The Party Line – August 12, 2011: Obama, Drew Westen, and Me

Watching Barack Obama deliver his jobs speech Thursday in Holland, MI, I couldn’t help but wonder if the president had read Drew Westen’s critique in last weekend’s New York Times.

Under the headline “What Happened to Obama?” Westen, an Emory University psychology professor and Democratic communications guru of a sort, tried to divine the source of the Obama administration’s trouble. The seeds were sown, Westen explains, in the opening minutes of the presidency, as Obama delivered his inaugural address.

As Westen recounts (in words remarkably similar to ones I’ve used in the past), Obama’s speech failed to tell the story of the disaster that had befallen America during the Bush years:

That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

In fact, Westen and I use the exact same phrase for the core message that Obama needed to communicate out of the box: “your government has your back again.”

That would be as opposed to Wall Street’s back, or the Banksters’ backs, corporations’ backs, or the wealthiest of the wealthy’s backs.

Westen reminds us that narrative—a structure for understanding the world around us as old as humanity itself—needs opposing forces. Narrative honors heroes, yes, but in order for there to be heroes, there also has to be a villain—and Obama’s seemingly obsessive refusal to name the villains not only undermined his administration’s narrative, it communicated that the architects of America’s misfortunes would not be held accountable.

This (again, as I have often said) created the space for the various TEA parties, and their sympathizers and sycophants. Yes, this so-called populist anger has been nourished, exploited, and in some cases manufactured by some of the very people and organizations—let’s go ahead and call them villains—that helped tank the economy, but it would have been a much harder task to gin up this “movement” if Obama had dared to call out these villains from the get-go.

But he didn’t then, and he continues to spare the rod and spoil the spoiled today. Even with popular opinion overwhelmingly favoring higher taxes on wealthy individuals and windfall corporate profits, President Obama bent over backwards to again avoid naming names.

As witnessed Monday by NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, this avoidance is comprehensive and conscious:

It was striking how far they went to try not to point fingers. As a matter of fact, just before the president began speaking today, I was able to see the printed text of his comments on the teleprompter, and I watched a last minute edit that may give some insight. One passage of the speech referred to asking for sacrifice from those who can most afford to pay their fair share. And as I was looking at the teleprompter, the phrase wealthy Americans and corporations was highlighted and deleted from the text.

Because of that failure to finger, and a striking lack of proactive ideas in general, Obama’s Monday White House matinee served up a nothing-burger deluxe—not at all rare these days, I’m afraid, and also not well done. He wasn’t selling the steak, he wasn’t selling the sizzle, and he wasn’t telling a very good story in structural terms, either.

But the president very much needs to tell a story—to construct a narrative—because he very much needs to sell something: himself.

And so, in what was very clearly a campaign-style appearance at the Johnson Controls factory in Holland, president/candidate Barack Obama tried his hand at crafting a Drew Westen-style traditional narrative:

We know there are things we can do right now that will help accelerate growth and job creation –- that will support the work going on here at Johnson Controls, here in Michigan, and all across America. We can do some things right now that will make a difference. We know there are things we have to do to erase a legacy of debt that hangs over the economy. But time and again, we’ve seen partisan brinksmanship get in the way -– as if winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country. This downgrade you’ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress. See, it didn’t happen because we don’t have the capacity to pay our bills -– it happened because Washington doesn’t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound.

So, “brinksmanship” is the big, bad wolf? Washington is the villain? Well, as Obama tells it, yes, but more specifically, it has been decided by the White House political team that the Lex Luthor to Obama’s Superman (if not his kryptonite) is Congress:

They’re common-sense ideas that have been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans, things that are supported by Carl Levin. The only thing keeping us back is our politics. The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.

And that has to stop. It’s got to stop. We’re supposed to all be on the same team, especially when we’re going through tough times. We can’t afford to play games — not right now, not when the stakes are so high for our economy.

And if you agree with me –- it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent — you’ve got to let Congress know. You’ve got to tell them you’ve had enough of the theatrics. You’ve had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases. Start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That’s what they need to do — they’ve got to hear from you.

I will give the president a tiny bit of credit in that, instead of the wholly empty pleading for a similar call to Congress that he stroked during the debt-ceiling circle-jerk, Obama did list a series of actions he’d like Congress to approve (as meaningless, dangerous or counterproductive as many of them may be). But Obama also bragged about what he was able to get done without having to go through Congress. And Obama made it clear throughout: America, you’ve got problems, and those problems have their provenance on Capitol Hill.

Running against the “Do-nothing Congress” may have worked well for Harry Truman, and running against Washington is a time-tested tactic for many aspirants to higher office, but where does this get us?

It might work out OK for Obama. He has pretty much made being “above it all” his raison d’être, and by avoiding direct engagement with the big issues of our day, he might be able to slough off some of the Beltway taint. But where does it leave the rest of the Democrats? We really don’t have to ask because we have an example, it’s called the midterms. Obama did plenty of Congress-bashing during the summer of 2010. He railed against establishment Washington, even though he and his party had been that establishment for the previous twenty months, and when the dust cleared, America had the “divided government” Obama likes to point out “America voted for.”

Except they didn’t. America doesn’t elect our government on a national proportional basis. America votes state by state and district by district, and if voters in those specific races voted at all, they voted against a disappointing two years, not for a political concept.

And if the antagonist in Obama’s campaign narrative is Congress, then, in practice, the villain he wants Americans to rally against is elected government itself.

And that’s not only dangerous to sitting members of Congress, that’s dangerous for the democracy. It affirms the agenda of the elites, it confirms the fears of the TEA parties, and it will make voters across the board more cynical and less inclined to get involved.

So, did the president or his political team read the Westen piece, and did they decide to refine this Congress-as-villain narrative as an answer? I have no way of knowing, of course, but if they did, I do know they’re doing it wrong.

But in crafting his critique of the president’s path, Drew Westen also might have made some mistakes. First, Westen doesn’t allow himself to take the next step—beyond story-craft to actual belief. In wondering “What happened to Obama,” Westen can’t bring himself to conclude the answer might be “nothing.” It is possible, sad though it may be, that while America thought it was electing a man from the party of FDR, it instead got a confirmed Hooverite. So much of Obama’s language of late seems to point that way, not to mention his policies, and let us not forget the time he spent raising elbows with the magical marketeers at the University of Chicago.

Second, Westen also bemoans the “dialing for dollars” culture that pervades and pollutes national politics. Huffington Post senior Washington correspondent Dan Froomkin also tried to explain it earlier this week:

Progressives say Washington’s governing class absorbed its bias toward austerity — and, implicitly an agenda favoring the wealthy — by osmosis.

“The people who do fundraisers are the people who don’t want to pay taxes,” [Roosevelt Institute fellow Rob] Johnson said.

Politicians “spend an awful lot of time calling people with assets,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal think tank. “You don’t spend a lot of time with people who aren’t affluent, and you certainly don’t have extended discussions with them about economic policy.” Over time, Borosage said, “you develop a set of self-justifying rationalizations,” he said.

Westen makes it seem like it is virtually impossible for the president—or any president, really—to both single out Wall Street and Corporate elites for blame and simultaneously ring them up for campaign cash. But Westen doesn’t call out the president for failing to capitalize (as it were) on his ability to change that culture.

Obama has hinted at wanting to be a transformational figure (and others have assigned that role to him, outright), and one of the things that once made that seem possible, at least to me, was the way he ran his 2008 campaign.

Prior to Obama, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign onward, the prevailing logic in national campaigns was that they had to emulate the Republican successes of the 1980s—chase big-donor money, and you can effectively buy all the votes you need. However, with Hillary Clinton having locked up much of the early establishment money in ’08, the Obama campaign set up an unprecedented (dare we say “transformative?”) structure for collecting small-donor contributions. . . and then they set out to motivate those potential small donors. Yes, in time, big-donor bucks did fund half of Obama’s awesome campaign coffer, but initially the strategy was seemingly the opposite of the Terry McAuliffe-Bill-and-Hillary Clinton tack—instead of chasing the money to woo the voters, Team Obama chased the voters to woo the money.

But that is not what the Obama campaign is doing this time. Publicly hostile to his liberal political base, and privately nervous about his Obama for America, small-donor fund-raising base, the president is heading straight for the big money for 2012. The Chicago campaign staff is already bragging about its bankroll. Obama has been courting classic big-ticket bundlers at old-school four- and five-figure-a-plate fundraisers, and, in fact, on his way back from Michigan, the president stopped off in New York for just such a soirée.

It is in this case where Obama once proved that he could change the game—that he could be a transformational figure—and it is here where he has pointedly chosen not to. There comes a point where we have to stop looking for outside factors that prevent the president from accomplishing what we want, and admit that Barack Obama might be accomplishing exactly what he wants.

What happened to Obama? He was elected president. All other answers are based more on hope than change.

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The Party Line – July 29, 2011: Those Who Can’t Teach, “Compromise”

I seriously cannot believe I am again writing a post with one eye on the wire, still waiting for a conclusion to the debt-ceiling debacle, looking for real news to read, instead of just thrice re-boiled tea leaves. But here I am—here we are—sweating out a crisis that is as malicious as it is manufactured, knowing that when a “resolution” comes, no matter which version/option/compromise we get, it will be both terrible and impermanent.

That’s not easy to think about, but it is quite easy to say. There are no smart options on the table. There are not even smart planks left to use as bargaining chips. America, with its economy gasping for air, is left having to choose from a trio of plans that are all (as best as we are allowed to glimpse them) comprised of draconian cuts to so-called discretionary spending, no serious attempts at increases in revenue, and seismic blows to the bedrock programs of our social safety net—and none of which do a single, solitary thing to stimulate job creation. The only resemblance to a life preserver here is that all the plans look like a big, fat zero.

That the federal budget deficit is not even our real problem is a message completely absent from the national “debate.” That there is a difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit has been lazily obscured or purposefully ignored. And, again, the interests and desires of vast majorities of the American people—that jobs are more important than deficits, that a higher percentage of taxes should be paid by the very wealthy, and that the military should be cut before Social Security and Medicare—are marginalized as “extreme,” “not serious,” “unreasonable,” or (horror of horrors) “not adult.”

And who is out in front of this march to mindless mayhem? Believe it or not, as flawed and feckless as Congressional leaders seem, as uncompromising or unhinged as TEA Party sympathizers (T-simps?) appear, the guy that must bear the lion’s share of blame is the one with the bully pulpit.

When President Barack Obama took to the primetime air on Monday, many a Beltway pundit huzzah-ed the appearance of “the educator-in-chief.” We were told that the president went over the heads of the Washington elite to explain the complexities of the debt-ceiling debate to the people. We were told that Obama’s continued “eat your peas” tone was just the sort of talking-to that the unruly brood in the people’s house (you know, the House) needed to hear. And we were told that when the president asked folks to call Congress and say they expected compromise, he had scored a political victory (even as some poopooed his “politicizing” the moment).

And no doubt the president believed his own press, for as the week draws to an end and we are no closer to any kind of meaningful arrangement (good, bad, really bad or otherwise) to raise the debt ceiling, there is nothing new coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Well, this might come as a bit of a news flash to President Obama (not to mention the DC press corps), but being “reasonable,” or “unflappable,” or even behaving as the “adult” is not the same thing as being a leader.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noticed this “abject failure” on Wednesday, calling Obama “seemingly without a compass. . . an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals.”

Perhaps this is because the president has no larger goals. It has often seemed that, to Obama, compromise—like “bipartisanship”—is goal enough, an end rather than just a means to an end. Perhaps, as Reich puts it, it is more important to the president that he be “seen as a reasonable adult rather than a fighter.” Or perhaps the larger goals are so singularly unpalatable that he dare not explain them. It is bad enough that the White House is stripping Democrats of a solid campaign issue by joining the GOP in its pursuit of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, if the president had to call such cuts a “goal,” as opposed to a “compromise,” his own re-election might be in peril (or even more in peril).

But the “why” is not as important as the “what”—and what is going on is deplorable, in both practical and political terms. As Reich notes:

[Obama] is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his No. 1 economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct—that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations, we get the type of bromides that issue from any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

Reich is kind in phrasing this as a situation into which Obama has “allowed himself to be trapped,” but I fear he is being too politic. Two-and-a-half years removed from inauguration day, the president has enough of a track record to deserve the label of “active participant” in the trapping.

When the will and wisdom of the electorate has threatened to interrupt what we used to think of as a Republican narrative of “austerity for the many and rewards for the few,” it is President Obama that has time and again jumped in to shore up and shape his theoretical opponents’ frame. It was the new president that negotiated with himself a too-small stimulus and then over-promised what it would do. It was the White House that hamstrung healthcare reform with secret deals, an artificial maximum price tag, and long delays for the start of most programs, and then forced Democrats in Congress to embrace it and defend it straight through disastrous midterm elections. It was Obama that created the Catfood Commission when Congress itself failed to appease the deficit peacocks—and it was Obama that stacked the commission with members predisposed to disemboweling the social safety net. It was the president that forced his caucus to embrace his December budget deal that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and slashed the estate tax—two major factors in our current budget shortfall. And it is Obama that continues Bush’s wars of choice—justifying them with Bush’s climate of fear—another giant drain on federal coffers.

And it is Obama now, throughout the months that this debt-ceiling circus has continued to send in the clowns (along with high-wire acts and performing seals), who has served as ringmaster.

Obama, as I have described in the past, could have argued that we have more than enough borrowing capacity, and that, with interest rates so very low, now is the time to strengthen our economy by creating jobs, expanding our safety net, and stimulating demand. He could have used this crisis to build on the New Deal, to improve his flawed healthcare law, or to help power the next great engine of American economic expansion (by perhaps giving a Kennedy-esque “moon landing” speech declaring we will replace carbon and nuclear fuels with renewables by a date certain, and then funding R&D)—and he certainly could have used all of this to draw a sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans. But instead, the president has embraced the austerity meme, argued only for “compromise,” and has turned the entire debate into a contest over whose plan has more cuts. Obama has failed to explain to anyone how compromise, in-and-of itself, will help create a job or put food on the table, but he has succeeded in enhancing a dangerous and growing cynicism among voters well on their way to dropping out of the political process to devote more time to just making ends meet.

It might not be hard to “mobilize” people around a tactic—Congressional phone lines were jammed the day after Obama’s call to call—but a week (or two?) later, when government services have been sacrificed in the name of saving the country’s bond rating, will any of this telephone army feel like they won the fight?

It’s hard to imagine they will—certainly not the next time unemployment numbers come out, or a bridge falls down, or their kids are forced into a more crowded classroom. It is those real-life “lessons” that will do the teaching absent any true leadership from the “educator-in-chief.”

(A version of this post also appears on Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 22, 2011: Fixing a Hole

Focusing on broad, long-term goals while ignoring obvious, near-term problems is order of the day, be it in the Fukushima reactors or deficit-obsessed DC.

I feel like I am saying this every week, but tear yourself away for a minute, if you can, from the daily deficit follies—I promise we’ll get back to them.

As I detailed last week, a study called the Near-Term Task Force Review listed a set of suggestions for ways the US nuclear power industry could improve safety in the wake of the meltdowns and continuing crisis in Japan’s Fukushima reactors. The recommendations were a mixed bag of mostly regulatory tweaks–nothing particularly bad, as far as they go–but obviously missing from the report was any program that would effectively improve the way spent fuel rods are stored.

Earlier this week, the task force officially presented its report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and NRC chair Gregory Jaczko said the full commission should move to accept or reject the recommendations within 90 days, and implement any new rules within five years.

That sounds glacial, especially given the ongoing Japanese crisis and many US plants of similar design facing the possibility of similar problems, but even this cautious approach to some cautious recommendations was more-or-less opposed by three of the five commissioners.

The commissioners reacted much like the Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did a day earlier, asking for a “full and deliberate process of review”—a rather naked demand that the NRC slow-walk these recommendations with an eye toward weakening or killing them. The ECC has yet to schedule any hearings on the task force report.

On the Senate side, I am told that the Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold hearings in August, but nothing as yet is listed on the committee website. (EPW is chaired by Barbara Boxer; if you want, give her a call and express your interest in a timely hearing.)

Sadly, it seems like the US takeaway from the triple meltdown and massive environmental disaster in Japan is that we need to stick up for our domestic nuclear industry. In fact, just yesterday, the NRC approved a 20-year operating license extension for Hope Creek in New Jersey. Hope Creek is a boiling water reactor, just like Fukushima Daiichi 1, and stores spent fuel in above-ground pools, just as was done in the now-crippled Japanese plants.

Conveniently, practically no one in the US has any time to devote to nuclear concerns—after all, we are facing a debt-pocalypse!

I write that with a healthy degree of sarcasm, but it seems to me more than a happy accident that absolutely nothing else can get done in Washington because of the never-healing, self-inflicted wound that has tied our governing in knots and threatens to cripple the entire government. Forgive the cheap allusion, but it is a meltdown of accountability.

An easy turn of phrase, but I have been feeling like there is some deeper connection—or, if not connection, parallel—between the ongoing crisis in Fukushima and the never-ending “crisis” in Washington.

Earlier in the week, TEPCO (the power company that owns Fukushima Daiichi) and the Japanese government updated their plans for cleanup and containment of the disaster area. They announced that their goal is a cold shutdown of the crippled reactors in three to six months, and with that, they hope to reduce the radiation level around the plant to one millisievert per year by mid-January. That would be substantial. Officials even talk of allowing some to return to the quarantine area if that goal is met.

But for that goal to be met—for any of the goals to be met, really—the crews at Fukushima will have to do something else first. Namely, emergency workers must find and fix the cracks and holes in the containment vessels of the damaged reactors that continue to allow contaminated, radioactive water to leak into the reactor buildings, the surrounding tunnels and neighboring facilities, and onto the ground, possibly into the ground water, and, almost certainly, into the sea. Yet, the problem of fixing the holes, a goal that was part of the previous plan of action, a goal that has not been met, is not in the latest Japanese report.

When asked about the omission, officials said that they expect progress to be made on the leaks. They did not say how. They did not say when. But, you know, obviously, that will be addressed. The main thing is, though, focus on the big, happy, longer-term goals.

Is this starting to sound at all familiar?

In the current context, I can certainly find fault with many of the details, but let’s say, OK, long-term deficit reduction is not a bad goal, in and of itself. It would, in theory, be good to spend less on interest, and more, say on education or infrastructure. . . .

But that is not how I hear President Obama addressing this. Instead, I hear him mimicking self-interested deficit hawks, blurring the difference between debt and deficit, allowing the Tea-OP to frame budget cuts as linked to the debt ceiling, and purposely dragging entitlements into the mix when they don’t have a bearing on the matter at hand. And, worst of all, the president and practically every other leader in DC has made deficit reduction the stand-in for the warm, fuzzy goal of rebuilding the economy—which is, at best, putting the cart before the horse, but is more likely a damaging and dangerous lie.

Before we get to jump in to the magic happy balanced-budget pool, perhaps there are a few holes and cracks the administration might want to spackle. And the cracks are legion, aren’t they?

Of course, there is the war. . . the wars. . . the three, three-and-a-half, or four wars, sucking trillions out of the economy.

And, of course, there are the very-much-still-here-even-though-they-should-have-already-expired Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And there is the hedge-fund-manager’s loophole and any number of other breaks for the rich that deprive the supposedly going-up-in-flames system of a cooling river of cash.

But I want to talk about an even more obvious, immediate, gaping hole, a hole that should be goal one in any discussion of the economy, and yet is embarrassingly absent from the beltway back-and-forth:

Jobs.

Before we spend another breath of air or drop of ink on the goal of deficit reduction, the federal government should be focusing on the goal of decreasing unemployment—focusing on the goal of creating jobs. It is, in fact, the obvious first step, the obvious hole you plug on the way to broader economic health. With more and better-paying jobs, you pump more money into the marketplace, increase demand, and spur expansion. And you also create a more robust revenue stream for the government. Almost every new job is a new taxable income.

And right now, when interest rates are so extremely low, when money is cheap for the government, now is an excellent time to invest in the country by spending. You know what would make this a less-good time for borrowing? Defaulting on our debt.

If the jerk circus in Washington fails to raise the debt ceiling, sends a message that it is some degree less than a sure thing that America will honor its obligations, then the cost of borrowing could go up, and then maybe we have a real problem.

Now, if you were president, what frame would you rather be forced to defend?

Why not take advantage of this situation—which has the added advantage of being the truth—and demand a clean vote, and only a clean vote, on the debt ceiling? Why not tell the American people that if we do this, and keep the money supply cheap and fluid, then government can do what it is supposed to do—what it can do: care for its people, create jobs in a time of need, repair aging infrastructure, research and develop new, greener energy sources (hint, hint—which will not only wean us off of expensive oil and nuclear power, but it could help build the economic engine that could power the US economy for the next decade), and provide a better life for every level of society?

Then, when we are back on terra firma, when we have plugged the gaping hole, we can re-examine the big rosy budget goals. But then we can do so from a place of strength, do so from a place where we are not trying to bail out a sinking ship with a perforated bucket, do so without running from crisis to crisis like terrified citizens in some Japanese horror film.

Let’s at least try to learn one thing from the Fukushima crisis: Make our goal to fix the hole.

 

(A version of this post also appeared at Firedoglake.)

Emancipation and (Self) Preservation

It is perhaps ironic in the extreme to take to the internet to extol the virtues of contemplation, and to do so while discussing a story that, by the time you read this, will be over a full day old (a near-eternity in the blogosphere), but President Obama’s allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation (or more accurately, the release of a months-old talk where he praises Lincoln’s move as a marriage of principle and pragmatism) in the contextual crucible of the debt-ceiling debate, makes me wish we could really spend some time learning, relearning, and discussing the Proclamation and Lincoln’s actions in the context of his time and the lessons they might hold for action in ours.

It would be as fun as it would be enlightening for me (and a lot of others, I’d hope) to have a back-and-forth about what President Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation did and didn’t do—for slaves in Union and Confederate states, for the war effort on both sides of America’s Civil War, and for the future of the (as opposed to “these”) United States—because there is room for argument. And, it would be great if we could first pursue the pure knowledge and understanding before having to turn it into an ironclad metaphor for our current president and his very current “crisis” (another point open to interpretation). But Obama “went there”—first in a March talk with a group of students, and this weekend with the release of tape of that talk and another video alluding to the same issue—and so the metaphor, like a battle, is joined.

Because my preamble ramble is already closer to the pre-internet-age chat than I had intended, let me shorthand a lot of my thinking on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and say that while I feel comfortable in raising an eyebrow about just how few slaves were freed on its first day, January 1, 1863, and also feel comfortable in asserting that Lincoln understood the shrewd politics of the Proclamation’s exact language, a day of looking at recent scholarship on these issues also has me believing that “Emancipation,” such as it was proclaimed, did much to help the Union’s war effort by adding a second “cause” (the eventual abolition of slavery in addition to the opposition to southern secession) to the fight, by painting a stark moral contrast between the warring parties to European powers that had abolished slavery themselves, but still had other reasons to aid the Confederacy (such as Great Britain), and, quite notably, by allowing northern blacks and freed southern slaves to enlist and fight, swelling the ranks for the Union side.

All of this allowed Lincoln to attain his stated primary goal—the preservation of the Union—but it also (along with some very critical acts of Congress) laid the groundwork for the degradation of slavery in Northern slave states, the outlawing of slavery in US territories, and soon after, the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery across all states. (It also helped blunt any thoughts of a challenge to Lincoln’s re-nomination from the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party in 1864, which is interesting even in today’s context, and an attractive grace note to my point here.)

With all of this (all of this) in mind, let us now examine President Obama’s words, as delivered to a politically mixed group of students:

[Obama] noted that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted slavery in border states loyal to the Union, in an attempt to hold the nation together.

“Here you’ve got a wartime president whose making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that ‘right now, my job is to win the war and to maintain the union,’” Obama said.

“Can you imagine how the [liberal news outlet] Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’”

He told the students: “The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100 percent of what you want.”

Again, setting aside just how accurate the analogy is with respect to what the Emancipation Proclamation did and/or was intended to do, and trying, too, to ignore the gratuitous hippy punching, I want to focus on the last paragraph with respect to the broader invocation of Lincoln’s pragmatism.

Obama seeks to praise Lincoln for his ability to attain his goals in light of and in spite of both factional opposition and structural impediment, and in so doing, the current president rather nakedly implies that he is doing the same. Obama essentially says: “Lincoln married his principles to process and achieved his goal, and now, so too, will I. Someday, many will appreciate what I am doing the way we now appreciate Abraham Lincoln.”

But here’s the rub: What principle? And what goal? Obama’s big lesson, he says, is “you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” but what is it that Obama wants?

I don’t think he is concerned about the actual preservation of the Union. Aside from a marginal group of racists and paranoids—and the small handful of opportunist politicians that will claim some common cause even if they intend to do nothing as noteworthy as a Jefferson Davis—few are expecting another war between the states. Is the president then thinking that the fight against America’s current economic woes is the moral equivalent of the fight to preserve the Union? Could be, but then how have his actions moved us closer to that goal? What principle is he marrying to politics?

Deficit hawking will do nothing to create jobs or consumer demand, and laying things his party holds dear on the table (or whatever euphemism Obama is using this week for offering up benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare) not only makes the personal economies of so many Americans that much more precarious, it does nothing—nothing—to affect the deficit, or, much more to the immediate point, the debt ceiling. This would not just be me saying this; this would be the vast majority of our nation’s economists. I would also wager big money that any of the president’s long trail of ex or soon to be ex economic advisors—from Austan Goolsbee to Jarred Bernstein to even (yes) Larry Summers—would agree: if your goal is to usher in a robust economic recovery, cutting trillions from public projects, social programs and so-called “entitlements” will be almost entirely counterproductive.

Is the “goal” compromise itself? Many, including myself, often feel this way. But what is that? How does that marry “principle” to “politics” when it defines them as exactly the same thing?

Which leaves me with two remaining possibilities—both unpleasant.

I am going to give short shrift to the sinister one—that Obama is a sort of “Manchurian Candidate” whose entire career was engineered for the goal of destroying the Rooseveltian welfare state and the Democratic Party that built and defended it. It might be true in practice, but the psychology and construction of this thesis requires more supposition than I am comfortable writing.

To me, it seems the more obvious answer is now the correct one—and maybe the sadder one, too: Obama’s goal, the principle and practice that the president is equating with the Emancipation Proclamation, is in fact his re-election. To Obama, the preservation of his presidency is the same as Lincoln’s preservation of the Union.

How else can we explain Obama’s “leadership” on economic issues, especially since the “grand compromise” of last December when he allowed the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy? What other “principle” dictates that the president insist on moving further and further toward a camp of greedy, rich corporatists and their Washington proxies? What “goal” is achieved by taking away from the president’s own party the one sure-fire electoral winner, the contrast between the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, and the party that openly has suggested cutting them?

These questions are even more pointed, to my ear, if we are to believe (as some keep insisting) that the president does not intend to make these cuts or move as far right as he might make it seem, but is instead just posturing to throw his opposition off balance, to reveal them as the more intractable. It is a posture that does nothing for Democrats in Congress (or anywhere down ticket, really), but it does, in the eyes of Obama’s political team, anyway, project the president as more “independent” and more appealing to some dubious grouping of “independent voters.”

Imagine, then, Abraham Lincoln approaching the same problem. Lincoln was not above politics—as noted, the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd document politically, and during Lincoln’s senatorial and first presidential campaigns, he would address slavery in very different terms depending on his audience—but it was politics toward a goal bigger than himself, and it would eventually come to be politics married to a principle that, even though not as enlightened as our current approach to race, still became steadfast in its alliance with the abolition of slavery.

Would Lincoln feel that simply positioning himself for a second term, giving his re-election the best of all possible chances, was the same thing as preserving the union? That one is a stretch for me. And, even though Lincoln’s initial indication of the impending Emancipation Proclamation (in September 1862) was bad for some Republican members of the House (they lost seats in the 1862 midterms), with the principle of abolishing slavery in hand, the president’s party was given an issue to run on that served them well in many places for the next 100 years.

Can Barack Obama look at his moves in the current “battle” and expect a similar legacy? He can want it, but history will be the judge. It will be, should the republic survive or no, the stuff of future discussions and scholarship. It is for time to decide, not Beltway strategists, not “independent voters,” and certainly not the president, himself.

(A version of this post appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 1, 2011: Dick Move

I feel like adapting a joke from Thom Lehrer, who once remarked that a debate over the MLF (look it up) happened during the baseball season, so readers of the Chronicle might not have heard about it. The incident I want to talk about happened during MSNBC’s Morning Joe, so if you have no stomach for that show (or morning television in general)—like me—or if you only watched MSNBC the rest of the day, you might have missed it. . . but plenty of others are talking about it: MSNBC’s “senior political analyst” Mark Halperin was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after calling President Obama “Kind of a dick” on Morning Joe. (You want a laugh—another laugh? Check out how the Washington Post wrote this up: “kind of a [vulgarism for male organ].”)

If you want, take a look at an unedited version of the exchange, it is really pathetic for about a dozen reasons, but let me focus on what might be (as it usually is) the most pathetic part, which is the sizzle becomes the story, and not the steak—the real meaty part being what is actually going on in Washington.

Mark Halperin (whose father, Morton, yes, did defend US bombing during the Vietnam War, but later went on to champion civil liberties and open government, and has always been articulate and exhibited a real gravitas—so who knows what happened with his son?) said the president was all genital-like because Obama, in his Wednesday presser, dared to get the slightest bit snarky about corporate jet-users and their GOP guardians. . . and that, in my considered opinion, was wrong. It was wrong because getting annoyed (or, more likely, “acting” annoyed) with the greedy and their handmaidens is the very least we should demand in this ravaged economy, and it was wrong because, even if that behavior was somehow beyond the pale, it wouldn’t make Obama a dick, and certainly wouldn’t make it intelligent commentary to have some lightweight “analyst” call him one.

One of the first rules of civil debate (and child-rearing—perhaps that is where Mort went wrong) is that you criticize the action, and not the actor. Ad hominem attacks do nothing to advance an argument, and they are certainly not analysis.

The president is not a dick—but, that said, the president did make a dick move. No, not the one that got Halperin to put in for a few extra weeks of summer vacation—that, as I said, was sub-minimal—the dick move was cutting the legs out from under congressional Democrats in an effort to prove his worth to whomever it is Obama looks to for approval (still trying to sort that one out), and improve his standing for his 2012 run.

Obama’s dick move actually comes in two thrusts (did I just write that?): First, the White House undermined the negotiating posture of Democratic members of Congress by a) continuing to move to the right on budget cuts in an effort to forge something the president can call a “compromise,” and b) offering up some sort of “trade” of cuts to what, for lack of a better word, are called “entitlements” in exchange for what (and not for lack of a better word but for lack of a spine) are called “revenue enhancements.” And, second, Obama kneecapped congressional Dems’ election strategy by setting in motion a process that will likely tie Democrats to a vote that will inoculate Republicans from the charge that only the GOP wants to cut Medicare.

Democratic leadership in Congress wants to send a clear message that they are the protectors of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—and increasingly, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) indicated this week, Democrats also want voters to know that Republicans are looking to benefit politically from an economic crisis and so, are not negotiating in good faith. The White House muddied that message with the specifics outlined above, and with the general posture that it is in some sort of negotiation with GOP leaders.

Will anybody be talking about any of that heading into the holiday weekend? (Present company excluded, of course.) Doubtful. But will tongues be wagging about Lil’ Mark and, perhaps, how his “analysis” was stifled by the “librul media?” Yeah, that feels like it has legs. . . maybe three of them.