hard to find any politician in one of the two major parties who doesn't give utterance to that idea on a regular basis. The difference between Obama and his predecessors is that, while they merely recited those lines as platitudinous formalities before dispensing with them just as quickly, Obama embraces them with the fervor of a true believer. After decades of hearing presidential aspirants proclaim themselves would-be uniters when it was very clear they harbored no such intention (most notably Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2000), Americans are understandably cynical toward those who claim that they care more about bringing people together than fulfilling their ideological agenda. Politicians are insincere all the time, and this claim has been viewed by many as the most insincere one of them all. Now left-wingers and right-wingers alike are stunned to discover that their new president, Barack Obama, might be the first politician in nearly two centuries who didn't just speak those words, but actually meant them.

It is precisely this fact that makes Obama's actions so mystifying to intelligent observers on both sides. We live in an era in which our political culture is defined passionate and irreconcilable ideological differences, spanning from the purely governmental (domestic, economic, and foreign policy) and trespassing into the cultural, religious, and social. So deeply entrenched is this prevailing mindset that Americans instinctively assume their politicians will make decisions on the basis of how they square with the ideology of the political team with which they have aligned themselves (or when a politician sells out, they will at least expect for him to make some bullshit excuse that reconciles the betrayal with a greater ideological goal). In this climate, Obama's point-of-view seems not only exotic, but frightening. Yet once you understand that the desire to bring people together lies at the very heart of Obama's political philosophy and personal character, every other action of his presidency quickly makes a great deal more sense. Of course he chose centrists that he believed Republicans as well as Democrats would support in his cabinet; of course he chose Jews to serve as two of his three top aides, a Latina as his first Supreme Court appointment, and his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as his Secretary of State; of course he has refrained from pursuing legal action against former Bush administration officials, despite mountains of evidence of ethically questionable behavior; of course he believes that trying to find common ground between Arabs and Israelis (by variously scolding and reaching out to both sides) will eventually create peace in that embattled region; of course he believed that he could heal the wounds of racial tension by bringing a persecuted black college professor and the white cop who arrested him into the White House to share a beer; and of course his first instinct, when confronted with the controversial arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by a white cop, was to equally criticize both sides (which he did in his controversial "stupidly" press conference) and then invite them to the White House for a beer; and of course he has approached all of his major congressional initiatives with the almost obsessive desire to achieve bi-partisan support, even when doing so has entailed watering down his legislative goals with unnecessary concessions (such as he has done with the stimulus package and health care reform) as it remains abundantly career that Republicans are deadset to work against him no matter what he does. While it would be unfair to claim that Obama lacks strong ideological convictions, it is clear that his main goal as president is to unite a divided land - white, black, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, rich, middle-class, poor, liberal, conservative, and moderate - behind a set of objectives on which they can all agree. The ideologue's basic approach to solving a nation's problems is to connect a given issue to the core political philosophy entailed in his or her ideology, draw from that connection a policy proposal, and then through effective salesmanship have enough people unite behind that policy so that it will not only be implemented but solidify that ideology's status as the paramount political philosophy of its time. Obama's approach, however - the centrist's approach - is to focus first and foremost on unify as many people as possible in order to solve a given problem, with the principle being that regardless of what policies they unite behind, the very fact that there will be solidarity among so many different groups will in its own right be enough to lay the foundations for positive change. In short, most American political leaders start with ideas and then build a coalition; Obama wants to start with the coalition, and leave the creation of ideas until later.

This approach is unintentionally serving conservatives much better than liberals. For one thing, there is no risk of Obama's centrist concessions ever winning conservatives over to his theme of national unity. In order for Republicans and right-wingers to mount an effective opposition campaign against President Obama, all that is required is that they rally their base against him, which in their case is as easy as pulling out the same bugaboos about liberals and blacks that have long boiled the blood and stimulated the spleens of the American right-wing - because he's a liberal, Obama is suddenly anti-religion, anti-America (perhaps not even born here), anti-old fashioned values, and a radical socialist/communist who will destroy the American way of life. As a black man, he becomes a secret Muslim, a non-native citizen, a malcontent with a deep hatred of whites, and a man whose every accomplishment was bestowed upon him through affirmative action and white man's guilt (but never, ever due to his own merit). As right-wingers have found since the days of Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater none of those charges actually need go through the inconvenient process of being true - their mere existence as charges is enough to persuade those who, in their mindless hatred of liberals and blacks (to say nothing of Hispanics, Jews, intellectuals, and other figures with whom Obama has surrounded himself) are eager to believe them. No matter what Obama did, he was destined to have the same caricatures with which conservatives have always branded liberals (or those they wish to characterize as liberals) affixed to him for the simple reason that he was a black Democratic president named Barack Obama. Who he was, what he believed, and how he behaved as president had been deemed meaningless before he was even sworn in.

Yet because President Obama, in his centrist idealism, remains utterly oblivious to this fact, he now inadvertantly helps the cause of the radical right: they can punch away at Obama as much as they want, since they the only response they will receive from his hand is a palm outstretched in friendship; they can continue chipping away as much as they can at his agenda, knowing full well that he will make concessions to them even when he is in a position to dictate his will, for the simple reason that it matters deeply to him that as many people as possible feel like full participants. Most importantly, even while taking advantage of him in this way, they can still derive the full benefits of vilifying him as if he really were a true dyed-in-the-wool left-wing radical. Heck, just for the fun of it, they'll even convince themselves that it's true.

Liberals, on the other hand, get much less from this arrangement, although they don't get as little as they are prone to proclaim (usually in fits of hyperbole). It must be admitted that in Obama we have an honest, intelligent, sincere, and fundamentally well-intentioned man as our president (four qualities that are the precise opposite of those held by his immediate predecessor). What's more, even with the excessive concessions that he has made to the right in the name of bringing people together (concessions that have at best won a handful of Republican votes, and at worst done nothing but embarass him), Obama has managed to rack up an impressive list of accomplishments, including not only a stimulus package that has prevented a second Great Depression and put us on the road to eventual full economic recovery, but also (as his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel accurately observed) "winning approval for three hundred and fifty billion dollars in additional funding for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding S-CHIP, signing an executive order to shutter the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay and a memorandum to increase the fuel efficiency of cars", all of which were supported by at least some Republicans. At the same time, Obama is not becoming the president liberals most ardently desired: one who would take the ideological paradigm from which American politics has been dictated for almost three decades - i.e, the conservatism of the Reagan Era - and through the bold and inspiring implementation of effective policies create a new ideo-political paradigm - i.e, that of a liberal Obama Era. When the left rallied behind Obama's campaign slogan of "Yes We Can", they assumed that he was placing the main emphasis on the word "Can" - and, it was further assumed that the "can" included ending the war in Iraq, guaranteeing affordable high-quality health care for all Americans, creating jobs and raising wages for America's poor and middle-class workers, fixing global warming, forthrightly addressing racial inequalities and injustices, and a plethora of other liberal goals. While liberals weren't wrong in believing that these were indeed the goals for which Obama strived when he said "can", they failed to realize that he placed a far higher premium on "we" - on getting people together in order to make change, with less emphasis on what exactly that change would be. Liberals and conservatives took it as a given that Obama's election would usher in the rise of a second Franklin Roosevelt - another bold, assertive liberal president who would bring the country into a new ideological era defined by left-wing political principles. Yet when Democrats prepared to rally behind his banner, and Republicans began stocking up behind the barricades, both were shocked to find that what they got was a president whose didn't want to participate in partisan politics, but instead hoped to bring the nation into an era of economic prosperity and international peace by getting everyone to work together toward the goals that were ultimately in all of their mutual interest. Both sides have reacted to this revelation predictably; liberals see this for what it is and are dismayed, while conservatives see it for what it is and, for their own selfish purposes, pretend that it's something else entirely.

There is only one president in American history who has successfully done what Obama is attempting (ignoring George Washington, who doesn't count since his presidency occurred in an era before political parties and who it was always taken for granted would serve two terms without opposition). That man was James Monroe, the 5th President of the United States, whose surprising ability to unify all ideological and demographic factions behind his leadership ultimately led to the dissolution of the primary opposition party of the time (the Federalist Party) and the dubbing of his administration's tenure as "The Era of Good Feelings" (1817-1825). Because of his larger-than-life persona, knack for inspiring trust among people from all political vantage points, and ability to create policies that both political parties could enthusiastically unite behind (which in those days included the right-wing Federalists and left-wing Democratic-Republicans), James Monroe not only became the only president to win an election with absolutely unanimous support (save only George Washington, of course), but his leadership put the final nail in the coffin of the already-dying Federalist Party, eventually prompting them to disintegrate entirely. Yet since "The Era of Good Feelings" ended with the controversial presidential election of 1824 (which gave rise to the bi-partisan system we still have today), most American presidents have assumed that ideological divisiveness was just a fact of life that could be disingenuously denied with pretty words but ultimately accepted by virtually everyone as inviolable. Though Obama himself may not realize it, he is the first president since James Monroe to disagree with that assumption. His dream, whether he realizes it in these terms or not, is to usher in a new "Era of Good Feelings".

Will he succeed? The short answer is no. The longer answer is no, because he misunderstands the nature of what causes his opponents to hate him (it isn't because of what he does or who he is, but rather the abstraction that he will forever represent to them). That said, he may very well succeed in a sense quite different from the one he desires. Should his economic policies bring about a boom by mid-to-late 2011, Obama will be in a position to isolate the right-wing extremists who oppose him from the rest of the nation, and in so doing create the closest thing to an "Era of Good Feelings" style coalition that is possible in today's world - i.e, a political climate in which the opposition, though still present, is isolated and marginalized from the rest of the country (for more information on how that may happen, please see my article, The Making of the President: 2012). Until then, though, Americans will have to live with an irony none of us had ever conceived was even possible: In a time when political leaders move to the center in order to bring everyone together and become popular, and gravitate toward extremes when they bravely accept unpopularity in the name of idealism, Obama is the first to refuse moving to an extreme even though it would make him popular, and instead determine to bring everyone together at the center even in the name of unpopularity.

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