What Obama Needs — Desperately

William Greider knows. In fact, this is by far the clearest analysis I’ve seen to date:

Given the election results, the question Barack Obama has to decide for himself is whether he really wants to be president in the fullest sense. Not a moderator for earnest policy discussions. Not the national cheerleader for hope. Not the worthy visionary describing a distant future. Those qualities are elements in any successful presidency, and Obama applies them with admirable skill and seriousness.

What’s missing with this president is power—a strong grasp of the powers he possesses and the willingness to govern the country with them. During the past two years, this missing quality has been consistently obvious in his rhetoric and substantive policy positions. There is a cloying Boy Scout quality in his style of leadership—the troop leader urging boys to work together on their merit badges—and none of the pigheaded stubbornness of his “I am the decider” predecessor, nor the hard steel of Lyndon Johnson or the guile of Richard Nixon. (emphasis mine)

Those two paragraphs, more than any other short passage I’ve read lately, capture so well the essence of the self-generated problems that have bedeviled this White House (and, by extension, the Democratic party of which he is the de facto head) for the past two years, that if reading them doesn’t make you want to immediately read the rest of the piece, then you should probably go with your instincts and not click through. Greider’s piece is such a compelling take on the stumbling blocks Obama’s grappling with that if your reaction to the first two paragraphs is to stop reading, it likely means you’re one of the hardcore Obama loyalists who excoriated increasingly-frustrated progressives through the health care debate, even as you watched investigative reporters uncover internal administration memos detailing backroom, out-of-public-view giveaway deals with lobbyists for health care-related industries (deals which the administration had, until then, vehemently and repeatedly tried to deny – until the very same industry lobbyists with whom they’d made the deals threatened to withdraw from those deals if the Obama team kept denying them).


If the two paragraphs quoted above make you think “here we go again” instead of “tell me more,” then it’s likely that as the reality piled up over the last couple of years – on several fronts – that we did not get from the administration the progress that seemed both within reach and a part of the sweeping call for “fundamental transformation” which Obama had run on, your reaction was to both shoot the increasing number of messengers who arrived with bad news or bad reviews of the administration, and to fall back on a didactic accounting of the successes Obama had achieved. It’s likely that when Jane Hamsher controversially made common purpose with Grover Norquist to call for Rahm Emanuel’s ouster over improprieties during his time at Freddie Mac, or when Matt Taibbi filleted the instinctive defensiveness about Obama displayed in some quarters, you started calling them (and any who agreed with them) teabaggers (”Firebagger,” I believe, was the actual nom de snarque they were given), as if anyone who dared criticize or disagree with Obama in a way that disquieted you was not just inadvertently harming his cause, but had actually gone over to the dark side and now agreed with the FOX News hordes. If any of that sounds like you, skip not only Greider’s article, but this post as well.

Everybody else, gather ‘round. Because Greider says it better than it’s been said anywhere I’ve seen so far.

Part of the problem with critiquing Obama from the left has been that – contrary to the inaccurate and alarmist screechings of Obama diehards – most progressives aren’t unaware of Obama’s commendable list of accomplishments, though ironically, the administration’s persistent dislike of “flash” or “drama” led to an almost-total refusal on their part to trumpet their own accomplishments, which, in turn, has produced the unfortunate result that many regular voters and citizens are unaware of them (hence the need for such websites as the previous link). Nor have progressives simply disliked or opposed Obama across the board; progressives have appreciated, and been quite willing to give Obama credit for, the real accomplishments he has achieved. Unlike the Rush Limbaugh-led GOP, progressives want Obama to succeed. They know how critical it is, after the Bush years, that he does succeed. Lastly, while it’s true that progressives want to push for as much desperately-needed real reform and progress as possible, they’re also (often painfully) aware of how difficult it is to achieve real progress in the gridlocked, money-soaked environs of DC, and they’re aware that governing consists in large measure of knowing when to compromise, to take what you can get. So progressives have always – again, contrary to the claims of Team Obama – undertaken whatever criticism they’ve launched carefully, in full knowledge of both the level of obstruction and criticism Obama already faced from a united oppositionist GOP, and that the risk of too much aggregate opposition might be failure to achieve anything, instead of increased steel in the spine and better results.

What Greider’s article points out better than any piece I’ve seen yet is how, as events have unfolded over the past 22 months or so, as people from all sides have had the chance to see what Obama would do, the flaws in Obama’s approach and his actions have been ever more clearly revealed to be not problems of ideology, nor intelligence, nor even courage, but instead, of simple character. Not in the moral sense of the word, but literally in the makeup of the man and how he approaches they type of problems he encounters in his job. Greider observes that “Obama has patience and the self-confidence not to insist that his solution is the best and only one.” I can think of very few people who wouldn’t count that trait, in the abstract, as not only an extremely valuable and positive one, but also a relatively rare one. It’s what makes Obama a conciliator of surpassing talent. But, as Greider observes, that talent, while unquestionably very valuable, is the very thing responsible for his biggest failures:

A friend and longtime warrior for liberal reforms described what unfolded in harsh but accurate terms: “First he was rolled by the bankers, then he was rolled by the generals, then he was rolled by the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who had no interest in going along with what he proposed.” Obama seemed exceedingly tolerant of resisting forces and even cooperated with them. Or maybe he privately agreed with them. He never made it clear.

I don’t think Greider himself seriously believes Obama actually agreed with “resisting forces”; the point he’s making in that sentence is that, in an attempt to be conciliatory, to achieve bipartisanship, and to avoid direct combat, the fact that he never made clear in stark, repeated terms his opposition to those forces on various issues opened the door for people, both in the news media and the general public, to wonder whether the reason for the lack of push-back wasn’t in fact because Obama secretly agreed with those “resisting forces.” Matt Yglesias, during the health care debate, summed up the debilitating effects of this dynamic’s effect in practice, in a post about health-care industry special interests’ influence on the legislation:

What happened in the health care debate is that interest groups were able to get their way on most key points without needing to seriously attempt to deliver votes in exchange. The AMA is supporting the bill, but it’s not running ads against opponents. Pharmaceutical companies and insurers haven’t dropped out of the ferociously anti-reform Chamber of Commerce…Basically thanks to their influence over “centrist” Democrats, the interest groups were able to get 85 percent of what they wanted in exchange for absolutely nothing.

Yglesias doesn’t identify the specific “centrist Democrats” to whom he’s referring, but remember that it’s Obama who first cut the deal with PhRMA, for example, not Max Baucus or congressional blue dogs. So what Yglesias lays bare is what Greider, all these months later, reinforces and crystallizes much more clearly and abstractly with the aid of time and distance from the sturm-und-drang of the health care fight: that giving away 85% of what any special interest group wants without demanding more (or anything) in return is just shy of political malpractice. At best, it certainly can fairly be classified as what negotiators refer to as leaving money on the table, and it dramatically sapped confidence in his abilities as a leader, just as not recognizing the easy wins available to him on DADT and a few other charged issues similarly sapped supporters’ confidence. Greider again:

Even Obama supporters began to ask, Where is the fight in the man? Some critics blame a lack of courage, but that neglects the extraordinary nerve Obama displayed in his rise to the White House—a young black man with an unusual name and limited experience who triumphed through his audacity. Obama’s governing style is a function of his biography—a man who grew up always in the middle, both black and white. He succeeded by learning rare skills, the ability to bridge different worlds comfortably and draw people together across racial, political and intellectual divides. He learned to charm and disarm, not to smash and conquer.

Again, few would deny those are admirable traits. But when a President’s range extends to these traits but not to the steel-jawed will to simply push back and fight when negotiation fails or when faced with an intractable opponent, the problems – as last week’s midterm elections made manifestly clear – mount exponentially.

Democrats, from the White House on down, clearly centered their strategy for the 2010 midterms around an attempt to frame the elections not as a referendum on the President, but as a choice between Democrats and the failed policies of the past, of the GOP. And just as clearly, even though Mr. Obama himself was not on the ballot last week, that strategy failed them. Why? Because all Presidents are not only leaders of the country, but of the party to which they belong. Although there’s no formal process for it, congresspeople from the President’s party look to him for a sense of where they ought to go. They look to him for cues. If the President is in a pugnacious mood or clearly signals he really wants this or that legislation or issue dealt with in a certain way, members of congress from the President’s party don’t necessarily fall in line (though they do if they’re Republicans), but they have a very clear sense that they’ve got support and authorization from above. Sadly, Congressional Democrats’ already-existing tendency to fearfully cave in the face of strong and unified GOP opposition and vilification, has become the stuff of legends over the past thirty years. In practice, that means that Obama’s unwillingness to get out front of various issues and lead, even if it meant taking the gloves off, sent signals through the ranks in congress that the will was weak on many issues. In the health care fight, it emboldened Republicans, Blue Dogs and lobbyists for special interests, and while it may not have weakened the resolve of congressional progressives, it let them know they couldn’t count on firm support from the White House. And in the larger arena, it led – predictably – to the defeats of last week.

Greider wonders – as do a lot of people, I suspect – what now?

For the first time in his life, those qualities seem to have failed him. Indeed, he may have been misled by his high regard for his own talents. This is really his first encounter with devastating political defeat. The question now is, What will he learn from his “shellacking”?…

Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can’t split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won’t act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you’ve got to hit back.

Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn’t believe this intelligent man was that clueless. (emphasis again mine)

I don’t think Greider thinks – nor do I think – that “clueless” is a good word to describe someone so undeniably intelligent as Obama. But as Greider ably points out, the peculiar combination of personal circumstances which led to Obama’s personal characterological makeup appears to have functioned in practice little different than genuine cluelessness would have: Obama has had glaring, gaping blind spots in his ability to correctly read (or his willingness to properly act upon) the lay of the land politically, and he let it affect his otherwise very perceptive policy ideas. That reinforced the tendency of congressional democrats to cave and not push hard enough, and in the end, it led to this fall’s electoral defeats.

It’s both interesting and encouraging to note, however, that while the House progressive caucus lost only three seats (I think, might have been four) out of 80 which were up for reelection, the Blue Dog caucus was utterly decimated, losing 22 of 46 (or nearly half) of their seats. That means that the people who voted for Democrats and Obama in both ’06 and ’08 (the ones who voted this time, anyway), and even many independents, like it when Democrats act, well, like Democrats – instead of doing the Republican-lite shtick. That means the mandate for real progressive change Obama was swept into office on still exists…at least for now. Greider ends with a warning, and a prescription for both Obama and for the rest of us:

Popular forces can blow away the fuzziness. They can mobilize to demonstrate visible support for the president’s loftier goals and to warn him off the temptation to pursue a Clintonesque appeasement of the right. Given the fragile status of his presidency, Obama needs to know that caving in is sure to encourage enemies and drive off disheartened supporters. People should, likewise, call out the president’s enemies and attack them with the harshness that’s out of character for him. The racial McCarthyism of the GOP establishment is a good place to start.

People who still have great hope for Obama can help revive his presidency, but only if they toughen up themselves. Stop holding his hand (he’s an adult) and start building a people’s agenda that compels the president to change his. Obama won’t like this at first—his own supporters talking back—but he can learn to draw strength from their courage. If people fail to step up with their own message, the president will likely fail with his.

Amen. If the last two years have shown us that this type of steely-spined push back isn’t the President’s long suit, we should recognize that what it also teaches us is that we need to keep pushing – HARD – to show not just Obama but the rest of the Democrats in congress (especially in the remaining lame duck session which starts Monday and goes through the holidays) that they’ve got the support they need to push equally hard in congress. That they’ll be rewarded – not punished – for taking strong stands for core Democratic values and principles. That’s going to mean progressives need to do a little less complaining about Obama, especially the kind that doesn’t come attached to any particular prescription for action. And even more so, it’s going to mean that those whose instincts, when things started to go south over the last two years, were to reflexively defend and prop up Obama’s mistakes right along with his successes because “any criticism only weakens him” will have to belay their urge to whine and rant about “the professional left” and stop throwing bombs at the base. The GOP now owns the House for the next two years, and if we play things right, that will be a tremendous, vivid boon to helping less-political people remember just how bad things were under GOP rule. But if voters continue to see what they’ve seen from elected Democrats over the past two years, and if they see that so-called “pragmatists” reaction to obvious failures and missteps is to circle the wagons and offer an appeal that consists of nothing more than “at least we’re not as bad as the GOP,” a repeat of the 2010 midterms is a virtual certainty. Isn’t that what these “pragmatists” – both within the administration and without – claim is their worst nightmare?

Let’s go, gang – let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.