Obama the Transformational President
We are in the midst of another political pause. The big fight about the Rollout is past and the President has to recapture lost ground. The Republicans think he won’t and so they can wait around till the Midterms to take over the Senate and do whatever it is they want to do and so in the meantime they only have to avoid unforced errors. That is why the Ryan-Murray deal is likely to pass. The Democrats are confident that the citizenry will discover that they really like Obamacare and will not want to support candidates who will take away what they now have. Obama continues to manage foreign policy extraordinarily well, so well, in fact, that nobody notices he is doing so, that he has kept us out of war anywhere in the Middle East for another day, leaving the Arab world to stew in its own juices, while also creating a breakthrough moment with the Iranians.
But Obama was dispirited when he was interviewed by Chris Matthews last week. He said he feels that all he can do is push the boulder up the hill just a little bit, that he is subject to the forces of history. That is not what you would hear from FDR or Harry Truman or even Ronald Reagan. They thought they were making history rather than just responding to it. I hope that Obama catches his second or third wind by the time of the Midterms because then, I think he will have to plan a legislative agenda for a Democratically controlled House and Senate, which I think will happen because of Obama care, because of a very well run ground gain, and because of what are sure to be the missteps of one and more Republican candidates who will not help but give away that they are Neanderthals because candidates, try as they might not to, speak their minds. They wouldn’t be in politics if they did not want to say what they thought. And that opportunity will mean that Obama has the opportunity to be, for a third time, a transformational President, which is something even many of his supporters say he failed to do even once, much less twice.
This from a man I thought got elected just because the moment was right rather than because of any particular merit of his own. His election was, of course, a transformational moment for the country, and he got elected by dealing very well with the issues that arouse by which the resistance to an African American President was expressed. The Reverend Wright controversy was an attempt to paint him as one of those resentful Blacks who may have a role to play in politics, just as Jesse Jackson had, but who are hardly to be trusted with the Presidency. He overcame that, as well as a charge of being callow because of his views on mixing talk with a big stick in foreign policy, Hillary having insisted it be one or the other, about which she knew better, but you have to find something to say in a foreign policy debate where there are only matters of degree of difference between the candidates. Once President, however, he had to do something to transform America, and not simply live off the fact that he had gotten elected. I had been so taken with the John Kennedy campaign, that his election seemed a substantive triumph when, of course, it was only his biggest achievement, holding off Nixon for another eight years, and that the substance of his Presidency, what he did in office, was a very mixed bag, full of big foreign policy gambles that didn’t turn out well (at least we lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that hardly makes it a triumph) and, on the domestic front, being much too indecisive on civil rights and dealing with poverty. Kennedy was a key player only because he died, while Obama has really transformed the nation or at least the terms of debate in the nation.
First, he really did try to construct a bi-partisan, post-politics-as-usual presidency. He is to be given a lot of credit for going for a health care bill that would appeal to all sides. The Republicans now deny that ever happened, insisting that the ACA was a deeply partisan bill when, in fact, Obama allowed the Democrats in the Senate to dicker for six months with Charles Grassley after having adopted a Republican design for the overall bill in the first place. The Republicans shot down a deal and then Obama had to dicker with his own side to get sufficient votes. And he did that successfully, which is more than Clinton or anybody else before him could do. He was wise to let the Senate craft the bill. And then Obama tried the bipartisan view again. He wanted to negotiate a grand bargain that would give away at least some of what Liberals hold dear for something the Conservatives hold dear. It was a trade rather than a compromise. But the Republicans would have nothing of it and showed their true colors as hopeless obstructionists. So Obama can't be blamed because the Republicans are obdurate and now that is their reputation, acknowledged even in the fact that so called moderate Republicans say they are trying to corral the crazies or at least separate themselves from the “nutwings” of the Republican Party, when it is clear that the moderates have nothing to run on in the way of alternative policies but only on not being the Tea Party. Obama has crystallized the division in Washington so that the American people can recognize the Republican Party as one which has no program but to give the rich more and hurt the poor more.
The second way in which Obama has tried to be transformation emerged only after the Tea Party won in 2010. No one has explained to my satisfaction why Boehner could not corral them even if, late in the game, he this week denounced those who are against the Ryan-Murray proposal because he knows that proposal is a last ditch attempt at keeping some respectability for the Republicans. After all, he has had a majority of Republican members of the House with him since he became Speaker. One explanation that has been offered to me is that the most extreme wing of a party is what gains legitimacy and confers it on the rest of the party. That explanation helps account for why the Ultra-Orthodox have such a hold on Israeli politics. Protecting the least assimilationist Jews helped establish the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish homeland, even if that job was carried out by secular Zionists. The gay movement is just coming to the realization that it has to come to the aid of the transgendered and the flamboyant parts of its community and not just those who can pass as straight. That is necessary if the gays are to be an “ordinary” ethnic group. But it is not always that easy to define what are the extremes that give the rest of the group legitimacy. Why was, within the American polity, Strom Thurmond ever more legitimate than Hubert Humphrey? And yet Humphrey was seen as the dangerous radical in his 1948 push for a civil rights plank in the Democratic Platform and Strom Thurmond was legitimate enough to lead a good part of the Party out the door. What is extreme depends on what social forces put you there. Safeguarding the Ultra Orthodox was an indulgence of the Secularist Zionists until the Ultra Orthodox got enough votes in the Knesset to insist on the protection of their social services and their draft exempt status, and that is weakening right now precisely because Netanyahu could form a coalition without them.
What has emerged since 2010 is that at the bottom of the opposition to Obama is something substantial: race. Obama is transformational to the extent that he is able to make a Black President legitimate and not merely legal, and that has been the fight he has been waging for three years now, and we don't know how it will turn out. He is characterized with having all the old negative stereotypes: lazy, stupid, weak, and a foreign element in American culture, the last only barely covered up in the ludicrous accusations that he is a Muslim or a Kenyan. That is quite an onslaught to overcome, and he continues to be graceful in doing so, always in public being of good humor and non-vindictive, very much a follower of Martin Luther King, Jr., in rising above the battle so as to be on a higher moral plane. Obama is onto the racial nature of American politics now and that this is one of the grand themes of American politics since the inception of the nation. He is just doing his best to transform that, and his conduct in office is the best answer to those who denigrate him and is part of his long term legacy.
Obama knows that whatever he does will be doubly criticized because he is Black. The criticism of the rollout of Obamacare is just fuel for the fire, and so he has to be even better than the average President to be acknowledged as being just alright. Moreover, the enemy is vicious. FDR was the crippled Jew in the White House to the far right, and Hillary was a murderer and adulteress, because the far right, which it is correct to identify as the ever unrepentant South, is vitriolically mean and always has been. Their representatives came back into Congress after the Southern states were readmitted and were still so angry that they proceeded to take over Congress and have controlled the House ever since except for brief times when, Obama correctly observed in his interview, Democrats had overwhelming majorities.
It is to be remembered that Republicans cannot be trusted not to lie about matters both great and small. That includes weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and what happened at the IRS. So not much credence should be given to their claims that, despite Obama’s claims otherwise, people can’t keep the health insurance policies that they want. They trotted out a number of what can only be called testimonials to assert this, but those were never put to the test. Were people being denied coverage because the insurance company had decided not to go ahead with the policy or was it that the people were not consulting any other possible coverage than the one suggested by their prior carrier, who might indeed be providing plans that were more costly and without additional benefits.
The news media fell into the trap. They must have thought it inappropriate to inquire too closely into a private person’s presentation of their financial situation, but if you are making a testimonial, have I not the right to ask how you knew you had the epileptic symptoms which you claim the preacher cured you of? Even PBS let the complainers speak for themselves and did not look behind the figures. They interviewed one person who said that the only plan she could find would cost her five thousand dollars in copayments when her present policy would only cost her five hundred. But she also said that she never went very much to the doctor and that was why she was satisfied with her minimal policy. If that were the case though, she would not use up her five thousand copay unless she were really sick in which case her prior policy would have paid for next to nothing. Her own faulty arithmetic was allowed to stand, as if reporting it that way was the path of objective journalism. Out of such tricks have the Republicans carried out their assault on Obamacare and I think they will pay for that at the polls when the number of people who have benefited from it will cast their ballots.
So what is an alternative to the way Obama has managed things? A more aggressive posture, one less willing to compromise, would have made him into the militant Black his opponents want him to be. And he would never have accomplished the ACA, much less guided it through the opposition to its enforcement that Obama has met every step along the way. This is the equivalent of the drag your feet attitude with which southerners greeted civil rights legislation. Yes, he would have liked to do more, and every once in a while he shows that, as when he made a major push for gun control legislation that was predicted as not likely to get anywhere and didn’t. There is a target rich environment for legislation once the Congress goes Democratic. It includes gun control, immigration, a national minimum wage (a standard that can be adjusted for prevailing wages in different areas, so that Mississippi can pay less), infrastructure projects, and so on. Hang tough, Barack. Your visage may not be headed for Mount Rushmore, but you are the best there has been since Harry Truman, and that means you stand pretty tall as Presidents go.