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Hullabaloo


Sunday, August 07, 2011

 
Chinese Menu Governance

by digby


Everyone's talking about the new Drew Westen piece in the NY Times about President Obama. Westen says that he can't diagnose someone long distance, but it's a psychological profile regardless. Sometimes there's no other way to analyze something like this.

But his observations aren't new, they are just made more urgent by recent events. For instance, Ken Silverstein's profile in 2006 called "Obama Inc, the making of a Washington Machine," (which I wrote about here.) roundly mocked during the campaign, was starkly prescient. Krugman, two years later as well.

I wrote this piece in early 2010 about Garry Wills' fascinating characterization of the problem as "omnidirectional placation."

I've written quite a bit over the past year about what I call Obama's "goldilocks" and "one from column A and one from column B" approach to governance. At various times I've termed it a problem of "believing their own hype" or a naive assumption that the election itself was so transformative that it had repealed the usual political dynamic in Washington. I have often criticized the president for trying to be all things to all people.

But it takes a writer and observer with the skill of Garry Wills to distill that down to its essence. Here, he reviews David Remnick's new Obama biography, which charts Obama's progress as the man who really could be all things to all people. He concludes with this:

Obama’s strategy everywhere before entering the White House was one of omnidirectional placation. It had always worked. Why should he abandon, at this point, a method of such proved effectiveness? Yet success at winning acceptance may not be what is called for in a leader moving through a time of peril. To disarm fears of change (the first African-­American presidency is, in itself, a big jolt of change), Obama has stressed continuity. Though he first became known as a critic of the war in Iraq, he has kept aspects or offshoots of Bush’s war on terror — possible future “renditions” (kidnappings on foreign soil), trials of suspected terrorists in military tribunals, no investigations of torture, an expanded Afghan commitment, though he promised to avoid “a dumb war.” He appointed as his vice president and secretary of state people who voted for the Iraq war, and as secretary of defense and presiding generals people who conducted or defended that war.

To cope with the financial crisis, he turned to Messrs. Geithner, Summers and Bernanke, who were involved in fomenting the crisis. To launch reform of medical care, he huddled with the American Medical Association, big pharmaceutical companies and insurance firms, and announced that his effort had their backing (the best position to be in for stabbing purposes, which they did month after month). All these things speak to Obama’s concern with continuity and placation. But continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid — believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope.


That's how I see it too. I honestly think Obama --- and his inner circle --- believed his own hype. As Wills points out, you can see why they would. After all, Obama had been miraculously successful by believing it up to that point. His followers were nearly delirious with faith that he could do it. It was very tempting to believe that he could single handedly change the dynamics of American politics with his mere presence because it was so hard to believe he could come that far that fast without having super human skills. But it was never even remotely realistic. His history actually showed that he was a natural conciliator and placator which I don't think was what most progressives thought they were getting. They thought they were getting someone who could hypnotize the opposition into thinking they wanted what he wanted, which is something else entirely.

He's actually a polarizer, which is completely predictable and not his fault. Sure, being African American enlivens the natural tribal state of American politics, but it would have happened anyway. We are polarized because we believe different things about what America stands for. We define ourselves differently. We have different values. It's not the first time. In fact it's defines American politics.

The problem is that the other side believes that our side is illegitimate and they have no obligation to abide by the government's decisions if they are not in charge. And I continue to be surprised that after a bogus impeachment, an election decided by a partisan Supreme Court decision and a shocking war of choice, the Democrats failed to realize that Republican party no longer believed it needed to abide by the traditions and norms that had been holding together whatever fragile truce existed. This undemocratic streak has been around among the conservatives to some degree or another forever, but it rises up strongly now and then --- and it's been evident since the early 90s that we are now in one of those times when they have become tyrannical fanatics.

The fact that these discussions are going mainstream should be of concern to the powers that be. Liberals are still with the administration for the most part. But the progressive vanguard is rapidly losing heart -- many have been waiting for some sign that things were going to change and it's not happening. In a close election, that could be a problem.

Update: I see by the twitter machine that quite a few people are criticizing Westen's piece because he relies too much on Obama making speeches and changing the "narrative." This is a fairly common complaint among the policy wonks because many of them are convinced that the presidency is a powerless office and that political speeches, messages and narratives have absolutely no effect on politics. This is backed up by data that shows elections are correlated heavily with economics and war.

But I think this is one of those cases where the numbers obscure the obvious. Of course, the general conditions on the ground are a prime motivation for voters. But politics in a representative democracy is about convincing people that you are the one looking out for their needs and aspirations and the only way to do that in a complicated world is by telling stories.

If the only thing that mattered in politics was the state of the economy and whether or not the country was at war, one would assume that propaganda was useless, that partisan media like talk radio and Fox News had no impact and that elections were won and lost on the basis of spreadsheet analysis. I think people vote for politicians using the same criteria they use to decide who are friends and who are foes --- highly evolved heuristics that developed over millenia. And that comes from tribal identity, speech, tone, attitude and narrative as much as facts, reason and analysis. Humans aren't computers.

If elections are won on anything but the dry basics of a person's bank balance and sense of national security --- and I do believe they are --- then of course a president can make a difference with speeches and stories. The evidence is probably thin because most of them, surprisingly, aren't unusually good at it. That wasn't what most people expected from this one, however.


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