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Obama’s Historical Touchstones

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This Eric Foner essay on the history of radicalism from the perspective of the end of the Obama era is really outstanding. And it builds upon my previous post by noting that Obama’s own understanding of his historical heroes was flawed.

 Obama’s 2008 campaign, which mobilized millions of people new to politics, served as an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between popular movements and political action. Unfortunately, even before Obama assumed office, it became clear that he had little interest in building upon the popular upsurge that helped to elect him. A revealing moment came at a press conference at the end of November 2008, when he was asked how he reconciled his campaign slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” with the appointment of an economic team largely composed of the same neoliberal ideologues who had helped bring about the financial crisis. “The vision for change,” Obama replied, “comes…first and foremost…from me.” As I mentioned to my class, one can compare Obama’s top-down remark to a comment attributed to the early-20th-century socialist Eugene Debs: “I would not lead you to the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”

 Debs understood that movements, not just political leaders, make social change possible. Obama has never really learned that lesson. To be sure, he sought to cultivate an identification with history by embracing the civil-rights movement, though this is hardly a controversial stance at a time when Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday and even Glenn Beck claims his legacy­. But even then, Obama embraced a sanitized version in which the movement represents a fulfillment of basic American ideals, not the unfulfilled “revolution of values” that King hoped to see. Obama doesn’t invoke the radical King who spoke of “democratic socialism,” launched the Poor People’s Campaign, and supported the antiwar movement.

Another historical figure that Obama has consciously channeled is Abraham Lincoln. He announced his candidacy in 2007 in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s hometown, and took the oath of office on the same Bible that Lincoln used for his inauguration. But unlike Lincoln, who respected people to his left such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner and took their objections to some of his policies seriously, Obama seems to view criticism as little more than an annoyance. He has accused liberal critics of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than in getting things done. Lincoln welcomed criticism; Obama, who has always considered himself (and often has been) “the smartest guy in the room,” doesn’t appear to think that he has much to learn from others. Alternative viewpoints never seemed to penetrate his administration’s inner sanctum.

You can probably argue that Foner is being a little too harsh on Obama here, but I think in the wake of the Trump election, it’s worth at least considering what Obama leading a social movement would look like instead of seeing himself as above the fray, a fray that caused him any number of problems and ultimately led to the election of a fascist. Not that he can be blamed for that of course and Foner isn’t doing so. But one thing that is absolutely an important lesson for the left is that we can NEVER believe that one person can solve our problems, whether that’s Obama or Bernie or Warren or whoever, while at the same time realizing that at least from an electoral perspective, we have to nominate people who the average voter does see as a leader who can help them. That’s a tightrope.

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  • LeeEsq

    Eugene V. Debs demonstrates how to grab a capitalist by his wallet to his audience.

  • Paul Campos

    Last spring, I taught my final class at Columbia University, and now I’m riding off into the sunset of retirement. The course, which attracted some 180 students, was called “The American Radical Tradition.” Beginning with the American Revolution, it explored the ideas, tactics, strengths, weaknesses, and interconnections of the movements that have attempted to change American society—from abolitionism and feminism to the labor movement, socialism, communism, black radicalism, the New Left, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. Although the word “radicalism” is often applied to those on the right as well as the left, I announced at the outset that since we had only one semester, I planned to focus on what might be called left-wing radicalism. Those students who wanted exposure to right-wing radicalism, I added, could enroll in any class in Columbia’s business school.

    “It’s funny because it’s true.”

    Prof. Homer Simpson

  • LeeEsq

    Forner’s piece is unfair to Obama regarding criticism to his left. A lot of Obama’s left criticism did not have any realistic chance of being implemented while a lot of what Frederick Douglas and Charles Sumner desired did get implemented during and after the Civil War. When your dealing with unrealistic critics on the left and the right ignoring them is a legitimate strategy. It also seems deeply ahistorical to refer to either them as left. Lincoln, Douglas, and Sumner were all within the 19th century classical liberal belief system.

    • sleepyirv

      I’m curious what piece of policy that a) could have been passed and b) was offered by the left to Obama, that he ignored. I think Obama ignored a lot of the populist impulse of OWS in 2008, but almost all of it was dead on arrival as actual legislation.

      Perhaps, Forner wished for more ceremonial offers to the left, in an effort to move the Overton Window or whatever?

      • LeeEsq

        Exactly. Obama himself said that single payer was the ideal system if you were starting from scratch. The thing is we weren’t starting from scratch. Not only would policy left of Obama’s be dead on arrival but it would prevent the passing of legislation that could pass.

        Like I said bellow, I’m not really sure why Obama should give consideration to critics he thinks are wrong simply because they are on the Left rather than the Right.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          Thing is, nobody ever starts from scratch. All the countries that have single payer had private insurance systems before they adopted it. So saying “I’d be in favor of single payer if we were starting from scratch” is just a too-clever-by-half way of saying you’re against single payer, since nobody is ever starting from scratch.

          It seems to me you agree with Foner’s description of Obama, you just disagree with his criticism of Obama over it. This is just another example of the fundamental divide within the Democratic Party that we saw during the presidential primary this year.

          • Paul Campos

            Do you think Obama would implement single payer if he had one of those green lantern thingees? I do. Why wouldn’t he?

            It’s completely impossible to pass a law like that in the USA for Poli Sci 101 reasons.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              I don’t think he could have implemented single payer. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I don’t think he could have gotten anything better than the ACA in 2009-2010. But there’s a world of difference, from a long term, organizing perspective, between saying “single payer is a necessary (or even just a desireable) long-term goal, but we cannot achieve it now” and saying “under our circumstances, single payer isn’t such a good idea.” Obama said the latter. It’s like Clinton’s attitude toward Sanders’s more aspirational goals — single payer and tuition free college for all. She treated them not simply as unattainable in the short run, but as utterly preposterous. You cannot build movements by keeping your policy goals limited by what is immediately achievable.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks

                As for what is and isn’t possible in the USA, I think we may l learn some nasty lessons in the limits of such thinking over the next four years.

              • Ronan

                Yeah, it’s clear what what you were saying, and what in Lee’s comment you were replying to.

                Eta whatever about the accuracy of your take on Obama’s preferences

            • Ronan

              Because moronic counterfactuals get a pol sci gold star ?

              • Ronan

                Refering to PCs alternative universe where Jill stein singlehandedly saves western civilisation, just to be clear. Which is Barely A step up from stoned “would you kill baby Hitler” hypotheticals

                • BartletForGallifrey

                  Yes, but would you kill baby Jill Stein?

                • Ronan

                  I’d adopt her and raise her correctly. Perhaps encourage her to concentrate on her medical career rather than politics.

          • delazeur

            All the countries that have single payer had private insurance systems before they adopted it.

            How extensive was health insurance in the U.K. pre-1940s? I know they had had life insurance for 200ish years, but I’ve never heard of anything resembling a health insurance system. You paid out of pocket, went to a charity hospital, or went without care, as far as I know.

        • MPAVictoria

          Well:
          1. The foreclosure relief program was a mess
          2. No bankers were persecuted or went to jail
          3. War criminals from the previous administration were never charged.
          4. Never made any move to end the war on drugs
          5. Wasted years trying to seek a “grand bargain” with the Republicans that was never going to happen AND even worse was horrible public policy
          6. Built up an apparatus of death and destruction using drone strikes that is now in the hands of Donald Fucking Trump

          Agree with these criticisms or not they do exist.

      • Jackov

        Legislation was not needed to investigate/prosecute financial firms for the largest consumer fraud in history. HAMP could have prioritized homeowners instead of bank balance sheets. Perhaps, additional ARRA funding tied to unemployment rate.

        • I wonder how much of 2016’s economic anxiety could have been relieved by a serious effort at HAMP, rather than the undernourished step brother of the bank bailout that we got.

          • Ithaqua

            I wonder how much of 2016’s “economic anxiety” could have been relieved by Fox New’s ceasing to exist in 2014, since there was remarkably little for the great bulk of the country to be economically anxious about other than Republican policies such as slashing Social Security, repealing Obamacare, destroying Medicare…

  • Taters

    He has accused liberal critics of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than in getting things done.

    Still a little soon for me to blame Obama; perhaps in the fullness of time.
    But he did sometimes seem to know exactly what I was thinking!

  • LeeEsq

    The President isn’t supposed to lead a social movement because the President is supposed to represent the people that voted against him just as much as the people who voted for him under American political theory. According to the Founders, the President is supposed to be above the fray and in the messy heart of government and administration. That’s a big problem with our system.

    Even in countries that separate the office of head of state and head of government, the better Prime Ministers tend to remember that they are representing more than the people who elected them into office. They aren’t supposed to lead social movements either. Legislators could lead social movements because they have more limited constituencies.

    Forner’s argument about Obama being dismissal of critics to his left could equally be applied to Obama’s dismissal of people on the right. People just need to get used to the fact that there are going to be millions of people who just believe that you are wrong on a given subject and there is nothing you can do about it.

    • Tyro

      This is a statement that only a good government Democrat could believe. The president also serves as the head of his party and is duty bound to strengthen the party and its beliefs. If he doesn’t do that, then he has failed at a key job of his role.

      • liberal

        The president also serves as the head of his party and is duty bound to strengthen the party and its beliefs.

        Yep.

        A lot of people have been bemoaning the whithering of state-level party infrastructure. Who’s been the titular head of the party for the past eight years? Obama.

        • Paul Campos

          JFC

          I think he may have had a full time job during that time.

          http://www.theonion.com/article/black-man-given-nations-worst-job-6439

          • liberal

            LOL. And he had no power whatsoever to decide who to delegate decisions to?

            I’m pretty sure someone commented in the past week or two that in working one of the elections, they were told to push Obama and deemphasize other Democratic candidates.

            Thanks for providing yet another entry for a growing taxonomy of silly excuses blurted out by Obama apologists.

            • msdc

              Well, I mean, as long as you’re “pretty sure.”

              • Joseph Slater

                that “someone commented”. . . .

                • jim, some guy in iowa

                  that somebody was probably me. And when my mom phonebanked for the campaign in 2008 she was indeed told to only talk about Obama and not mention the down ticket Democrats. Quite possible that the person who told her that was operating off their own rather than the official campaign plan but it did happen

      • SIS1

        No, the President is NOT “Duty Bound” to move the interest of his Party – what a wonderfully bald faced assertion!

        The job of President is Chief Executive of the United States. That is what the person elected President swears an oath to. Last time I checked, there is no oath forced upon people running for a Party’s nomination.

        • Tyro

          If anyone wants to run for president without the backing of a party, then he is free to do so. But you dance with the one that brung you. I didn’t merely vote for the president as a person, I voted to put a party in charge.

          • Gizmo

            I’m pretty sure we just elected somebody who ran without the backing of his party.

          • SIS1

            The entire Primary system was designed to remove power from Party functionaries and place it in the hands of the regular voters, so even the parties themselves have moved away from the notion of party functionaries making the decisions.

            And in the ends its Democratic voters that keep failing to vote that hurts us, not Presidents failing to act in a partisan manner.

    • liberal

      The President isn’t supposed to lead a social movement because the President is supposed to represent the people that voted against him just as much as the people who voted for him under American political theory.

      That has to be the stupidest fucking thing I’ve read today. I’m glad the Republicans feel thus constrained.

      • SIS1

        Republicans don’t act as if they lead social movements – they shill for the powerful at the federal and local level and all other sorts of vested interests.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        What “social movement” did George W. Bush lead?

      • alexceres

        yeah, this stupidity is exactly why democrats have a reputation of going straight for the capillaries.

    • liberal

      Forner’s argument about Obama being dismissal of critics to his left could equally be applied to Obama’s dismissal of people on the right.

      Nope. Most of the critics to his left belong to his party. A very large fraction of the critics to his right don’t belong to his party.

    • alexceres

      this has never been true. Our best presidents led the country to end slavery and a new deal. And no modern Republican administration has ever been about anything other than the cycle of power and money.

      the entire republican party platform is about using the states police power to enforce on pain of imprisonment their religious and social views. As for the folks who voted against them, well, fuck ’em.

  • Tyro

    It was bizarre for me to see Obama create a mass movement, and then basically the day after the election in 2008, say, “good job, guys. I’ll take it from here.”

    There was enormous hunger and potential for an engaged activist base of Obama foot soldiers to act as a pressure group for his agenda, but they were never put to use, and the vacuum was filled by the Tea Party grifters serving as the Republicans’ vanguard.

    • Hogan

      So they just waited around indefinitely for Obama to tell them what to do? Hell of a movement you’ve got there.

  • Scott P.

     Debs understood that movements, not just political leaders, make social change possible. Obama has never really learned that lesson.

    Wait — surely he remembers “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.” and “Yes we can!” Obama’s whole campaign was based on the importance of a popular movement.

    • liberal

      Obama’s whole campaign was based on the importance of a popular movement.

      Not really. That was pretty much empty campaign rhetoric, detached from any particulars of a populist movement.

  • sk7326

    One part of the criticism which I think is fair game is that he never saw his election or his job – or the movement that elevated him – as a call to arms for the Democratic Party. The Obama organizing machine stayed away from Democratic politics – it seemed to not be an active participant in the midterm slaughters of 2010 and 2014. He was not just marketing a post-racial environment, but a post-political one, which together is quite naive.

    I am gentler on him as I get older about the race stuff – like Jackie Robinson, he was only president because he could gracefully step through the slings and arrows. But there is something to him seeing the racial struggles as an academic problem – something which the African American community has suffered, but not a visceral injustice to be reversed. Perhaps the country would not have accepted it – ok, not perhaps, definitely.

    I think (and I wonder what Erik thinks of course) that Obama (and Bill Clinton in a different way) sees his work from the perspective of his community organizer chops. It’s not sea change – it’s getting electricity to someone’s house – or getting the city to come and fill potholes. It results in good, functional government (and Obama’s government has accomplished a lot of good actionable things) without creating a brand identity and values. I don’t know.

    • Tyro

      Presidents are frequently bound by the era they came of age in and look at the world from that perspective. George W. Bush wanted to be a lazy president who basically wanted to be president during the Clinton years, but with tax cuts. He got September 11th and natural disasters, which he didn’t have the mind for.

      Obama liked the idea of making deals with moderates to pursue solutions and compromises that both sides could agree on while outmaneuvering the “no quarter” factions. But he wasn’t elected into that environment.

      It takes a unique temperament to adjust your perspective to the precise time you’ve been elected into, and every president will have some blind spot on something in this regard. But Obama really misjudged the political landscape and imagined he was going to govern in an era of conservative southern democrats and moderate upper Midwest and New England republicans.

  • alexceres

    Not that he can be blamed for that of course

    I do blame Obama for that. Sure, many other factors too, but Obama is probably the most gifted politician and orator of his generation. He spent his early years attempting to compromise with Republicans, misestimating the depths of McConnell and the other leadership figures, and normalizing the politics of obstruction instead of railing against them and articulating a positive vision of how Democrats would help, if only the nasty evil Republicans would stop breaking the government.

    But he didn’t want to engage in total war against the Republicans, because he wanted to be above the fray and statesmanlike, even as they waged total war against him, complete with endorsement of white nationalism and fascism.

    Also, it’s not like he didn’t know the rust belt would be crucial to his re-election and his successor’s election. He had 8 years to drive home the message that the Republicans are to blame, and to direct government investment into the rust belt.

    But that would have been partisan and unseemly.

    Now we have Trump, and everything will be partisan and unseemly for decades to come.

    also, a bit harder to do when he gives the finance sector a pass on all criminal activity in the mortgage debacle and bails out Wall St but not Main St. Permitting the Tea party to co-opt the messaging of a progressive movement was a huge failure.

    • msdc

      Also, it’s not like he didn’t know the rust belt would be crucial to his re-election and his successor’s election. He had 8 years to drive home the message that the Republicans are to blame, and to direct government investment into the rust belt.

      Yeah, why didn’t he do something to help the auto industry?

      • Davis X. Machina

        That would have just cemented in place an auto-centric way of life, and a transportation-heavy economy. Sprawl-and-mall suburbia forever.

        It would be carbon-negative, too.

        I’m glad he didn’t do it. It was bold, but it was the progressive move.

      • alexceres

        Wrong question. Why didn’t he spend years hammering the republicans for opposing the auto industry bail out, which was tremendously successful ? Leaving folks to drown is the republican party platform.

        Hillary faced a huge challenge with a hostile media. Obama had 8 years to work them, and choose failed attempts at comity and bipartisanship for the first 6.

  • Lord Jesus Perm

    Foner isn’t wrong as far as his argument goes, but I do think that pointing out Obama’s shortcomings as a movement builder requires you to grapple with the limits of his ability to do so given his race and the office that he held. King’s radicalism becomes more tempered within the Presidency, I imagine. You can point out Obama’s aping of King being a sanitized version, but we’re a country that got upset with the man for pointing out that the police arresting a man for breaking into his own damn house might have been stupid. White folks in this country are not trying to imagine a black President as being anything close to the radical that King was. Obama’s vision was sanitized, but it’s also the only type of vision that people in this country are comfortable with.

  • Otis B. Driftwood

    Yeah, it’s a damn shame Obama couldn’t have had the impact on the nation that Eugene Debs did… Debs’ two terms as president were a watershed for the American left. Perhaps most of all the way Debs was able to build a governing coalition, attain high office and enact legislation.

    [Insert gargantuan eye roll here] There is an old proverb about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good… Apply it liberally (pun intended) and call me when we’re done bashing a president I know I’m going to miss terribly.

    • liberal

      There is an old proverb about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

      That might not be an unreasonable claim regarding his role as president. It’s definitely unreasonable regarding his role as head of the Democratic Party.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Head of party. Head of government of the day. Chief of state.

        The president wears three hats. Simultaneously.

        It’s a defect in our system, but it’s not one that can be wished away.

  • liberal

    From HuffPost article “The Democratic Fault Line Between Obama And Sanders Is Different Than You Think”:

    It’s also because they believe a Perez bid for DNC chair could undermine party reconciliation. They also note that the Obama team’s party-building record isn’t all that sterling.

    Obama tapped Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) to head the DNC in 2011, and her tenure is widely regarded as disastrous. Part of that was the president’s own doing. Obama made a strategic choice to deploy time and resources into his own Obama-branded Organizing for Action group rather than the dysfunctional Democratic Party organization. Democrats hemorrhaged seats in state legislatures across the country and suffered steep setbacks in both chambers of Congress in Washington.

    “It’s not about Perez. He’s really great,” said one Senate Democratic staffer, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the race. “Obama just let the DNC fall apart under Debbie, and the hack exposed some pretty stupid emails. She didn’t cost Bernie the nomination, but a lot of Bernie voters out there are still mad about it. They need to make the next chair a Bernie person. Obama didn’t earn this one.”

    Another Senate Democratic aide had even stronger words: “The White House didn’t just let the DNC whither on the vine, they actively undermined it by steering money, resources, time and staff to OFA. It takes a lot of nerve for the White House, at the 11th hour, to meddle in race to head an organization they thwarted for eight years.”

    • msdc

      Funny how over the course of this thread we’ve been told that Obama

      a) undermined the party by steering resources to OFA, the organization for his base of engaged activist foot soliders, and
      b) dispelled those foot soldiers the instant he was elected.

    • FlipYrWhig

      BEFORE OBAMA ALL THIS STUFF WAS GOING GREAT!

    • MidwestVillager

      Bernie supporters complaining that someone refuses to engage in enough party building seems like a beam and mote situation.

  • tsam

    But unlike Lincoln, who respected people to his left such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner and took their objections to some of his policies seriously, Obama seems to view criticism as little more than an annoyance. He has accused liberal critics of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than in getting things done. Lincoln welcomed criticism; Obama, who has always considered himself (and often has been) “the smartest guy in the room,” doesn’t appear to think that he has much to learn from others. Alternative viewpoints never seemed to penetrate his administration’s inner sanctum.

    This is a bunch of bullshit.

    • liberal

      Obama cannot fail; he can only be failed.

      • tsam

        Oh–you’re right because dumbass platitude. Thanks for setting me straight.

        • liberal

          Yeah…as opposed to all the intellectual nuance of “This is a bunch of bullshit.”

          And there’s no platitude about it. For many commenters in the liberal blogosphere, it’s an operating principle.

          • tsam

            Ok, more specifically, the argument posits that Obama thought he was the smartest guy in the room and wouldn’t listen to criticism, and that somehow is in contention with Lincoln’s governing style, which is open for debate. As much of Lincoln’s history (especially with respect to his generals) is in contrast to his willingness to accept criticism or competing viewpoints. This whole paragraph was an irresponsible reduction of a president who was far more complicated than thinking he’s above criticism. That assessment is stupid. He’s certainly not above criticism, but this broad stroke psychoanalysis is fucking dumb.

          • efgoldman

            And there’s no platitude about it.

            If you’re so fucking smart, run for school board or county commissioner or something.

            • And there’s no platitude about it.

              If you’re so fucking smart, run for school board

              Wait! Will no one think of the children???

      • econoclast

        I came here to blame Obama, but I have to say: People who use the “X cannot fail; X can only be failed” in lieu of an argument should be sent to prison for the rest of their natural lives. It’s just so goddamn lazy.

  • liberal

    … it’s worth at least considering what Obama leading a social movement would look like…

    Actually, we know what it looks like. It looks like OFA pushing TPP.

  • smartone

    This is the most frustrating part !
    The left HAD the populist anger . It was ours to use to really change things – Obama protected GWB and protected the banksters
    . and we let the right co opt that anger into the tea party .

    • Tyro

      Obama, I think, does not really like populist movements. Quite possibly he thought they are best used as a foil for him to advocate for centrist, good government solutions.

      • Gizmo

        This makes the most sense of anything I’ve read so far. Populist movements give people reasons to vote, to call their congress critter, to get pissed off about obstructionism.

        I can’t read Obama’s mind, but I don’t see any signs that he wanted to harness that power after he got elected.

    • FlipYrWhig

      the financial crisis hit very late in the campaign. Obama was running with other premises and other contexts. “Populist anger” such as it was was, like, the last two months. The previous year was about how putting a biracial guy in charge would help us all feel better about ourselves.

      • Tyro

        That makes an awful lot of sense. From my perspective, the election was about a collapse of a functional government and economy that was crashing that demanded accountability and recriminations. But looked at from the perspective of Obama, particularly before the financial crisis, his election was about national reconciliation.

        Once again, as I said, an example of a president who wanted to be president under national circumstances different than the ones he got.

  • davidsmcwilliams

    And here I was, worried that we were almost done with the circular firing squad.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      the airing of the grievances will continue until morale improves

      • Lord Jesus Perm

        the airing of the grievances beatings will continue until morale improves

        The original is more fitting here, I think.

    • XTPD

      There’s a reason the 11th Commandment is strictly a Republican mantra.

  • wengler

    Obama’s mistakes were always when he deferred to the wealthy over the people. Obama’s pushing for TPP also opened a huge opening that was exploited by the orange fascist clown.

  • AMK

    Obama didn’t seek to “lead a movement” on the left because he’s not a leftist. He obviously cares deeply about civil rights, but he didn’t evoke MLK’s democratic socialism because he’s not a democratic socialist. He didn’t push hard for the public option because he doesn’t really care that insurance companies are making money as long as most people have affordable coverage. He didn’t nationalize the banks because he doesn’t believe that they should be nationalized. He was willing to strike a grand bargain on entitlements with the GOP for years that would have included some kind of modest entitlement reduction in exchange for modestly higher taxes on the rich. He nominated Merrick Garland instead of whoever the lawyer version of Bernie Sanders is because he agrees with Garland’s center-left incrementalism….on and on. People can project whatever they want on him, but the record is pretty clear.

    Not that I consider it a bad thing; my views are pretty much the same.

    • Tyro

      His great mistake was to think that those centrist incrmentalost instincts would be respected by Republicans and that left wing populist anger was a hindersnce rather than an asset

      • Davis X. Machina

        I suspect he would have so acted if there was no Republican party at all. Nor any left wing either — not there’s much of that in the real world.

    • dbk

      Yes, this seems pretty close to what he believes – or to what he had the moral courage to act on, as I’m not really sure what he actually believes.

      I’m a big Obama fan. He’s highly intelligent, he’s learned, he’s a superb rhetorician. He should have been a great leader. Also, he’s from my home state, which always helps!

      But I feel disappointed at his actual record (recounted by several commenters already). It’s not what he actually got accomplished – the ACA is good for millions of people; the “bail-out” of the automotive industry was big, and there is no doubt that identity politics have been blessed by his tenure. (In other areas, e.g. foreign affairs, I’m not so enthusiastic – the U.S., at the end of his tenure as President, is at war in seven countries in MENA – not good).

      But still … at the risk of entering the fraught field of psychoanalyzing political leaders, it might be worth recalling that Obama is the son of an American cultural anthropologist and a Kenyan aristocrat. The mainstream calls him our first black President – I think of him as our first multi-cultural President. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, and didn’t live on the mainland until he was eighteen years old. It’s not a question of his allegiance, it’s one of his sense of his own identity.

      In order to be a great leader, a tremendously strong sense of identity – of a centered “self” – is required. It’s not obvious to me that Obama possessed this sense. The comparisons with Lincoln and MLK in other comments were apropos; both men had a strong sense of identity and identification with specific beliefs rooted in their childhoods/formative years.

      You can be brilliant, eloquent, compelling – all of that, and yet, if you aren’t fully identified with the causes, the concerns, the latent fears, and the deeply-held beliefs of a people, you can’t, ultimately, lead them to the promised land.

  • Murc

    There’s a lot of talk upthread about how the President is also the head of their political party, and I think it exposes a deeper problem.

    I am in utter disagreement with Paul’s huffy “he had a full-time job!” retort. Yes. He did. One of the duties of that full-time job was to be the leader of the Democratic Party. I don’t know how all y’alls jobs work, but at mine, I’m not allowed to hand-wave away failure to devote time to some of my duties with the excuse of “But I did these other things I was supposed to do!” It’s all part of my job.

    That said, I think the unasked questions are “Should the President be the leader of the party?” and “If not, is there a practical way for them to not be?”

    And there isn’t an easy solution there, because the answer to the second one has to be “yes” if the answer to the first one is “no.” I think there’s a strong case to be made that the President shouldn’t also wear the hat as leader of their party, because inevitably rather severe conflicts of interest will arise, and because there’s a very high chance of some duties being neglected simply because that take an already big job and makes it even bigger.

    The problem is that I don’t think there’s ever a way to actually sideline a President. Or a Prime Minister, come to think of it. It turns out that when you’re a head of government you have a shit-ton of power and any attempt to actually stop you from exercising it in intracoalition politics, while not doomed to failure, is likely to trigger a huge ennervating fight. So you might as well just make them leader and be done with it.

    Which means we’re stuck with demanding that President’s also be good party leaders.

  • SIS1

    As someone who picked Hillary over Obama back in 2008, I never understood the whole image of him as some progressive icon. None of his language or mannerism ever seemed to indicate to me that was his style.

    That said, the notion that he should be blamed for trying to be POTUS as opposed to being some leader of a movement is absurd. POTUS is not supposed to be the leader of a movement – he is a person supposed to fill a very specific Constitutional role in our system, and honestly, Obama’s desire to stick to our system is one of the best things about his Presidency. If the Democratic Party was waiting on baited breath for Obama to come down from up high to build their party, then THAT is the mistake. A Political party should be bottom up, not top down. That Democratic voters seem to sit around waiting for a savior every four years is a problem, not something we should encourage.

    • mpavilion

      Yeah, and it’s funny how that 2008-vintage “projection” onto BO of what ppl want him to be (a populist/leftist icon), rather than what he actually is (a great, centrist Democratic politician), is still happening, one month away from the end of his 8-year presidency.

    • PJ

      That Democratic voters seem to sit around waiting for a savior every four years is a problem, not something we should encourage.

      Yeah, and it’s funny how that 2008-vintage “projection” onto BO of what ppl want him to be (a populist/leftist icon), rather than what he actually is (a great, centrist Democratic politician), is still happening, one month away from the end of his 8-year presidency.

      Christ, yes to all this.

  • YosemiteSemite

    Jesus, Erik, what a load of mealy-mouthed concern trolling: “not that we can blame him for that, of course”

  • Brien Jackson

    I think this is mostly spot on, but one big quibble: Part of the problem is that Obama has never really gotten any intelligent or serious pushback from the left. It’s predominantly been focused around moronic leftier-than-thouism.

    • Gizmo

      Rahm Emmanuel worked to keep that pushback from ever happening.

      • Brien Jackson

        I rest my case.

  • MPAVictoria

    Obama’s foreign policy has been a bloody disaster. He only looks good because the foreign policies of most post-ww2 presidents have been a bloody disaster.

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