Friday, January 15, 2010

A Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp, Or What's The Presidency For?

INTRODUCTION: This is a repost of a piece I originally wrote, under my then-pseudonym, on April 3, 2006.

Originally, it was in response to the widely-misunderstood (including by me) report that the then-still-Democratic Joe Lieberman was Senate "mentor" of a brand-new senator, Barack Obama. Most assumed that title reflected a close personal relationship, when actually every new senator is assigned a more senior colleague to show them the ropes -- a relationship that may become friendship, but is not necessarily so. At the very least, Lieberman's formal "mentorship" of Obama should not have been held against Obama.

Obama's embrace of Lieberman's candidacy, on the other hand -- and his lackadaisical effort for Ned Lamont once Lamont wrested the nomination from Lieberman and Lieberman betrayed Democrats by running against Lamont as an independent -- was legitimate ground for criticism. And the points I made in 2006 about Obama's political soul, my questions about whether he would choose the path of triangulation and compromise and centrism, or would instead strike out boldly to lead Progressives back into dominance of the Democratic Party, were spot on.

I supported Obama in both the 2008 Democratic primary and in the general election, because I believed he was the best, and potentially the most progressive, candidate. I don't regret that choice.

But that doesn't mean I've smoked the hopium. Obama is not a perfect leader, and the caution that stood him so well in the campaign is not serving him so well as President. It's undeniable now (though many still do deny it) that Obama never seriously strove to have a public option included in his healthcare bill; that was a burst of chaff designed to distract GOP attackers, and both they and we liberals fell for it. He and his familiar, Rahm Emanuel, constantly pressured Congressional progressives to compromise, while applying little or no pressure on Congressional Democratic conservatives like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln (let alone playing real hardball with Joe Lieberman). Yes, he passed 97% of his Congressional agenda this year -- but that demonstrates only that he played it safe. As Robert Browning wrote over a century ago: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Could Obama still lead? Absolutely. He's not dead in the water yet. But he has been keeping his powder dry, apparently without realizing that, in fact, his powder's almost completely gone already; power unused tends to dissipate with the dew, while power invested tends to compound, like money.

It's not too late yet for Obama to simply declare DADT dead, by executive order, and then to send a message of firm discipline by dishonorably discharging any homophobes who refuse to respond in good faith with the changed situation. They're soldiers; they should follow orders, period. Likewise, if this weak-tea healthcare reform bill fails, as it still might, then it's not too late for Obama to immediately push through a bold singlepayer plan, without fear of filibuster, via the budget reconciliation process -- which could be accomplished well before the November elections and re-establish Democrats as a strong party instead of a bunch of weak wafflers -- after which he could negotiate with conservatives to replace that (to them) intolerable law with a strong public option that would not be subject to a ten year sunset provision. (Mark Kleiman wrote brilliantly on that negotiating strategy here.) (The other excellent components of the current bill, like the elimination of preexisting conditions, are popular enough to be passed over any filibuster threat.) It's not too late for Obama to fire Rahm (as he should), or to demand that Harry Reid change the Senate's filibuster rules at the start of the 2011 session (when only a majority, not a supermajority, is needed to do so). It's not, in short, too late for Obama.

But he's losing his window, and his choice -- the direction his presidency, and his political soul, will take -- must be made soon.

To explain again what exactly is the decision Obama faces, I'm reprising this old (and in places anachronistic) VichyDems post from four years ago -- and urging that now, at the end of his freshman year as President, a chastened and wiser Obama finally make the decision of what sort of leader, and what sort of man, he chooses to be:


I want to like Barack Obama. His riveting, energizing speech at the last Democratic National Convention converted him from an attractive Senate candidate into the leading Democratic candidate for first African-American Vice-President and, eventually, President. His statement that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states" not only articulated the beliefs of that misunderstood, underrepresented and vital majority of Democrats and Independents who possess some sort of religious faith, but his use of evangelical "code" language -- "awesome God" -- reclaimed territory we had ceded to the Republicans and showed that not all Democratic politicians are tone deaf to religious nuance. I really want to like Barack Obama.

But then I read things like the following, which comes from an otherwise-delightful New York Times article about Democrats ignoring and even booing Joe Lieberman at a recent event:

[H]owever, the audience was riveted as Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the guest speaker at the $175-a-plate dinner, stood on the podium and began the customary round
of recognition of candidates and incumbents in the room. When he got to Mr. Lieberman, who is his mentor in the Senate and who helped recruit him to speak at the event, the applause again was muted.

"I know that some in the party have differences with Joe," Senator Obama said, all but silencing the crowd. "I'm going to go ahead and say it. It's the elephant in the room. And Joe and I don't agree on everything. But what I know is, Joe Lieberman's a man with a good heart, with a keen intellect, who cares about the working families of America."

Then, with applause beginning to build, he finished the thought: "I am absolutely certain that Connecticut's going to have the good sense to send Joe Lieberman back to the United States Senate."

Joe Lieberman -- gutter of bankruptcy protection for working people facing disastrous health emergencies, supporter of an illegal war that's killed over 2,000 working-class Americans, apologist for hospitals that deny birth control to rape victims -- secretly has a "good heart" and "cares about working families"?


Here's what's good about Barack Obama: despite his relative youth and political inexperience, he is in the first ranks when it comes to political astututeness. He understands the game, plays all the angles with a skill approaching genius. The last political operator we saw with Obama's skill was an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Hell, Obama may even be better than Bill Clinton.

Here's what's bad about Barack Obama: at an age and place in his career where he should still be known for idealism, he instead is known for political astuteness. He has mastered the game instead of the ideals, applies his genius to playing the angles instead of changing the world for the better. The last political operator we saw with Obama's skill was an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Hell, Obama may even be worse than Bill Clinton. ***

NOT being a "Star Wars" geek in any way, I hate to say this, but some analogies just leap out at you: Barack Obama is the Anakin Skywalker of the Democratic Party. He's an incredibly gifted young man whose gifts who will do either incredible good or incredible harm to the Democratic Party and to the nation. And if Joe Lieberman indeed is his mentor, then Lieberman is the Senator Palpatine to Obama's Anakin -- a moderate-seeming, soft-spoken statesman who pretends to want only the good of the Republic but actually serves those who would destroy everything it stands for -- and who seeks to magnify his influence by exerting a maleficent influence over a young politician whose skill, electability, political prospects and even ambition far exceed his own.

This incident is not the only one; Obama also spoke out against the Alito filibuster, working against us behind the scenes by trying to persuade other senators not to rock the boat, and he likewise is lobbying others not to support Russ Feingold's censure resolution. Obama looks good on the outside, but in his short Senate career he has come down on the wrong side of nearly every issue this blog's readers care about.

Notwithstanding the above, I think Obama can be saved. What's needed is for his elders in the party to lead the young Senator down a nobler path than the one outlined by Bill, Hillary and Joementum. When we progressives recapture the soul of our party, the party may recapture the soul of Obama. Then Obama may be a tremendous force for good. But we need to show him that the path he's currently walking is a dead end.

Step one is to send a message to him, and all similar triangulators and accommodationists, by forcefully and overwhelmingly jettisoning his "mentor in the Senate," Joe Lieberman. Please donate to Lieberman's Democratic challenger, Ned Lamont, here.

And may the Force be with you.

(My kid brother is going to be so proud of this post! But I'm not making another Star Wars reference for at least a year, I promise.)


1 comment:

Sinfonian said...

It's not too late yet for Obama to simply declare DADT dead, by executive order, and then to court-martial and then to send a message of firm discipline by dishonorably discharging any homophobes who refuse to respond in good faith with the changed situation.

I wrote a law review piece that was published back in 1994 advocating that President Clinton do exactly that. Sadly, he didn't take my advice, and I fear President Obama won't take yours, either.