Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Holding Obama's feet to the fire?

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder thinks "the left" has "held Obama's feet to the fire" much more than the right did to G.W. Bush from "Day One." Deconstructing a little, I need to mention that I consider Ambinder a fine specimen of unremittingly conventional wisdom, see little sign of a "left" and rather doubt that such an axis yet really describes our current political environment (see, I doubt conventional wisdom), and see little evidence that anyone has lit up Obama much, though good people like Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher are trying. Oh yeah -- and I could permanently do without the silly "Day One" locution.

Nonetheless, I find the topic interesting. Here are Ambinder's explications in italics followed by my commentary.
  • "Democrats like and support Obama, as do liberals, but they're willing to be openly critical -- not always, but often enough, some more than others, in different forums."
My church, the Episcopal one, likes to say we don't ask people to check their brains at the door. Liberals are like that too. And like churches, liberals don't always live out the values we claim to hold.

However much we may like Obama, we think critically about our interaction with any leader. At least we do when we're being grown-ups. I've been criticized, possibly rightly, for being unwilling to jump on the guy about his evident enthusiasm for the uglier features of the imperial Presidency -- universal lawless surveillance, law-free detentions, and subverting privacy protections. He talks a lot better than he acts on LGBT issues too. And then there are the wars (though he never promised differently) ...

But like Obama, experience has made me both determined and practical. I take the attitude: he's what we've got to work on -- and we have work to do. Let's hammer the guy, knowing he's as close to "our guy" as we'll get.
  • "Obama hasn't had his 9/11 game-changing moment, which, briefly, united the country around the former president. Perhaps the progressive universe will be less tolerant of internal criticism if some unexpected event intervenes."
That's just wacky. Obama's 9/11 moment, in the sense of his broadest unifying moment, was simply his objectively improbable election. He's very unlikely to see the country as unified as he did last November. Then a plurality of us felt hope and a certain astonishment at what we had done. The folks who are currently unified around rejecting Obama aren't ever going to leap to his side, though they could be divided among themselves and some won over quietly by successful domestic policies. Fix the economy and enable people to feel they can get ahead and they'll calm down. The only unity Obama can build will have to be the hard, undramatic kind that comes from shared appreciation of shared community. Since the country is very far from having any such thing, he's got a tough road to navigate.
  • "..the progressive world developed and matured its protest/activist/speak freely orientation through technology, from the bottom up, as party coherence declined and Democratic leaders in Congress were generally seen as feckless."
That's something I agree with Ambinder on. The Democratic Party, as an organization, was moribund in much of the country after 2000. (And much earlier some places, like California. Still is moribund here, actually.) There were lots of people registered as Democrats, but the brand had little content. Candidates assumed the label, but they raised their own money, ran (hired) their own campaigns, and won or lost on individual charisma, voter inertia, and local accident. The Bush regime was so repulsive that a new generation using new technical possibilities found the space to get in and create an infrastructure of resistance.

Governing is hard -- every successful insurgent eventually discovers this. An apparatus built for resistance is likely to keep resisting unless it discovers something more satisfying to do. We're doing what we know best -- pushing on authority. That's a good thing; keeps 'em honest (more or less) however little insiders like it. Like his outright opponents, Obama has to win us over by delivering "change." Otherwise, at a minimum, he'll lose grassroots sentiment that protects his back. Governing would be tough indeed if liberals fall into deep disillusionment. We don't discourage easily -- remember Bush.

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