Some Thoughts on Obama’s Big Day

By , 20 January, 2009, 6 Comments


For a man known for his soaring rhetoric, I thought the speech was comparitively flat, disjointed in rhetoric, and plagued by mixed metaphors.

From a vision perspective, he dropped a lot of his “change” rhetoric for an emphasis on the “era of responsibility,” but that’s a pretty innocuous and vague vision that has been used before. What does it mean? Let’s ask Gordon Stewart:
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama — we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either. Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.

Refreshingly, unlike most of Obama’s campaign speeches, this one did have some actual suggestions about policy in it, and policies I rather liked. First off, he offered up a centrist economic agenda—a medium-sized, efficiency-oriented government that will cut failed programs. I’m with Mickey Kaus on this: it’s a pie-crust promise, but if he pulls it off, it’ll be a massive coup.

Secondly, he offered up a progressive foreign policy, in what was the only real killer line:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
As Howard Fineman reminds us in Newsweek, Barack Obama’s career started with this idea of dialogic foreign policy and the core merit of his election is the image, the brand, of America he presents abroad. The woolliness of “change” is perfectly suited to the figurehead component of the Presidency.

It is not so suited to domestic policy, though what I call woolliness President Obama calls post-partisanship. And my biggest problem with the speech was that moment where he, again, called anyone who doesn’t buy the post-partisan thing a “cynic.” Let me explain this again: a cynic is someone who has ideal A, but opts for action B because it seems achievable. In the case of President Obama’s vision, a cynic would say “post-partisanship sounds great, but I don’t think it can happen.” I am not that person. I paraphrase Gail Collins: “God forbid we ever have post-partisanship. I would hate that. Partisanship IS my ideal.”
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I believe great policies are often crafted in the ideological center. But they emerge from principled back-and-forth between two sides. Ex: Even if President Johnson could have passed the Great Society laws without threatening Republican Senators and fighting partisan battles I would not want him to have done so. By alienating and angering some on the Right, he ensured that they would spend a generation trying to find private sector alternatives to his policies. Which meant that when the 1990s rolled around and some of his policies were proven roaring successes [Medicare, education and arts funding], while others started to falter [ex: the urban renewal projects], ideas developed by Johnson’s wounded enemies were ready to fill in gaps. The result was welfare reform, the appropriation of some right-wing ideas by a liberal President [Clinton], without any claims to share a universal set of ideals. Clintonian “triangulation” had a sort of Hegelian dialectic logic to it; Obama’s post-partisan vision is different, and in my mind, worse.
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President Obama and his supporters have every right to disagree with me, or with Hegel, or with anyone else, but to dismiss my ideals as nonexistent, or to assume that I share THEIR ideals and am cynically settling for something lesser is presumptuous.

That brings me to the last point about this speech: there’s a lot of hubris in President Obama’s claim that the end trajectory of history is to some middle point where binary conflicts end and that he represents that path. He claims to speak for all of us, and expects us all to fall in line and march towards his professed goals. It’s a bit groupthink-oriented for my tastes. Mickey Kaus and George Will concur. Worse still, he claims that all past history was marching this way even if we didn’t know it. That bit about slaves and pioneers suffering “for us” was borderline offensive, especially since he brushed aside the very real history of racial struggle in one sentence.

It’s paradoxical in a way. President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech. The rest of us matter so long as you believe, as he does, that everyone is—in their hearts—a believer in his postpartisan ideals. If you actively reject those ideals in favor of conflict-as-an-ideal, you don’t fit his worldview. The notion that processes drive history and that individuals emerge FROM those processes, conditioned by impersonal forces, and able to exercise agency within existing balances of power, is out of sync with Mr. Obama’s rather audacious sense of self.

Pompous, hyperbolic, and intelligent, however, is a welcome relief from pompous, hyberbolic and inept. Good riddance, good night and good luck.

6 Responses {+}
  • jsk

    “President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech.”

    This isn’t really fair. The “Obama as Great Man” meme does exist, but it’s more a mantle that has been thrust upon him by others than one he has donned himself. Where could such self importance be found in the inaugural address? Certainly not in his vision of an America made great by “men and women obscure in their labor”, or when he asserts “it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

    I also don’t buy your take on post-partisanship. Perhaps this is because you and I have differing views of what it means to be partisan. Obama isn’t suggesting we can or should do away with the productive clash of ideas. One of his major themes, from the selection of Biden to his Cabinet appointments, is that he values the insight of opinions and perspectives different than his own.

    Rather, I view post-partisanship as a repudiation of the Rovian model of politics, which thrives on generalized divisiveness as a means of rallying the base. Here, partisanship isn’t about the principled clash of ideas, but rather the use of hyperbolic villification as a means of gaining and keeping power. Frankly, I can do without that bullshit.

    Then again, maybe I’m just reading my own desires into the President.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    I suppose we do differ on how he’s defining “partisan,” but also on what kind of partisanship is good.

    I too despise Rovian vilification, but I think Obama’s “post-partisan” vision goes further than that to assert that while individuals may have differing viewpoints (cf your point re Biden) collective ideological tents, like the parties, create false divisions. I respectfully disagree.

    The Obama approach, I think, will involve collecting opinions from individuals with different outlooks to make a decision that should then become group consensus.

    That is different from establishing consensus among small groups, ie parties, and generating compromise positions that most people will sign on the dotted line for, but not necessarily like. Again, I’m more comfortable when some people ARE left outside the consensus on each policy, because those angry people develop the alternatives that might be useful later.

    This is linked to the question of individuals in history: Consensus politics is sort of teleological; it assumes there is a “right” answer to most problems. Great Man Theory endows the great men with the ability to forge that consensus. Obama assumes all those ordinary people in obscurity were acting towards the telos, that they were contributors to the historical consensus trajectory and he can pick up what they did and tie the consensus together. He assumes that they did what they did “for us.” I believe we are all members of one or more ideological factions. When individuals matter, they matter as members of those factions; what past individuals contibuted to our present they did as members of some faction in conflict with another group. What we inherited is the product of that conflict, not the specific fruit of their individual labors nor any consensus to which our ancestors ever arrived.

  • jsk

    Of course parties create artificial divisions. This is especially true in the United States, where our two party system results in tents stretched so thin as to become virtually meaningless. Isn’t the purpose of a party defeated when there exists almost as wide an ideological spectrum within its ranks as between parties? And yet our politics is all about a me versus you, zero sum antagonism which treats the parties as if they were monolithic entities rather than a patchwork coalition of often disparate interests.

    Abandoning this partisan model doesn’t mean conensus must turn into group think, or that there won’t still be people left disgruntled with decisions. It just means ideas will take primacy over party affiliation. I realize this is a fairly unrealistic, idealized model for political discourse, and I’m probably just writing Barack Obama fan fiction here, but I also think even marginal reforms in this direction would be superior to trying to work within the broken-ass constraints of our system.

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