Tuesday, September 15, 2009

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, many of whom are quick to accuse him of every form of extremist and tyrannical behavior they can think of (words like "Hitler", "communist", "socialist", and "fascist" 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 for support, he finds the once-bountiful esteem in which he was held quickly diminishing as many liberals denounce what they perceive (accurately or otherwise) as an excessive willingness to make concessions on the issues they hold most dear (such as health care reform or closing Guantanamo Bay).

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 few seem to be asking, though, is why does Obama choose this path? What approach is Obama taking when shaping his administration's policies, and what does he hope to gain, either for himself or his country, by taking it?

The answer to these questions is as obvious as it is simple: Barack Obama is a centrist. In a time when the ideological poles are drifting farther and farther apart, Obama is a man who insists on finding the halfway point between left and right and planting his flag as squarely as possible in the exact center between the two of them. Throughout history, such centrists have almost always been those politicians who, for whatever variety of reasons, conclude that the best way to win elections and/or effectively govern the country is to make ideological compromises in the hopes that a more moderate package will obtain wider political and public support. What makes Obama unique is that he seems to be staking out a centrist course when it seemingly works AGAINST, rather than toward, his ability to govern and the health of his political career. At a time when the most effective administrative and political decision would be to implement as much liberal change as possible by tapping into his vast reservoirs of political capital, 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.

The Roman historian Tacitus, when writing about the emperors who united and then ruled the ancient 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. To better understand Obama's master passion, one must first look at his 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 formative years, Obama struggled to find a means of reconciling within himself these two warring aspects of his identity, and in so doing create an independent sense of self of his own. 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). Hence 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 self-recognition between all peoples that transcends race, creed, and ideology, both in America and throughout the world.

The signs of this were clear from the very beginning. Take this passage from his famous keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

There are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

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 that term: Talk of economic inequality, social injustice, and a need to fight for the rights of the oppressed were less the focus of his oratory than the ornamentation placed upon a larger message of bringing people together. 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 the need to unite a divided land is as old and well-worn a political cliche as promising to lower taxes and sweep out corruption (few politicians are bold enough to run as the "pro-taxes, pro-corruption, pro-divisiveness" candidate). 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 (Richard Nixon in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, 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 president of our time 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 by passionate and irreconcilable ideological differences, beginning with the purely governmental (domestic, economic, and foreign policy) and spilling over 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 cobble together some excuse that reconciles the betrayal with a greater ideological goal). In this climate, Obama's point-of-view seems not only exotic, but downright irrational. 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 for 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 inviting a persecuted black college professor and the white cop who arrested him 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 though doing is not only unnecessary (given the overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses) but both impossible (given the doggedness with which the majority of Republicans oppose all of his initiatives) and undesirable (given the extent to which he has to water down some of his key proposals, such as economic stimulus or health care reform, in order to obtain whatever minimal GOP support he can get).

The ideologue's basic approach to solving a nation's problems is to connect the issues of the day to his or her core political philosophy, draw from that connection a series of specific policy proposals, and then through effective salesmanship have enough people unite behind his/her agenda so as to forge a coalition that will dominant America's ideological paradigm. Obama's approach, however - the centrist's approach - is to focus first and foremost on unifying 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 unity of purpose among so many different groups will in its own right be enough to lay the foundations for positive change. We live in an era of ideologues, not centrists, which means that most of our political leaders start with ideas and then try to build a coalition. Obama, as a rare genuine centrist, wants to start with the coalition and leave the creation of ideas until later.

This strategy is unintentionally serving conservatives much better than liberals. For one thing, there is no chance that Obama's centrist concessions will ever win 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. They'll call him a radical dyed-in-the-wool quasi-socialist, an America-hater, man, a secret Muslim, an un-naturalized illegal immigrant, a racist 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. When all is said and done, Obama is destined to have all of his major proposals derided by conservatives as being too liberal and excessively partisan. Never will his overtured to them be duly acknowledged, for the simple reason that recognizing his centrism and attempts at bi-partisanship will undermine their ideological and political agenda. No matter what Obama does, he is 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 is a black Democratic president named Barack Obama. Who he is, what he believes, and how he behaves as president have been meaningless since the day he was elected.

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 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, all in the name of the quixotic belief that everyone should be made to 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 truly were a left-wing extremist, or even a closeted socialist. Heck, just for the fun of it, they'll start to 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, 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 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. He has also worked hard, and with many auspicious signs, to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, strengthen America's diplomatic relationships (particularly with Europe and the Muslim world), bring the Iraq war to a speedy yet responsible close, and make progress in the fight about Islamic terrorism. What's more, the chances are that health care reform of some sort is likely to go through, and that we as a country will be better off for it. The same can be said of Obama's cap-and-trade plan for dealing with global warming, his attempts to re-empower our labor unions, his plans to stimulate job creation through incentivizing tax cuts and stimulus supplements, and his upcoming reforms on our financial institutions (which are likely to be opposed with a vigor equal to that now facing his health care reforms, since forces similar to those opposing Obamacare - i.e, rich and politically powerful - will come down hard against reforming Wall Street, and will no doubt convince millions of Americans who lack basic deductive thinking skills to go along with them).

At the same time, Obama is not becoming the president liberals most ardently desired. Since the ascent of Ronald Reagan nearly three decades ago, progressives have yearned for a leader who would replace the far right-wing philosophy that he rendered the dominant ideology of our times with a left-wing alternative. Indeed, this is precisely what many of them had in mind when they nominated Obama over Hillary Clinton on the basis of "change" (the Clintons, after all, were elected in the 1990s by an open disavowal of liberalism). 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. This has led to countless compromises and half-measures on the issues that matter most to the left, with an accompanying unease from the ideological true-believers.

In short, it can be said that 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 for the left much as Ronald Reagan did for the right. 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 politicking, 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 see success 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 articles, http://riskinghemlock.blogspot.com/2009/09/making-of-president-2012.html and http://riskinghemlock.blogspot.com/2009/09/follow-up-on-making-of-president-2012.html). 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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