Monday, August 22, 2011

Drew Wensten's Devastating Critique Of Obama's Presidency

The rising voices of criticism of President Obama from his supporters, among liberals, progressives, and prominent African Americans are growing too loud and too urgent to be ignored, even by the President's staunchest supporters. I counted myself in that camp, in those initial days of promise, and still do, frustratingly so, for reasons that are obvious to any thinking supporter of this President. On the balance sheet of pros and cons, the most important considerations being Supreme Court appointments and holding on to the few gains we have made — health care reform such as it is, preserving the rights of gays to marriage and open military service, of women to family planning services — those critically important policy agenda items outweigh all else and demand the President's re-election.

Which is infuriating to progressives who feel we must oppose the President as vigorously as we defend him from his adversaries on the right who would destroy his presidency. When the Tea Party prevented John Boehner from taking the so-called "Grand Bargain" President Obama had offered them, progressives from Senator Bernie Sanders on down the line exhaled an audible sigh of relief. The Beltway Media that, let us be clear, is an arm of the corporate ruling class and counts itself among the top two or three percent highest wage earners in the nation praised this raw deal to the heavens. Only the other day, President Obama was back at it in a network interview, lamenting that the Tea Party had rejected his total capitulation "Grand Bargain," which in his mind was a "fair and balanced" deal. All the same, John Boehner said he got 98 percent of what he wanted. He wasn't too far off the mark.

The fire sale could still come from the President's unconstitutional "supercommittee." Progressives are counting on Senator Patty Murray to stand strong — not so much John Kerry, who is salivating over being the next Secretary of State, a plum which the President is dangling in front of him, and least of all Max Baucus, who is the President's ideological twin in the Senate. So the President can count on two votes to sell the American people down the river on deep spending and "entitlement" cuts. Which pits Senator Murray behind the eight ball since all the President needs is for one Democrat to flip to make significant elements of his Grand Sellout come to pass. Which didn't stop the Republican extremists from viciously attacking Murray's appointment. Just on general "principle" because they have so thoroughly neutered this President.

Still, the President can count on a large pool of uncritical support among African Americans, who have been hardest hit by this deep economic recession, and his friends in the media who have chosen to push back against the formidable right wing forces arrayed against him. Even so, if not for Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz reporting from the front lines in Republican-controlled states, ordinary people whom Mr. Obama has effectively abandoned to the wolves, would not have anyone to carry their voices nationally. The President has been MIA on this just cause. Oh, he'll utter a few bromides about how terrible the people's plight is and then crawl right back into his defensive crouch.

The extent to which the pro-Obama media has held him largely unaccountable is unsurprising but disappointing nonetheless. On one level, I can understand it: When you break bread with the President, hang out with his closest advisers, have cocktails with Valerie Jarrett, it's difficult then to turn around and criticize this President. At some point — soon — they've got to step it up and do their jobs. This country is in trouble and they have a responsibility to come to grips with this presidency in a more realistic way. Just saying.

To be fair, some of the President's biggest early supporters in the media are taking a more critical approach. Jonathan Alter is one; Frank Rich, who said Mr. Obama was too "passive" is another. But for each one of these criticisms, there is a Melissa Harris-Perry (whose insights I very much enjoy) to make the obvious but wrong-headed assertion that Mr. Obama is not "Superman."

With all due respect, Melissa, this Nixonian notion that the President (for our narrow purposes) is a "pitiful, helpless giant" is relatively new in our political discourse, perhaps generational, and completely off the mark. It plays right into the hands of the right in this country whose aim is to cripple the power and effectiveness of this President, in particular. Read your history, Melissa, okay? You don't even have to look too far back, just to the LBJ presidency to take note of how LBJ generally got his way with Congress or anyone else who opposed him, and thoroughly enjoyed the hand-to-hand combat.

Speaking of Superman, we actually did have one as President. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ironic isn't it, because FDR was a paraplegic. Every president brings some particular "baggage" to the White House. Each has particular challenges which they must overcome. The great ones use these challenges as incentives to take that bull by the horns, and tame it. Those who do not tend to focus on the limitations of the office until it becomes a paralyzing self-fulfilling prophecy and sinks their presidency.

Progressives who are infuriated by this President conceding to the other side the terms and conditions of the debate and narrative which got him elected without spelling out the competing narrative (nice try Rachel, but it's mealy-mouthed nonpartisan bullshit) are beginning to realize that we've got to take this fight to the right ourselves — this President is missing-in-action and is likely to remain so for the duration. Come what may, we must hold the line against the unprecedented assault of the oligarchy and its right wing storm troopers to destroy the New Deal, from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid, even attacking a citizen's right to vote, striking down labor laws and the rights of unions to organize and bargain collectively — with President Obama's apparent collaboration. Unions, he said, must "sacrifice."

Which brings me to this MUST READ essay by Drew Westen, appropriately titled "What Happened to Obama?" Mr. Westen is professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” He brilliantly lays out the frustration felt by many Obama supporters with his presidency. We thought we were voting for a transformational president; what we got instead was a transactional leader whose conciliatory and conservative approach to the office is not what these times demand. The injustice in this nation is growing by the day, Mr. President. Bobby Kennedy said it beautifully:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ~Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966.

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