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Barack Obama Needs to Lead the Resistance to Trump

[ 410 ] December 29, 2016 |

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Graham Vyse has a good piece on why we need Barack Obama as a resistance leader. You should read it. In fact, I was working on a similar piece but kind of hit a brick wall so never finished it. Figure I might as well put these ideas out here, even if they don’t get published in a bigger forum. Here it is:

In the face of Donald Trump’s shocking upset over Hillary Clinton in November, the Democratic Party has been in disarray, lacking leadership in the vacuum left by Hillary Clinton. Liberals and leftists have blamed each other for her defeat and Democrats’ poor performance downticket. Some Hillary supporters have castigated Bernie Sanders’ negative campaigning against Clinton and his supporters who did not vote for her. Leftists have called Clinton a neoliberal Wall Street sellout who ran an uninspiring centrist campaign at a time of populist uprising. The period between 2016 and 2020 was when Democrats intended to figure out their future leaders as potential candidates explored a run for the presidency in 2024.

As Trump and his advisors prepare to dismantle a century of social progress, Democrats need to unite quickly to oppose this while also figuring out the future of the Party. With a fractured, confused party riven with infighting, there is only one figure who can unite the party immediately in opposition to the Trump agenda. That is Barack Obama.

I believe historians will judge Obama favorably for his progressive agenda on many issues, especially given the historically rabid opposition he faced from Congress. In the past half-century, only Lyndon Johnson has a more consistent liberal record. But Obama has failed to turn his victories into a robust Democratic Party. The poor Democratic National Committee leadership under Tim Kaine and then Debbie Wasserman-Schultz led to over 900 lost state legislature seats, 69 House members, 12 senators, and 13 governors, as well as tremendous infighting during the 2016 Democratic primaries. The Democratic Party needs to figure out how to fix that. Whether the next DNC chair is Keith Ellison, Tom Perez, or some other candidate Democrats need to rethink their political strategy to compete nationally. That will take time, resources, and infighting. The next generation of electoral leadership cannot arise overnight out of this morass.

On the other hand, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is consistently between 80 and 90 percent. In an age of extreme rhetoric, unbounded racism, and the destruction of democratic norms, Obama is a voice of reason and dignity. While the Democratic Party figures out its future, Obama can be a center of opposition to Trump. Obama has always believed in dialogue and working with the opposition, which may well not be possible with an administration toying with fascism. But we must urge Obama to be a figure of fierce resistance to Trump. That could take many forms. He could write a weekly column in a major newspaper or appear frequently on talk shows. He could make speeches around the country castigating Trump’s policies. He could even run for office again, using a seat in the House of Representatives or the Senate as a tiny bully pulpit to gather attention for the horrors of Trump. No one has more status to challenge Trump directly than Barack Obama.

Obama as a serious political actor in his post-presidency would be an unusual, but not unprecedented, move. Upon leaving office, most presidents are either elderly, disgraced, or politically irrelevant. Two recent comparisons are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Clinton left office as a popular president and a young man. The Clinton Foundation has done some good work, but ultimately served more to promote the ex-president as a global celebrity than keep Clinton as a central figure in American politics, Hillary’s successful career notwithstanding.

Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency is more interesting. Carter promotes democracy around the world, builds housing for the poor in the United States, and fights tropical diseases. His brave stance in promoting peace in the Middle East has made him a deeply respected figure unafraid to enter into the political realm for the causes which he believes in. However, Carter has played very little role in the Democratic Party since he left office and never saw himself as an opposition leader to Reagan.

A more useful but less obvious precedent is John Quincy Adams. In 1824, Adams won the Oval Office in one of the strangest elections in American history, when four major candidates sought the office. Andrew Jackson won the most votes in the Electoral College, but failed to win a majority. The election then went to the House. But loathing Jackson, the fourth-place candidate, Kentucky senator Henry Clay, asked his supporters to support Adams, who came in second in the Electoral College. Adams, an honest man without much sense of politics, then named Clay as his Secretary of State. There is no evidence of a quid pro quo, but Jackson and his supporters cried out that it was a “Corrupt Bargain.” This destroyed Adams’ presidency. His progressive ideas for a national university system and advanced road system was swallowed up by a fake scandal promoted by the racist demagogue who would defeat him in 1828. Adams could have faded into obscurity. But instead he ran for Congress in Massachusetts in 1831, serving until his death in 1848. There, Adams become the most prominent abolitionist voice in the House of Representatives. He was a moral objector to the foundational sin of the United States, routinely taking on a political establishment dedicated to perpetuating the slavery of millions of African-Americans.

Barack Obama could be our John Quincy Adams. Obama himself has hinted at a more active role in politics than past presidents. Even before the election, he and former Attorney General Eric Holder declared they would dedicate themselves to fixing gerrymandering through creating the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Such a direct intrusion into American politics already would make Obama unusual. But he can go farther. In a Democratic Party without a clear leader, Obama is the only figure that can gather the respect of both liberals and moderates. He won the votes of working-class whites in Rust Belt states and motivated intense African-American and youth involvement in politics. Compared to Trump, Obama is a paragon of morality, of seriousness, of leadership. We need Barack Obama to take on the burden political leadership to inspire liberals in these perilous times.

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Obama’s Historical Touchstones

[ 89 ] December 14, 2016 |

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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.

Obama and Race

[ 286 ] December 14, 2016 |
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) ORG XMIT: OTKMC101

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) ORG XMIT: OTKMC101

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on Barack Obama is powerful:

Coates argues that Obama knows his whites because he was born to them, raised and loved by them. For this reason, Coates says Obama was able to offer white Americans “something very few African Americans could—trust.” Obama’s faith in white people’s goodness and white America’s capacity to rise above racism runs throughout his presidency and Coates’s moving, infuriating, eloquent memorial for our first black president.

The essay is moving. That is because Coates wrote it. And on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency, the essay is all the more moving. Many black people will never again have a moment when they feel as American, for good or for ill, as many of us have felt the past eight years. Many of us will never again feel safe from history, seeing it reassert its racist, sexist violence so forcefully back into our political sphere. The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.

It didn’t matter that Obama had faith in white people, they needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them. Here, what is referred to alternately in Coates’s essay as Obama’s “hybridity” and “two-ness” and “biracial” identity may have mattered. It did not matter because of how it shaped Obama but because of how it made white voters feel about themselves. In sociology, there are several theories about those who are born or socialized into two cultures at once. These people have been called liminal or marginal, for being suspended between two societies. The black world and white world that Coates describes and that are often tossed about casually are important to understand. There is a black norm only because there is a white norm, and vice versa. As some of these ideas go, people like Obama exist in both spaces simultaneously. For some people this means someone like Obama has special insight into both cultures. That insight supposedly breeds empathy. That kind of empathy may be why Obama could look at years of pictures of his wife and children drawn as apes and decades of white backlash to perceived black socio-economic gains as racial, albeit not racist: “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” That is catnip to millions of white voters.

The other interpretation of liminality, or double-consciousness, that Obama is said to represent is more complicated. Not only does one trapped between two sets of social norms understand each better, but he is often blinded to the ways in which they are in conflict. Duality can breed insight but it can also breed delusions. The challenge of holding two sets of social selves, two ways of being and understanding the world at one time is to soften the edges so much that for the liminal, the edges no longer exist.

The black president that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes is one who thinks he could have ever really “embraced” or “chosen” blackness. He seems to truly believe that he exercised some great act of charity and agency in adopting black cool. My first black president seems to think that he can raise his daughters to believe in systemic racism without legitimizing the idea of systemic reparations. He thinks that he can be his brother’s keeper without changing the world that keeps his brothers in bad jobs, poor neighborhoods, bad educational options, and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My first black president seems to think he can have black cool without black burden. For all his intimacies with his white mother and white grandparents, my first black president doesn’t appear to know his whites.

There’s no other way to explain Obama’s inability to imagine that this nation could elect Donald Trump. Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs. Even after Donald Trump was elected, Obama told Coates that all is not lost. He is still hopeful about the soul of white America. He said nothing about the soul of black America. That is where my hope resides. It is where my faith has always resided.

The anger that David Axelrod says was so a part of Harold Washington and that Barack Obama wonderfully did not have is also the hope that defends against America’s worst impulses.* To think Obama is commended for not being angry, for not having the fortitude of deep knowledge about how white identity politics sustains and circumscribes black lives is enough to make me cry.

Barack Obama never seemed to really understand the nature of his opposition, from his early years of being Grand Bargain curious to the rise of Trump. This may be why his response to Trump in the last month has been near silence. I am strongly hoping Obama takes a major leadership role in the fight against Trump to come, not retiring like most presidents, but rather becoming a modern John Quincy Adams, fighting against injustice quite publicly. But it may take Obama coming to terms with the true depths of American racism to do this. And somehow, maybe he doesn’t quite get that.

The Washington Playbook

[ 323 ] March 10, 2016 |

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Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some stupid shit.

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.

Republicans Fall in Line, Democrats Fall in Love

[ 124 ] July 30, 2014 |

I’m certainly interested in Rick Perlstein’s new book, although who knows when I will have time to read it. While it sounds like he probably gives more transformative agency to Reagan than I am really comfortable with, I have no doubt the insights will be very useful. I did think a bit of his interview with David Dayen worth mentioning here:

And that was true on both sides of the political aisle, right? You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.

Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It’s very similar. Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper’s, there was an article by Steven Brill called “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,” pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it’s a powerful force.

This is a useful lesson. I’ve said this before, but there is no reason to think Democratic presidents are going to create the change you want. They are a necessary tool to sign the bills legislating that change, but just choosing the right president and–poof–everything changes is never, ever going to happen and Democrats are far better off understanding this. Barack Obama was never going to lead a transformative movement and it was silly to think so. Even if Elizabeth Warren was elected president, she wouldn’t either. The constraints are far too great. That change has to come through grassroots organizing that make cowardly politicians afraid to resist or try to buy you off through compromise measures that are victories in themselves. There are of course areas where disappointment in Obama is quite justified–education, public lands, energy development, etc–but these are areas where executive authority dominate policy making. Even in these areas, there was no evidence in 2008 that he’d be any different. It’s not as if Arne Duncan appeared out of thin air.

In Which Erik Hangs Himself

[ 129 ] May 25, 2013 |

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.

Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.

The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Where’s the rope?

Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.

The Environmental President?

[ 27 ] May 7, 2013 |

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.

Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.

In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.

In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.

Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.

It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.

So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.

There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.

In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.

The Bad Politics of Obama’s Grand Bargain Fetish

[ 138 ] April 10, 2013 |

Obama’s caving on chained CPI and allowing reductions to Medicare so he can achieve his long-desired grand bargain is a terrible idea, not only on the merits but on the politics. It isn’t going to convince Republican fireeaters to bargain in good faith because their ultimate goal is to destroy his presidency, not run the country. It also opens Obama up to attacks from Republicans that he is hurting seniors. Greg Walden, chair of the House GOP reelection committee, is already doing just that, attacks that may well hurt Democratic candidates in 2014. Those attacks might be disingenuous from people want to do away with Social Security entirely (or privatize it, which is pretty much the same thing), but truth is not the name of the game here.

Bad policy, bad politics.

Here’s to Republican Fireeating

[ 262 ] April 5, 2013 |

Republican extremism and a complete unwillingness to deal with the Kenyan usurper is the one thing keeping us from cuts to Social Security:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s proposed budget will call for reductions in the growth of Social Security and other benefit programs by including a proposal to lower cost-of-living adjustments to government social safety net spending, a senior administration official says.

The proposal attempts to strike a compromise with congressional Republicans on the Fiscal 2014 budget by combining the president’s demand for higher taxes with GOP insistence on reductions in entitlement programs.

The official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity to describe a budget that has yet to be released, said Obama would reduce the federal government deficit by $1.8 trillion over 10 years.

A key feature of the plan Obama is proposing for the federal budget year beginning Oct. 1 is a revised inflation adjustment called “chained CPI.” This new formula would effectively curb annual annual increases in a broad swath of government programs, but would have its biggest impact on Social Security.

It’d be nice if Obama realized for once that the Republicans will never compromise with him unless he completely capitulates to their agenda, with its ever rightward shifting goalposts. Pretending to be a nice moderate Republican is not going to work. Nor should it since if a Democratic president can’t stand up for Social Security, what can he stand up for?

Significance

[ 71 ] January 21, 2013 |

I have nothing of interest to add to the inauguration discussion. But I do want to link to Atrios on the shocking significance of Obama to anyone with an understanding of American history.

Whatever one thinks of Obama, it says something positive about our country that we actually managed to twice vote for an African-American man for president. More than that, I don’t think that anyone should doubt that we’d be ready to elect a woman president, too. I’m not saying the playing field is level and the country, or at least enough of it, is race- and gender- blind for these things, just that 20 years ago I would’ve put both in the near-impossible category.

About once a month, I sort of come to this realization that, holy moly, this country has voted a black dude president. Twice! That is hard for me to believe. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. And if it did, it would be a Republican.

Obama Embracing the Bully Pulpit?

[ 49 ] September 6, 2012 |

I am agnostic on the Bully Pulpit debate we frequently have on the blog. I think both Scott and those who disagree with him make good points. So I don’t link to this Peter Baker piece in the Times how Obama’s governing style has changed with any agenda except that I think it’s an interesting data point in this debate.

How has Mr. Obama applied the lessons he learned? One day last spring, aides told him interest rates on federal student loans would double on July 1 unless Congress acted. Early on in his presidency, Mr. Obama might have invited lawmakers to the White House.

Instead, he headed to Air Force One and flew to college campuses in North Carolina and Colorado to castigate Congress for not heading off the rate hike. There was never any debate about the strategy; no one, even Mr. Obama, thought about talking with Republicans.

“Our view on student loans was they wouldn’t do it without really putting their backs against the wall,” said David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser. “He realized this was a simple thing, it was clear, it was something we could motivate people on.”

Republicans angrily accused the president of bad faith. “He was making a political argument,” said Representative John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the education committee. “I never saw any engagement from the White House about what really to do about it.”

Maybe so, but Obama aides crowed that it worked because Republicans instantly came out against the rate increase, too. Republicans said they saw it the other way, arguing that they defused the Obama attack by reacting quickly. Either way, it was a sign of how much the president had changed.

….

The breakdown of last year’s grand bargain talks proved a turning point. “That was a searing experience,” Mr. Plouffe recalled. The lesson: Forget negotiations and use the bully pulpit. Policy is not about applying reason; it’s about applying power.

“You’re never going to convince them by sitting around the table and talk about what’s good for the country,” said John D. Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and still advises him occasionally. “You had to demonstrate that there’s political pain if you don’t produce an acceptable outcome.”

Thoughts?

Fear of a Black President

[ 49 ] August 25, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “Fear of a Black President,” is probably the best essay on this country I’ve read in 2012. It’s hard to even know what to excerpt here. Of many excellent passages, I’ll go with this one:

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

The strategy can work. Booker T.’s Tuskegee University still stands. Wilder became the first black governor in America since Reconstruction. Jackson’s campaign moved the Democratic nominating process toward proportional allocation of delegates, a shift that Obama exploited in the 2008 Democratic primaries by staying competitive enough in big states to rack up delegates even where he was losing, and rolling up huge vote margins (and delegate-count victories) in smaller ones.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

All I can say is that I am extremely excited for Coates’ book on African-Americans and Civil War memory to come out.

And if you haven’t read this essay, put down what you are doing and spend the next 10 minutes on it. It’s amazing.

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