Friday, July 25, 2014

He Is, After All, Only The President

Can we stop making excuses for Barack Obama?  Normally sane bloggers Ed Kilgore and Kevin Drumtake a whack at Thomas Frank for his recent Salon piece entitled "Right-wing obstruction cold have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency's legacy is failure."

Historian and author Frank wrote

The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

Frank speculates about the future Obama presidential library and notes

... all presidential museums are exercises in getting their subject off the hook, and for Obama loyalists looking back at his years in office, the need for blame evasion will be acute. Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?
Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

Kilgore responded

Underlying Frank’s attacks on Obama is an implicit conspiracy theory nearly as lurid as the Kenyan Muslim Marxist Alinskyite fantasies of the right: that Obama was deployed as a judas goat by the threatened Neoliberal Order to preempt and then prevent the righteous beatdown capitalism had earned for itself by 2008, when “every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed.” Keeping to the appointed script, the phony agent of change then propped up the evil system that was teetering on the edge of catastrophe and subsequently blamed his betrayal of The People on the crazy people of the Right.

Soon after ridiculing Frank's notion that Obama's defenders have "blamed his betrayal of The People on the crazy people of the Right," Kilgore goes on to blame the President's troubles on those mean and nasty Republicans in the Senate:

There is this institution called the U.S. Senate. Even after two big Democratic cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans held 40 seats, enough given absolute unity and a single Democratic defection to thwart anything the majority party attempted, under rules ripe for abuse that neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid invented or imagined. Just a year after Obama took office, Republicans won a special Senate election and obtained the power to block absolutely any Democratic measure.

Drum argues

Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don't be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Why were Americans so obviously not enraged? Because -- duh -- the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn't have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed. Did bankers get treated too well? Oh yes indeed. Was the stimulus too small? You bet. Nevertheless, was America saved from an epic collapse? It sure was. Instead of a massive meltdown, we got a really bad recession and a weak recovery, and even that was cushioned by a safety net that, although inadequate, was more than enough to keep the pitchforks off the streets...

All of us who do what Thomas Frank does -- what I do -- have failed. Our goal was to persuade the public to move in a liberal direction, and that didn't happen. In the end, we didn't persuade much of anyone. It's natural to want to avoid facing that humiliating truth, and equally natural to look for someone else to blame instead. That's human nature. So fine. Blame Obama if it makes you feel better. That's what we elect presidents for: to take the blame.

But he only deserves his share. The rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of it. The mirror doesn't lie.

Sorry, Kevin: Frank, as well as others, doesn't blame Obama because it makes them feel better. It is other progressive (and some moderate) folks, falling head over heels for a cautious, centrist Senator in 2007-2008, who were motivated in part by a need to feel really, really good.

Drum's faux humility, in which he claims "the rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of" the blame," has the feel of an Andy Reid mantra. As the Philadelphia Eagles continued to lose, their head coach would insincerely repeat "I have to do a better job," knowing that would cut off any debate about either his coaching strategy or the players he chose not to bench.  Clever tactic, that.

Drum labels "silly" the idea that "Obama (was) really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob."  There was no "howling mob," admittedly.  But the American people were expected to elect either major Democrat because, recognizing "the reigning ideology had failed," they were primed for significant, fundamental change of the progressive/liberal variety.

Moreover, it was Barack Obama himself who remarked (video, below) "we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship" brought the nation by President Reagan who "changed the trajectory of America" because "he put us on a fundamentally different path."

And who (and individuals such as Kilgore and Drum with convenient memories) can forget the candidate (video, below) declaring ("with profound humility") that his election would mark the time "the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"?

Matt Stoller of the now-defunct Open Left observed (as did few others) at the time

Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable...

Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement.  The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses'.

Stoller's voice was one of only a few, though, because as Obama himself once wrote, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." That is no excuse, however, to deny facts which smakck us in the face.  Ed Kilgore and Kevin Drum don't understand but at least Thomas Frank, as is his wont, does.

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