Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Obama Problem (Repost)

[I wrote this during the Debt Crisis Crisis. While I usually don't repost things from the past, it seems to me that Mr. Obama is struggling in the political arena once again, largely because people are dissatisfied with his performance on economic matters. The problem is his continued devotion to Hooverite economic principles. That's not to say that FDR and the New Deal were necessarily all that much better in an academic sense. They were far better in a political and popular sense. FDR understood the necessity of politically popular programs and policies, regardless of whether they were scientifically or academically sound; Hoover not so much, and not because he was such a bad man, or because he believed in "doing nothing" with regard to the economy -- neither was true about him.

No, the difference between Hoover and FDR, I think, was largely due to the fact FDR spent his entire adult life in politics and he came from a politically well connected and highly astute family. Hoover, not so much. Hoover was more of a bloodless technocrat, and the difference showed.

In the present case, of course, Romney has got Obama beat in the bloodless category. But Obama is obviously flailing as he goes around the country promoting economic policies that have actually resulted in an astronomical increase in unemployment and poverty. The People's answer is going to be, "NO!" There's no way around it.

The following essay written last July speaks of Obama as man of Principle whose primary Principle is that of Transcendence. And he will stick with it no matter what.]

The Obama Problem

I have from time to time offered both criticisms and defenses of His Serenity, Barack "Hoover" Obama -- mostly critical observation of what he is doing and why I think he's doing it. I don't think he is particularly evil or smart for that matter, but I do see him as increasingly self-possessed, self-actuated, and increasingly rigid in his core principles and beliefs.

President Carter with better looks and no Southern accent.

Well, yes. The Carter comparison has been raised since forever, on the presumption that Obama would be a one term president -- which he might well be, and I don't think he really much cares about that.

But lately, the fashion mavens in the Blogosphere have decided to push the notion that Obama is somehow The. Worst. President. Ever. (Excuse me, no.) Aware observers are more than willing to point out that the premise itself is stupid and unworthy, but it's hard not to succumb to the silliness because it is based in a human need to be on a "team" and support or defy the conventional wisdom.

Someone who supports his team feels validated, especially if his captain wins the game. And one thing I can say about Obama -- which I have in other fora -- is that he is a true believer in his own principles and his abilities to institute them through his agency as President.

His primary principle is that of Transcendence. He believes, truly, that it is his role to transcend the partisan divide, to bring the parties together, if not in harmony at least in agreement that something must be done and can be done, and to help hammer out whatever deal is necessary to Make It Happen.

That's what this Debt Crisis Crisis is all about. And it is -- sort of -- looking like he might pull it off.

Meanwhile, I came across a couple of considerations of The Obama Problem today that I think help clarify the picture. The first, via Digby, is by Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast, and it is very good. The upshot is that Obama is doing what he is doing -- which often seems incomprehensible to observers -- because he really believes in the principle of transcendence and he is determined to stick with his principles no matter what.

He apparently really believes—still!—in civic-republican notions of government as an arena for reasoned deliberation. That he could still think this is akin to a child believing in Santa Claus until he’s 15—but apparently he does. The journalist Alec MacGillis captured this conviction well in a profile he did of Obama for the British New Statesman back in 2008. Barack Obama, he wrote, “was running not on a record of past achievement or on a concrete program for the future, but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness.” From this perspective a unilateral action would be almost impious—or at least, if you’d rather aim a little lower than God, anti-Madisonian. Obama would be giving up on his ideal. Of course he should have long since given up on it. I was with him at the beginning—his conviction that politics could be better and more deliberative was one of the things I found appealing about the man. But that ship sailed long ago, and Obama’s position has declined from admirable principle to indefensible fetish. Politics simply isn’t going to get better and more deliberative any time soon.
The third reason the president probably won’t do it is related to the second, but it’s more personal. Unilateral action would be at odds with Obama’s image of himself. In his article, MacGillis defined thoughtfulness Obama style as “the notion that the leadership of the country should be entrusted not on the basis of résumé and platform, but on the prospect of applying to the nation's problems one man's singularly well-tempered intelligence.” This is pretty obviously a dead-on description of Obama’s view of himself and his potential as president.

I think it is really a good description of what is going on. Of course Tomasky, like many others, is OUTRAGED!!!!™ and wants Obama to Stop This Nonsense Right Now!!! Yes, well. Good luck with that. At no point during his reign on the Throne has Obama shown even a hint of giving up his principles -- though he will cheerfully give up just about everything else.

The other Worst. President. Essay I read today was by Sterling Newberry via Ian Welsh. Sterling, gosh, goes back a long way, into the mists of Internet times, and he's always been an acute observer and analyst of what's happening. In today's essay at The Sorcerer's Apprentice he examines what is wrong, desperately wrong, with the Obama Reign, and I think he gets it mostly right.

I especially like his historical notes and this part:

The President who Obama most resembles is Herbert Hoover, another one of those chief magistrates of government who became inflexible and iron willed. His idea of compromise is that he cuts out what he thinks is a compromise, and then relentlessly grind on it. He's dealing with people whose idea of compromise is a woman having an orgasm while she is raped. Neither of these two sides have actually compromised very much, other than compromising on extending the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy.

Hoover was a malfortunate president. Unfortunate is not a sufficient adjective to describe it. He inherited an economy that was about to explode. He takes office in March of 1929, the move to January would, to no small extent be because the long gap between election and inauguration paralyzed the country when later he would lose the Presidency, and in October of 1929, the stock market plunges in what is know as "The Crash." In reality such a crash was essentially inevitable after the Olmstead Break in August. In effect he had 5 months of Presidency. The rest was a long grind and heavy flail. His response was not without compassion and, within his understanding, he worked hard to do what was right. He simply was a mammoth in a lake that had been swamped by a breaking glacier dam, to be found, frozen, as an oddity. His failure was that as his policies failed, he doubled and tripled down on them. In essence, he turned a single large downturn, into three back to back downturns, and left the very faith in capitalism and democracy bruised behind him.

FDR and Hoover had once been political friends, but his rants and threats, the most famous being his offer to let FDR be President early, if FDR would scrap the "so-called New Deal." FDR replied tartly that he was still a private citizen until inauguration, his term as Governor of New York having ended.

Like me and a number of others, Newberry is relating Obama to Hoover's presidency, and he explains why very well.

On the other hand, when it comes to the Debt Crisis Crisis, I think he is somewhat off the mark in that he doesn't seem to be able to relate it (or actually much of anything Obama has done) to Obama's principle of transcendence.

That's why I highlight both articles today: the one by Tomasky which gets into the underlying reasons why Obama is doing what he is doing -- though Tomasky is calling it wrong in all kinds of ways -- and Newberry's, take which relates Obama's actions with those of other Worst Presidents and takes him to task for missing so many opportunities to please The People (and his more leftward critics) by taking bold(er) and more authoritative/authoritarian action.

I honestly don't think Obama is doing what he is doing for political gain. He is doing it both because he can, and because he must. He is a believer, in other words, and a man of Principle. Unshakable Principle.

This is what Principled Governance looks like. It isn't pretty. And I don't think it is what we really want.

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