Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2009 retrospective:
Why did the Obama administration blow the politics so badly?

I never expected the new administration to be unreservedly progressive in its domestic agenda. Way back during the primaries, I wrote:

Once in office, any of [the Democratic hopefuls] would require frequent kicks in the pants from progressives to keep them marginally on our side. You see, I think there are sides. Does Obama believe in his heart that there are sides?

Unhappily it looks like the answer to that is more straightforward than I hoped. In office, Obama's "bi-partisan" inclinations have turned out to mean that he has not fought for any of his potentially progressive initiatives if there was a whisper of corporate or conservative pushback. As a result, we have an economic stimulus too small to save state budgets or get people back to work, a Treasury Department that rolls over and plays dead while the banks it just bailed out pay exorbitant bonuses to the crooks who did the dirty deeds, and a health care "reform" that omits elements that might have made it popular but that does delight insurers and medical profiteers.

This is not the stuff of winning politics. Pissing off your base is no way to cement your power. Looking like you are not doing the job is sure to frustrate "independents" who may have supported you in the past.

And that is what I find so surprising about the Obama administration's 2009 performance. I think the particular flavor of dissonance I'm feeling may be strongest for those of us who have a genuinely left-leaning view of U.S. politics. We saw the 2008 campaign as an unimaginable triumph against the country's original sin, its pervasive and apparently permanent need to define African-Americans as unequal, lesser beings. We saw Obama as an amazingly deft, even dazzling, politician, successfully trekking through a minefield never before traversed.

And so we are simply astonished that the administration has not managed to mollify its friends while it made the compromises that enable it to govern. Maybe they had to cut lousy deals with insurers and the pharmaceutical industry in order to get most people covered by some kind of insurance, however poorly. But if Obama could sell himself to the nation as an unthreatening Black man, why couldn't he have found some way to sell policy compromises as steps on the road to progress, even if he also had to reassure corporations he wouldn't take them down?

I guess he really isn't a political magician, any more than he is really a progressive. Too bad, the country needed both.

I have to speculate whether some of the apparent political tone-deafness of the Obama administration might derive from the man's experience as a community organizer. While the world at large thinks his organizing experience means that he has a progressive past, those of us who have been there also understand that he very likely has an instrumental slant on popular mobilization.

Community organizers out of the Alinsky school (that is Obama's background) know very well that people in disenfranchised communities have a welter of resentments and also survival strategies that make them ripe to be molded into a political force -- but they also have very little information about how to aim that force. That's where the organizer comes in, "assisting" communities in "cutting an issue," choosing what policy objective to focus their wrath and vigor upon. An organizer has enormous leeway in where to point his/her troops; most people are pretty open to taking direction on how to confront issues until they've accumulated some real wins. After that they may get independent and feisty, but if organizing succeeds, by then they've moved from outsiders to ordinary local politics.

Presumably Obama and his people took from the extraordinary success of the 2008 that they merely had to point and their organized people would go. But once the election was accomplished, the politically active class receded to encompass only the already active -- and such folks don't take policy direction very easily. So now Obama has a base feeling badly neglected.

The new year brings suggestions that the Obama people have begun to appreciate how demobilized the folks in their potential grassroots have become. Today brought email from Obama-confidant Valerie Jarrett inviting the list to presentations on administration accomplishments. But if you have to convince your friends you've done something, you are already behind the eight ball. They need to show, not tell. That will be hard after this disappointing year in office.

Most everyone else in the blogosphere who indulged in 2009 retrospectives got them done between Christmas and New Years -- I went to Patagonia. So I'm going to allow myself a few such items over the first few weeks of this year.

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