David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. Like my post from a few weeks back featuring Mike Papantonio from Air America’s “Ring of Fire,” he crystallizes why Obama is a failure from a progressive point of view.
I am not surprised that Barack Obama – like the last two Democratic presidents – has turned out to be a conservative, corporate creature whose interest in the public interest is scarce and superficial. What does surprise me, though, is just how bad he is at playing politics, especially where his own self-interest is overwhelmingly at stake. Can this really be the same person who ran such a remarkable campaign last year, stealing the presidency from two of the great figureheads of American politics?
Obama is one of the most articulate politicians in American history. And yet, his communications strategy is the absolute worst I’ve seen since Carter. In fact, what’s most stunning about it is that his team seems to have dismissed all the lessons learned over the last three decades – especially from masterful Republican administrations – about how to market presidents and policies from the White House. This is no longer rocket science, if it ever was. How can a guy this sharp be so clueless and, thus, adrift?
Obama is also one of the smartest people ever to sit in the Oval Office, but he has demonstrated astonishing levels of cluelessness about what the public wants, about the nature of his opposition, and about what makes a presidency successful. He doesn’t understand that the public will follow you if you lead them, especially if you do so with passion. He doesn’t get that the conservative movement is a lethal cancer seeking to commodify, monetize and profitize every aspect of America, and therefore is committed to the destruction of all else, including this administration, despite even that it is essentially staffed by Goldman Sachs. He doesn’t understand that the most successful American presidents were the ones who brought a vision to the table, and fought for it.
Fundamentally, Obama is an anachronism. He is essentially a nineteenth century president operating in a crisis era, as the early twenty-first grapples with cleaning up after the late twentieth.
Historians sometimes debate over whether history makes the man or the man makes history. Leaving aside the sexist construction of the question, I think, manifestly, it has to be both. Almost all the great presidents served during time of great crisis, usually war. But that doesn’t guarantee their place in the historical pantheon. You have to also meet those challenges of your time. Lincoln is widely considered America’s greatest president. His predecessor, James Buchanan, is generally thought to be the country’s worst. Both faced the same crisis of Southern secession, but they responded to it very differently, earning their respective places in history. On the other hand, had the civil war come twenty years earlier or later, we’d hardly even know their names, except as the answer to trivia questions. “Who was the first president from Illinois?!” “Who was our tallest president?” And so on.
Obama could be Lincoln – or better still, FDR – if he wanted to be. He has chosen instead to be Buchanan. Faced with crisis scenario after crisis scenario, the candidate of ‘change’ repeatedly and instinctively homes in on the weakest, most centrist, most useless response possible. His stimulus bill probably stopped the economy from continuing its free fall, but it leaves the country stuck in months or even years of unyielding recession at worst, and jobless recovery at best. His healthcare bill helps in some important ways, but does nothing to hold down costs in a society that utterly wastes one dollar out of every three it spends in this area, and it does nothing to make healthcare more affordable for most Americans. He seems to have some interest in a global warming bill and a banking regulation bill and maybe even doing something about civil rights for gays. But in none of these areas is there any sense that he will do what is morally necessary. Likewise, with Afghanistan, all the indicators seem to suggest that he will opt for some numbingly anodyne middle ground.
The guy is a leaky bucket at a time when the boat has been swamped. He’s an pressureless fire hose when the house is in flames. A tattered parachute when the ground is coming up fast. A rusty musket as the Huns come over the ridge. At a time when America needs a bold, powerful and wise leader in the White House – principally to undo the damage of the bold, powerful and sociopathic guy who was just in there – we have instead Mr. Rogers’ pet gerbil. Complete with cardigan sweater and barbiturate-laced water supply. Obama seems to want nothing more than to be liked. In the neighborhood called Earth.
Obama is, instead, taking himself down and – in as cruel a twist as history can muster – the progressive values he long ago walked away from, along with him.
Where we go from here could be very, very ugly. The GOP right now is in the process of alienating and crushing every last scrap of moderately sensible politics from within its ranks. That means that American voters will very likely have the following choice in 2010 and 2012: On the one hand, a discredited do-nothing Democratic Party that promised change and didn’t deliver; and on the other, a rabid, ultra-regressive GOP that is itself promising change from the failed former would-be change-providers.
Before you guess who would win that contest, bear in mind that this is likely to be happening under still dire economic conditions and a shrinking national standard of living.
You may be forgiven for thinking that that scenario is all too reminiscent of a certain European country in the 1930s.