August is a strange season in politics. In the final weeks of summer last year, we had the incredible (and incredibly short-lived) public buzz surrounding Sarah Palin, before people realized she just used those glasses for looks, not reading. This year’s dog days brought us hordes of astroturf Teabagger Republicans demonstrating that they think public discourse boils down to “whoever shouts loudest wins.”

obamahcspeechI’ve sat back and haven’t posted a great deal in recent weeks (although it’s been impossible to avoid following the theater of it all). For one thing, there are better things to do when the weather is nice (not all that common a condition in Chicago). For another, there’s been a lot of justifiable uncertainty and skepticism developing among progressives about exactly where and how Obama and the Democratic party are willing to take a stand, and I’ve been genuinely unsure of my own assessment, wavering from cynicism to optimism sometimes on a daily basis.

But Labor Day is behind us and silly season is over, and the president gave a major speech on health care tonight, and it’s time to take a serious look at where things stand.

Seriously, the past few weeks were emotionally and intellectually taxing for anyone who follows politics, indeed for anyone who cares about the future of this country. (N.B.: I do not include in that category the delusional fringe who proclaim passionately that the real threat to America today is a resurgence of communism.)

Let’s recap. In many ways, the current battle over health care has come to represent a defining moment for Obama, and indeed for any hope of a progressive Democratic agenda. The right wing certainly framed it that way (proclaiming it his “Waterloo”)… and this is something about which many on the left actually agreed, albeit from a different perspective:  if Obama and his party couldn’t get something decent done on this issue, even with strong public support and huge majorities in both houses of Congress, then the change we all thought we voted for last year was a dead issue.

Health care reform has been one of Obama’s top three priorities from the start, along with fixing a collapsing economy and developing a sustainable energy policy. For good reason:  the health care “system” as it exists in the U.S. is obviously broken.

Still, when the right end of the political spectrum defines itself by being radically reactionary, obstructionist, paranoid, indeed downright nihilistic (as even Time‘s finger-to-the-wind Joe Klein acknowledges), it’s the center of the spectrum that actually meets the traditional definition of “conservative”:  people who think (erroneously) the status quo is okay, people happy to stand in the middle of the road because they don’t see any compelling reason to move to one side or the other. People who just don’t grasp that the system is broken, quite possibly because they genuinely don’t even understand how it works. Such “low information voters” (however sincere) can easily be swayed by misinformation, and they present an obstacle to constructive reform.

So despite the fact that a single-payer system would be the hands-down best solution in policy terms, it was widely perceived as too dramatic a change to be politically viable… and despite the fact (as I’ve written) that using it as an opening gambit would have made for superior legislative strategy, that same perception led Obama (and thus Congressional lawmakers) to eliminate it from the debate and instead focus on a “public option” as the centerpiece of reform.

The public option actually stands out as a genuine compromise approach—all about market competition and cost controls, things the right should embrace. But it was positioned as the “left” end of the debate, and the right (including way too many Blue Dogs) proceeded to hyperventilate in true Groucho Marx mode: “whatever it is, I’m against it.”

The opposition never commanded a majority, nor did they have any actual reasonable objections to reform. Yet from Obama on down, key Dems seemed oddly cowed nevertheless. Even after four other committees passed out health reform bills, they waited on the Senate Finance committee, where Max Baucus worked with a small coterie of Republicans who had all but admitted they weren’t negotiating in good faith. (The fact that he and they also happened to be among the biggest recipients of insurance industry campaign largesse did not go unnoticed.) They seemed cowed by angry hecklers at town hall meetings. They sent up trial balloons about backing off on the public option.

And Obama’s polls began to drop. Not in a way that should have pleased anyone on the right (though they claimed a victory anyway, his opponents there actually stayed exactly where they had been, opinion-wise), but because his supporters on the left were no longer sure what (if anything) he stood for.

Yet Obama’s team did nothing to assuage these concerns. Rahm Emanuel went so far as to call liberal criticism of the Blue Dogs “fucking stupid,” on the record, while an anonymous “senior White House adviser” mouthed right-wing talking points complaining that “the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo… It’s a mystifying thing.” Rahm, needless to say, has always been an abrasive self-important prick of the worst kind, the kind who can’t even learn from his own mistakes (insisting that Dem candidates shouldn’t oppose the war in 2006, opposing Dean’s 50-state strategy in 2008)… but even so, you’d think he’d understand that most basic rule of electoral politics:  you dance with them what brung ya. You do not spit in the face of the liberal base, the people who gave your guy money and knocked on doors and turned out to vote for him in record numbers. You might need those supporters again someday.

People responded with disappointment, as any reasonable observer (outside the White House bubble) might expect. Former supporters openly described the administration as “failing.” A former top adviser urged the administration to be “more bold.” No less than Paul Krugman observed that

there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line. … It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.

Glenn Greenwald offered a trenchant analysis concluding that for too many of the players involved, prominently including Emanuel, there was no principle involved beyond increasing political leverage; that the goal was not to reign in the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries (despite the plain fact that their business models are at the root of the problem), but rather to ensure that their campaign largesse winds up in Democratic pockets. Matt Taibbi explained in detail just how Democrats and industry lobbyists systemically gutted some of the best aspects of reform.

This is not what progressives voted for.

Still, criticism was hardly universal. Others argued that Obama was good at playing political chess, seeing several moves ahead, pointing not unreasonably to his consistent and effective strategy during the grueling 2008 primaries. They framed the quickly retracted weekend trial balloon about abandoning the public option as a “swerve” or a “head fake,” deliberately intended to get the liberal base to recognize the stakes and get riled up about them, to force his hand and “make me do it,” in FDR’s terms. Michael Moore, echoing the views of many on sites like Daily Kos, emphasized to Rolling Stone how impressed he is with Obama’s successes so far, especially on the international stage, and switched the chess metaphor for basketball, opining that in matters of strategy the president routinely “fakes right and moves left.”  Still, his view wasn’t so rosy as to prevent him from acknowledging that a final health care bill without a public option would “significantly change” his take on Obama, and moreover that he’s already disappointed with the timidity fo the Democratic Party leadership: “I don’t know what part of ‘massive, overwhelming victory’ they don’t understand.”

Personally, as noted above, I found myself nonplussed. I’ve never been under any illusions that Obama was other than a cautious moderate-liberal, so I never expected him to be a progressive firebrand, nor did I ever imagine that all of this country’s long-festering problems could be solved in a matter of months. I’m well aware that there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of his administration thus far. Still… I can’t pretend he’s not a marked improvement over any other president in my political lifetime. It’s easy to be cynical about government in a “pox on all their houses” sense, especially after years of right-wing misrule encouraging exactly that attitude, but I’m not sold on the idea that Obama or most of his appointees (Rahm, Larry Summers, and a few others notwithstanding) are just in this to boost their egos and line their pockets. I’ve found myself varying from day to day on what to think and how much honest optimism I can muster, but on good days I’m fairly confident that most of the administration is comprised of people who genuinely believe that they, acting through government, can achieve meaningful progress for the people they serve.

Even in that upbeat perspective, however, that’s not to say they always get the strategy right. (Certainly after the fiasco of last winter’s watered-down stimulus bill, for instance, they should’ve learned a lesson about how to “negotiate” with today’s GOP, but the post-partisan rhetoric as yet seems rather thick on the ground.)

Cynicism is easy; trust is hard. (Never mind faith. I don’t believe in that.)

Still, in recent weeks the fickle tide of public (and elite) opinion began to shift again. The GOP’s rabid-dog antics weren’t winning any new friends outside their already narrow circles. The progressive grass roots, led by indefatigable advocates like FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher, persuaded a critical mass of House Democrats that a health care bill without a public option was worse than none at all:  a giveaway to the insurance industry without any serious controls or competition. And unsurprisingly, much dramatic tension still swirled around what Obama himself would do.

So… the speech itself. How did it go?

You know… This is already stretching out to some considerable length. I tend to do that a lot; I don’t know whether anyone actually reads them all the way through, but thanks to anyone who’s still with me. (Since I began blogging, I’m much more impressed than I used to be with columnists who can consistently stay within a 700-word limit.) Having set the stage, therefore, I think I’ll reserve the drama itself for another post.

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10 Responses to “Uncertainty, Obama, and the nagging voice of cynicism”
  1. I’ll agree that certain factions on “the left” — particularly some of the larger nonprofit organizations — have been effectively muzzled by the administration. Jane Harman at FDL has written about this, pointing out that the organizations are constrained by both carrot (access) and stick (threat of lost funding), and describing the resulting boundaries as the “veal pen.” That’s a shame… but also a predictable artifact of two-party politics; any administration can counter criticism from its opponents much more easily than from its own side, and prefers to forestall the latter entirely if possible.

    Nevertheless, there’s a lot more independent criticism out there than there was even during the Clinton administration, thanks largely to the prominence of the blogosphere. That affects the public discourse — not as much as what’s on TV, true, but the balance is shifting as time goes by.

    That said, I don’t buy into the most cynical interpretations of recent events — even when they come from people I admire, like (e.g.) Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald — that there is in fact an agenda “fundamentally at odds with progressive principles,” as you put it. I remember the Clinton years; there was a genuinely anti-progressive president who somehow inexplicably maintained a public reputation as a “liberal.” I remember how he made a policy priority out of NAFTA and invented “don’t ask, don’t tell” and pushed the “end of welfare” and supported the “Effective Death Penalty Act” and the “Defense of Marriage Act” and the Telecommunications Act of ’96 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that killed off Glass/Steagal, and generally how he bent over backwards to appease the GOP even as they heaped contempt and calumny upon him.

    By and large, I don’t see those same instincts in Obama. Has he made missteps, been too cautious and too centrist and too obliging of Wall Street? Yes, certainly. But remember that dealing with Wall Street (for good or ill) was never what he signed on for; it was forced by events. He’s also pushed through credit-card reform, and lifted stem-cell restrictions, and empowered the FDA to regulate tobacco and the EPA to regulate greenhouse gasses, and improved fuel-economy standards, and taken back the student loan system from private lenders… and pushed for cap-and-trade on CO2, and completely reframed the health-care reform debate in a way that was inconceivable even five years ago, never mind 15.

    Yes, the results in those last two areas remain to be seen… and the waffling on health care, in particular, justifies precisely the kind of uncertainty that provoked me to write this entry, and the one after it. But the jury’s not in yet; in fact it turns out that last week’s speech wasn’t even a closing argument. Would I prefer that he were as emphatic and daring an advocate for progressive principles as, say, FDR or even LBJ (while avoiding duplicating the latter’s foreign policy mistakes, incidentally)? Yes, of course. But in the meantime, I think the phrase “legitimate criticisms” is right on the mark, allowing both credit and blame to be assigned as necessary. To conclude his administration is actually driven by a systematic agenda to stick it to the progressive base is to assume far more than is supported by the evidence.

    And making such assumptions, as I already noted, just feeds a sense of defeatism. It’s the same cynicism and defeatism that infests the mainstream media and Beltway conventional wisdom, that convinced all the insiders that Obama could never be elected in the first place and that now convinces them Washington is by definition unable to serve the public. It’s poison to democratic politics, destroys our sense of ourselves as citizens, and makes it all the harder to accomplish anything constructive. We should defy it as long as we possibly can. Because when the president or the Congress don’t live up to all our hopes (and when have they ever?), the only thing that can shift the balance is our own willingness to take a stand. Either that, or throw in the towel and move to Canada.

  2. michael says:

    Chris, I did not say the Left “doesn’t dislike” Obama’s policies; I said that our disliking them is not the issue. The problem is that he gets too much credit from the Left, who, while disliking many of the policies, aren’t assigning blame appropriately or with sufficient intensity. Even the phrase “legitimate criticisms” is too polite for me. It’s not as if we have an unfortunate misunderstanding or innocent disagreement here; as the agenda takes shape, it becomes possible to infer a broad outlook that is fundamentally at odds with progresssive principles.

  3. Michael, read the post of mine linked under the words “legitimate criticisms” up above. I agree with many of your complaints, as you’ll see. (Indeed, I was perplexed at your earlier remark that the left *doesn’t* dislike those policies.)

    That notwithstanding, I don’t see Obama as nearly as much of a “fig leaf” for right-leaning policies as Clinton was. (Whereas Obama is instinctively conservative as a matter of disposition, IMHO Clinton was as a matter of *ideology*. In neither case do I mean the hysterical ranting detachment from reality that defines today’s GOP, of course; I’m talking a more traditional sense of “conservative.”) The 8/20 issue of Rolling Stone accompanied its cover feature with a number of interesting sidebars (also viewable online) summing up Obama’s policy moves so far, both good and bad, in a number of issue areas.

    “Nefarious”? Well, Rahm Emanuel, maybe…

    Dwight, point taken, the distinction is important: “greatest politician” could well be damning with rather faint praise! 😉

  4. Chris, Tommy Douglas was voted a higher honour than most favoured of Canadian politicians, although the title he did receive posthumously might well subsume that one into itself.

    Tommy Douglas was voted the Greatest Canadian.

    Details on this website –

    As for the opposition to Medicare…it’s small, but it’s irritatingly persistent. One of their ranks is a columnist in the Orléans Star, a weekly newspaper in my neighbourhood, who talks a good game about being devoted to the legacy of John Diefenbaker, a former Prime Minister of some note himself, but actually worships at the altar of Ayn Rand.

  5. michael says:

    Chris, if your first concern is substantive policies, you should be even more upset with Obama than I am. After all, he has effectively continued Bush’s foreign policy; authorized a massive transfer of wealth to Wall Street—no strings attached; proposed a health insurance reform scheme that has little chance of working but will yield massive windfalls for insurers and Big Pharma; abandoned gay rights altogether; failed to deliver a meaningful stimulus package; buckled under on important appointments—leaving many key jobs unfilled to this day and throwing Van Jones under the bus; reappointed the Fed Chair who thinks bailing out Wall Street is the same as rescuing the economy; and so on. If this had been Bush’s record (and much of it is!), would anyone be saying that he’s pursuing a progressive agenda? Or that he is the best President we’ve had in decades?

    Seen from this perspective, his style is not just counterproductive but actually nefarious. It is a figleaf for Right-leaning policies that many on the left mistake for good-faith efforts at progressive reform. It is the “conservatism with a human face” Bush promised in 2000. Let’s not let our exuberance at his victory blind us to the disturbing reality of his politics.

  6. Vamberfield says:

    I think Obama has so far been on the wrong side on the style vs. substance balancing act. He seems to be more concerned with doing things in his own manner (calmly laying out his ideas and staying above the fray) than he has been with actually delivering substantive policies. I was prepared for hi brand of “post partisanship” since his election; it’s who he is and that won’t change. However, he doesn’t seem prepared to deal with the cult the Republican party has become. You can’t negotiate with or reach out to a faction that has zero interest in an actual working health care system. All the anti-reformers want is a morality play, where the wicked (i.e. poor people, minorities) are punished and the virtuous (i.e. rich people, big business) are rewarded. No amount of charisma and friendly words will convince them of anything else. Perhaps even worse, he is unwilling to call out the so called centrists in congress who sabotage liberal policies at every opportunity.

    That being said, he’s still done more good for the country than any president in living memory so I’ll cut him as much slack as I can.

  7. Hey, wow, I do have readers! Making actual comments! I’ll put more up tonight, I promise. Wouldn’t want to be responsible for any damage to Chris’s computer.

    Dwight, do I misremember, or wasn’t Tommy Douglas once voted the most popular politician in Canadian history? The opposition must be a small minority indeed.

    Michael, speaking strictly for myself, my complaints do tend to be about actual policies. I tend to like Obama’s “political style.” Perhaps that’s because I can relate to it; by personal disposition I’m inclined to be calm and deliberative, and seek common ground on areas of disagreement. Still… I’m able to recognize when someone is simply impervious to reason, and — to put things in internet terms — “stop feeding the trolls.” But more on this when I address the actual speech.

  8. michael says:

    Seems to me the problem we on the Left have with Obama is not that we dislike the actual policies (although mostly they do suck), or even that many of the familiar calculations and backroom deals continue to take place (it is an oligarchy, after all). No, the real concern is his political style. It made me tear my hair out during the campaign, and it still does. Style is important, because it is an index of the previaling norms of political discourse, which in turn constrain what can or cannot be thought or imagined. Frankly, I’d bite my tongue and accept the ridiculous healthcare “reform” if Obama gave me any sense that he’d challenge these norms. For all the hoopla about Wilson’s outburst last night, I guarantee that he’ll be a hero for the Right, who’ll argue that civility is immoral if it means silence in the face of tyranny. And that will give them (some) moral authority, if only because they’re willing to stand on “principle.” What principle will Obama stand on? The indomitable urgency of compromise? Even the chess analogy is bogus: in chess, the goal is to win, not to gain the agreement of your adversary. Until we see some political spine in the White House, the center will continue to be occupied by the Right—whatever the policy outcomes.

  9. Well, please finish the next part soon. I’ve been known to throw books across the room when they end in unexpected cliffhangers, but I can’t do that with the computer I’m on.

  10. Understandable, that installment plan preference.

    As for the topic itself, Tommy Douglas didn’t get medicare as we know it in Canada in a week, after all. It took time, a lot of sweat and a doctors’ strike. And decades later, there are still people in Canada – patients and doctors and politicos – who still think it ought to die. They are in the minority. Medicare is the third rail of Canadian politics now: touch it and your career as a politician dies. Fast and ugly.

    Hang in there. What’s coming will be worth having…and building upon.

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