Why Obama Still Matters


The one thing I noticed in my continental run-around this past week is just how mad liberals are at Obama. I remain as baffled by this anger as I am by Republican contempt for the guy. New York magazine has two superb essays that sum up my own feelings on both sides pretty perfectly – by Jon Chait and David Frum. Chait notes how systemic and eternal liberal disenchantment is, and how congenitally useless Democrats are in rallying round a leader, even one who has achieved so much in such a short time. Many Dems even now think Clinton was more successful in fighting the GOP in his first term than Obama has been. (Memo to the left: universal healthcare was achieved under Obama). But much of this is the usual Democratic limpness and whininess. If George Bush had taken out Osama bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda's leadership and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now. If he'd done the equivalent on the right of universal healthcare, he'd be the second coming of Reagan. But Obama and liberals? If I hear one more gripe about single payer from someone in their fifties with a ponytail, I'll scream.

But the right is more unhinged and more dangerously full of denial. Since I was never structurally or financially or socially linked to the Washington right, I was immune to the withdrawal of jobs, money and access doled out to any dissenter in the Bush years. But every now and again, I get some kind of amazed look – "You're not going to back Obama again, are you?" – from someone in the conservative cocoon, and when I respond, "So far, you bet!", there is often a long pause and a genuine sadness on their faces. "What the hell happened to him?" you can hear them asking themselves.

Some of this is as head-scratching for me as it is for David:

Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.

Did you get the impression from the GOP debates that Obama had lowered taxes? That he had not nationalized but saved the banks? That he had dispatched Osama and Qaddafi? That he had 60 percent support for a sane and succcessful foreign policy? That he was an exemplar of all those social values conservatives say they support: a model husband and father, a black man who has eschewed identity politics almost entirely, a president whose speeches are among the most intellectually Christian of any in modern times? This strange, bizarre hostility to him I put down to displaced anger at Bush, to cultural panic among the old, but also to a wider propaganda support system that is truly a sight to behold:

Outside this alternative [conservative media] reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

The constant American exceptionalism point – taken to an absurd degree – is a function of neurosis not patriotism. It comes out n the weirdest ways – in the Christanist roundtable last weekend, Gingrich actually said that America was the only country in the world where people saw soldiers as sons, daughters, fathers and mothers. Yes, other nations are full of emotionless robots. But it is not a solution to America being way down the list on a number of variables to insist that we're Number One! always and everywhere. And no amount of this insistence that "conservatives" are the only truly American participants in democracy will help when you have no idea how to cope with the uninsured, with fiscal balance outside a Randian fantasy, with soaring healthcare costs, or debt-crippled demand. David puts it best here:

It’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It’s one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It’s a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It’s fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that ­middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.

It was never my party, but it was one to which I could once accord regular agreement and respect. No more. I remain unrepentant in my support for this president, a man who has accomplished more in the face of a more hostile environment in his first three years than any president since Johnson. I wish more reasonable Dems and a few moderate Republicans will soon have the courage to say so.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles before addressing troops at RAAF Darwin on the second day of his 2-day visit to Australia, on November 17, 2011 in Darwin, Australia. The President today laid a wreath at the USS Peary Memorial, before visiting the RAAF base, where US Army Air Force units were established during World War II. By Scott Barbour – Pool/Getty Images.)