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Long before Year One ended, progressives understood President Obama’s focus was routine wheeling and dealing, not regrowing the New Deal. Between victory and governance, Obama “reform” switched from promises to make government serve people to insure government serves business. The result is mounting guilt by association as Obama got himself entrenched only months into power, a speed record for a reform guy, now the establishment president defending every party incumbent. Does this White House think that’s the reason it won?
This week’s election miscues only reinforce Obama’s larger dilemma, once captured perfectly by Naomi Klein, favoring “the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time.” As in the gesture tossed off to Diane Sawyer in January, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president,” he said, “than a mediocre two-term president.” If you can keep backing losers, Mr. President, with a tin ear and tinsmith staff work, you may end up a mediocre one-term president. Your allies, like Arlen Specter, are toast, and Blanche Lincoln teeters on the edge, a likely run-off loser.
Nor did many on the left imagine the Democratic Party would abandon its “play it safe, don’t rock the boat” game plan. In retrospect, candidate Obama’s “anti-war” credentials (vs. the “hawkish Hillary) look thin, like wishful thinking driven by spin: we’re still waist deep in the big muddy. Ditto with business subsidies, repairing Constitutional violations, or systemic energy reform – no easy task when Obama touts ethanol, offshore drilling, and nuclear power. Yet, who imagined this “Anti-Bush” candidate, as Michael D. Green put it, would qualify in office as “one of the most conservative presidents of the last century.”
Incompetence Inheritable, too
Yes, serious disasters came with the office, as my defensive Obama friends repeat, but how does that explain enduring White House incompetence – at times merging the worst of Bush’s cockiness and fortress insularity with Pollyannish myopia. It’s like Rose-colored, Rahm Emanuel Blue-Dogism dominates all tactics – and remember, Rahm came on board well AFTER a brilliant campaign ran its course.
So, excuse me, but I don’t see how Obama defenders can explain away second-class performance, as distinct from strategy errors, say, over health insurance reform – the message, the timing, the compromises and the missed educational opportunities are now classic “what not to do” models. Puzzling indeed is how Obama’s team 1) totally missed the Mass. senate fiasco, 2) weakly backed two losing governors’ campaigns, and 3) now goes down in flames, as if White House endorsement is the kiss of death for vulnerable two senate incumbents.
Not only did Obama misread the Joe Sestek revolt, but stumbled trying to buy him off, despite Specter’s utter weakness in the primary and vs. the Republican challenger. What made Rahm’s White House imagine the aged, unhealthy, unprincipled Specter had any remaining constituency, having offended conservatives, independents and Democrats.
One senses, just as its campaign promises were so many words, this administration took the challenge of governance with the same wing and a prayer. Forget the policy disagreements and disappointments: despite fine speeches and being unsullied by scandal, Obama has offended millions of his most fervent supporters, with nothing progressive to show for it – PLUS infuriated the right, PLUS alienated the center. Now, that trifecta takes some doing by a politician dying to please everyone.
Like Bush, Unlike Bush
Reluctant to compromise, Bush drove away the center but never his base support, despite abandoning abortion, its most fervent issue. For six years, Bush-Cheney mastered political procedure, passing its key agenda (all but privatizing Social Security). However limited and unprepared, W. agreed to advisers, strategies and allies who made him appear a winner, garnering all the wars money can buy, concentrating executive power, abuse of law and agencies, wholesale deregulation and regressive, and budget-busting tax cuts for the rich.
For many, Obama peaked around inauguration, and my savvy Hyde Park, Chicago observer has given up, “Obama would lose in 2012 if the Republicans didn’t have to name their candidate.” Absolutely right: if Obama had to run only on his under-achievements, he’s be underwater to any decent opponent. His main ploy will parlay his upbeat personality while targeting the designated rightwinger as a scary dinosaur who favors the rich, the banksters, and extremists keen still to privatize Social Security. Of course, in 2012, one can’t count on a senile opponent self-destructing or another Sarah Palin outlier selection.
Nor do I question, echoing Professor Green, what Obama shares with Elena Kagan: well-protective covering, high ambition, and a deficiency of principles, both “bloodless careerists.” But set Obama against a vacuous demagogue, like Palin, even more transparently ruthless, incompetent and unstable – and Obama gets a second term. However remote, painfully on display day after day as the Gulf get badly contaminated, Obama calm plays better than foaming-at-the-mouth Republicans coming across as predatory and blood-thirsty. Compared to an open-mouthed shark, a chicken hawk is reassuring. And Obama will still be a war president with Pentagon support, and who wants to switch chicken hawks in the middle of such endless streams.
Incompetence did in Bush
Recall what reduced Bush wasn’t a repulsive ideology but massive incompetence, dismissing the tragedy of drown citizens swept off rooftops, even if poor and black. Two botched wars, atop incredibly deceptive explanations, ultimately defined a major league loser, here and overseas. Unrestrained by Congress, Bush extremists overplayed their hand, with Cheney alternating between from Darth Vader and Chicken Little, a curious mix. Whatever his flaws, Joe Biden is “likable enough,” though Obama would do well to find a more strategic V.P. choice the second time around.
Americans, above all, want to identify with winners, and Obama’s dramatic election, persistent legislative wins and overseas gestures, however modest the results, will keep his popularity from hard descent. But misreading political earthquakes, or merely associating with Specter, is contaminating a cock-sure White House, screw ups and all. Like Bush’s the Obama crew appears not to learn from failure. Passing unpopular bills is one thing but consistently offending your base and the center is even more serious. Note how Palin keenly avoids seeming the loser, blaming McCain’s blunders, then quitting a bad scene rather than “lose.” She’s happily getting rich, running for nothing, the party’s unelected prom queen.
So, as long as Obama has a real, readily attackable rightwing opponent in 2012 – and no major scandals or monumental failures occur, even a compromised, establishment president is re-electable. This week’s election, especially with Dems holding John Murtha’s seat, suggest no Midterm deluge. The cat-like Obama only has so many lives, yet Rahm’s operatives keep backing losers, bad can go to worse. Political misgivings, even downright disappointments, are like oil leaking in the Gulf: what matters isn’t how they got started but how long the disasters last and what tar balls stick to what shores. Even the Obama smile, his great asset, will fade, like the Cheshire cat, if people increasingly conclude there’s no there there.