Obama is remaking his administration, as is detailed in John Heilemann’s big piece in New York magazine.
Judging the ultimate political impact of this endeavor will be impossible until November 2012. But contrary to the feral howling on the left or the applause of many Beltway tapioca centrists, the objective here has less to do with tacking to the center than with finding a way back home. What Obama seeks is to reconnect with the essence of why he was elected, to reanimate the unifying, postpartisan, pragmatic yet visionary persona that inspired so many in the first place. “What he wants,” says one of his friends, “is to be Barack Obama again.”
I’m not sure exactly what that means. Perhaps it means that something was lost by following Rahm Emanuel’s “frenetic, transactional, shambolic style” of governance. I think that’s part of it. I know many on the left were more disappointed by their perception of a lack of fighting spirit than by the actual legislative product. Obama may have known that a public option was a non-starter in March 2009 and kept hope alive mainly as a negotiating tool, but it looked like he was giving it up without a fight. It would have been easier to swallow the final compromise if we thought the president had done his best to do better. The president would probably argue that he did do the best he could, and that is most likely true. But he chose to act like his bill was exactly what he wanted instead of act like something better is required. To be clear, that’s a decision about what role to play, to ‘act out,’ for the public. Obama prefers to spare us flamboyant theatrics. He figures out what he can get and then tries to tell us that what we can get is great. That’s understandable, but it isn’t true. And it isn’t inspiring. And it has the unfortunate side effect of ceding part of the rhetorical battlefield to the Republicans. When we have to settle for a really shitty health-care bill because we have a bunch of dicks like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln in our party, we have a hard time selling it as a great accomplishment. The bill isn’t perceived for what it is (a big compromise) because the president acted like he got what he wanted. That is why the Republicans can plausibly talk about repealing it. Part of the problem can be seen here.
Just as in 2004, today, in 2011, the left can’t make sense of it all. So the only way they can frame this contemporary American insanity is either by blaming it all on the oligarchs who exploit this latent spite, as if taking the oligarch funding out of the equation would solve it all…or, when getting too close to facing the awful possibility that maybe a lot of Americans are just contemptible jerks in dead-ender lives, the left retreats into the safe, comforting irony of Jon Stewart, where it’s stored away as just another zinger that requires no serious thought, no painful analysis.
Here is my article that tries to get the left to finally face the truth about American voters as they really are—to consider the possibility that maybe a huge bloc of American voters are worse than merely “irrational.” What if there’s not much to like about them at all? Or more importantly, why the hell do we need to like them; why is “likable” even a factor?
There’s a limit to how great and inspiring a leader can be when his flock is filled with contemptible jerks who are getting yanked around by oligarch-funded media. Yeah, it’s never a good idea to blame the people. Always blame the politicians. Except the politicians who acted with the least honesty, charity, and principle over the last two years were rewarded for it with a stamp of approval from the voters. Obama does appeal to our better angels. But, maybe there are just a lot more devils than angels in this country.
Ultimately, this is still a battle between hope and fear. I never saw Rahm Emanuel as the devil, but he sure wasn’t an angel, and he didn’t inspire hope. If we’re talking thematics, the president does need to soar a little. He can’t be down in the muck with the Palins and Limbaughs. His legislative priorities are not going to fly on eagle’s wings with the Republicans in charge of the House, so it’s going to be more about finally trying to “change how Washington works.”
For Obama, the next two years will in part be about attempting to lower the temperature, to leach the toxins from the system. And in that pursuit, divided government might, paradoxically, prove to be his friend. Having achieved so much in the past two years, much of Obama’s agenda now is to protect those accomplishments—both in the short term and in the long term, by winning reelection—and playing defense is inherently less provocative than playing offense. And the areas in which Obama will take the initiative are ones where common ground may well exist with the opposition: curbing the deficit, education reform, free trade, and possibly tax reform.
The questions are, will the left put up with this milquetoast agenda, and will anything leach the toxins out of this system? I’m not very optimistic on either score. For things to really improve, we’d have to be better people.