Gadfly Dana Milbank nailed President Obama’s trademark, if not legacy: “This week alone, President Obama has taken several steps to implement Bill Clinton’s third term.” The real scoop isn’t just garden-variety WH misdirection from a reformer in name only, but what code-breakers term “substitution:” obscuring intention or format with duplicitous decoys.
Is this what Obama comes down to, warmed over Clintonism? Wait a minute. Haven’t progressives for months been groaning Obama’s victory over McBush-McWorse hardly dispelled our worst nightmare – Bush III? On key carryovers – multiple wars, bloated defense spending, anti-terrorist excesses, Iranian saber-rattling, hugs for Israel, stimulus spending and bank handouts, Obama extends the spirit, if not the letter of botched Bush-Cheney posturing (or goes beyond, with citizen assassinations without trials).
Obama overplays Bill Clinton’s tactical ploy called Triangulation – co-opting the center to divide opposition and inhibit attack – by actually implementing, even initiating center-right policies presumably meant to be deflected. Annoying but effective, Clinton triangulation involved pre-emptive theft of the opposition’s (more conservative) attitudes and language, uncomfortably sounding like Reagan on welfare, endorsing everyone pulling themselves by their own bootstraps. Obama takes Clintonism one, scary step farther.
Talking Republicanism is a viable tactic but adopting backward, neo-liberal agendas, especially on war, terrorism, and privacy-civil-legal rights, would make FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Carter blanch. When Obama indeed goes right, piloted by his bevy of Clintonistas, that exceeds triangulation – to something like “super-triangulation,” where the name changes but not the policies. Yes, we can?
If co-opting issues worked for Obama, expanding his leverage (for a next, more progressive chapter?), that would be suspect but defensible “pragmatism.” But as the Obama presidency stews in its own juices, and right-centrism flops again – on jobs, regulation, environmental balances, oil blowouts – that turns super-triangulation on itself, a kind of strangulation. A liberal purloining GOP rhetoric can still finagle, with razzmatazz, and produce positives (Clinton, at times). But a pretender dishing out liberal rhetoric to cloud illiberal policies (whose disasters elected him) is playing both ends against the middle.
In only 18 months, Obama has thus managed to demolish high approval numbers, alienate his base, confuse the center (easily done) yet gain no allegiance from Republicans adrift in soundbites. And never once, not on the stimulus, health or financial reform – his big ploys – did he command the public debate, thus the GOP gets away by scandalously impugning Obama as socialist, unfriendly to business, wanting America to fail. The results, hardly open to debate, are that Bush III, or whatever you call it, is failing miserably as politic stance, even with more appealing messengers.
Nice is Not Enough
And Obama’s people are nicer, more polite and coherent, dissembling with far more subtlety than the Cheney chain saw gang. Take good old Joe Biden vs. despicable Cheney, or Defense Sec’y Gates vs. smug Rumsfeld, or placid AG Eric Holder vs. egregious Alberto “No-memory” Gonzales. Plus, Hillary Clinton herself, more prepared and far less condescending than Condi Rice defending indefensible neo-con absurdities. And Bush’s top warrior, Prince Patraeus, still irreplaceable, still dishing out the same orders to his field generals, just like the old days. The more things change . . .
The bottom line: the storyline, policy themes and mindset are substantially Bush III, despite or indeed because of stodgy, status quo Clinton types. No doubt Afghan peasants dodging errant missiles appreciate they’re no longer getting bombed by stridently self-righteous, patronizing rightwing ideologues ignorant of history or culture or finesse.
Cheers for the Obama crew who makes war, not peace, with so much more panache. Pass the hor d’oeuves, friend, and champagne: toast the New Obama Way.
Ends Against the Middle
Of course, for progressives, Milbank only reinforces our mounting sense that “winning has morphed into losing,” that failure isn’t an option but a certainty after doubling-down self-defeating policies. Take the utter fantasy of success in Afghanistan. If Bush (and ClintonThink) are guideposts, Obama wins the prize for foolish presidential consistency, but manifestly it’s the hobgoblin of little minds.
Thus, to understand how Obama resists “change” is not to solve the puzzle: how could a brilliant campaigner lose his political way, jeopardizing re-election by being allergic to his own pledges? Even when he does what he promises, in Afghanistan, it’s turned sour: Obama is pinned down by an increasingly unpopular war, confusing our allies, obscuring the number of drone attacks, and adding thousands of troops while promising deadlines and withdrawals. Even the vainglorious W. knew when to cut and run, or resist putting his ego on the line in the graveyard of empires.
Lost Wars Kill Presidencies
Symbolic of this presidency, Afghan contradictions will plague this one-time peace candidate. I have no good answer to this provocation from Andrew J. Bacevich (The New Republic): “Who is more deserving of contempt? The commander in chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander in chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?”
No doubt, this establishment White House endorses continuity as a good, a necessary evil, the honoring of inheritances, even when foul, and commitments, even when repugnant. What’s so bad about integrating the “best” of the Clinton era, a Rahm Emanuel posits, while salvaging what ultimate “pragmatists” can from the Bush-Cheney juggernaut? Are they that deluded or are we?
Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum?
Who knew the ’08 Democratic primary battle royal was a charade – between an actual Clinton and a silver-tongued Clinton decoy, the superior campaigner with more enticing promises? Turns out, either Democrat meant Clintonism laid over Bushism, only with stylistic variations. Here was a curious bait and switch spectacle, but devoid of any ultimate “switch.” What a billion dollar campaign fraud on democracy – 63 million voters disgusted with Bush sought change and got instead what we most feared: more of the same.
And folks are shocked the ultra-rightwing, comatose a year ago, roars back with (literal) vengeance, like horror figures from the grave. Horror, indeed, worsened by having hard-to-hate, articulate, but uninspired and tragically wary “super-angulators” – so plagued by tunnel vision they’re engineering their own demise.
Still on the table – resolving this puzzle: why is this energetic, obviously experienced White House repeatedly shellacked in the message-framing wars by dimwitted Republicans? Why can’t so-called liberals battle effectively in the public forum – let alone engage, hear, and stand by average Main Street folks, pass legislation a majority favors, leverage its own huge ’08 constituency, and not get ambushed every few weeks by featherweight Sarah Palin?
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