Friday, February 20, 2009

On Obama

I’ve long had mixed feelings about Obama. I’m no Democrat, but during the primary campaign I was rooting for him. I have nothing but contempt for the Clintons, and it was gratifying to see someone defeat them and all their moral squalor.

But I realize that Obama was a lawyer that never won a significant case, and a law professor that never wrote a treatise. He was a community organizer that left no enduring legacy in his community. He is an orator who seems flat and uninspiring when talking about anything other than the meaning of his own personal story.

He is the perfect president for our age. We’ve long told ourselves that we can judge the quality of a person not by what they do, but rather by examining the strands of their ethnic and political genealogy. Like Germans measuring human skulls, we examine his past – half black, half white, both a Muslim and a Christian background, child of a single mother – and we convince ourselves that such a mix must be the sign of an extraordinary person.

Is he a radical, some secret socialist? I don’t think so. I don’t think he believes in anything. He has only ever been motivated by the search for praise he can believe in. He gravitated towards Ayers and Wright because they seemed to him like important people, they could set him up in politics, and they praised his wisdom as he sat at their feet. I have no doubt that if David Duke and Timothy McVeigh held the keys to Chicago politics and told him he had a mission for America he would have embraced them as well.

Being a Chicago pol is surely no mark against his character. Harry Truman allied himself with some pretty shady characters too. But Harry sought out politics as an avenue for success after a long and ignoble string of failures. He was looking for something to be good at. Obama was never allowed to fail - at anything. I think he’s spent all of his adult life around people that would never allow him to fail, because of what he represents. Oh, how much better I would feel about him if I could look in his past and see one, just one, failure! Some experience, some confrontation between the realities of the world and a personal limitation that would have taught him something.

So we’ve lifted him aloft, this person of no failure, of no success. He didn’t climb there. I’m convinced that he entered last year’s primaries in the hope he might establish a basis for a future run. Chicago politics teaches you to wait your turn. I think he was as surprised as anyone that his smug reliance on some Iraqi invasion position statement as his sole distinguishing asset from Hillary provided traction. I think he was as surprised as anyone at the way the strands of his identity captivated the media, and how the absence of any earthly accomplishment lent his identity a mystic, uncorrupted brilliance.

Nothing in his past suggests how he will handle criticism, or failure. There is nothing that suggests flexibility or determination or the ability to make an ally of a former enemy, and these are the key markers of a skilled politician. His rise was the rise of a balloon. He’s never fought a bill through a legislature, negotiated a compromise, cleaned up after a disaster, built a team (or anything else), or even dealt with a hostile audience.

So even if he is a socialist, like some Republicans claim, nothing in his background suggests that he has the skills or ability to realize a long-term political vision. So far all he is doing is pandering to the pent-up demands of Democrats, in the vain hope he can continue to live off their praise. We have a complex polity, and there is no telling how he will react when the inevitable fissures start appearing among Democrats. He’ll have to choose, and find some Republican allies at the same time as he prevents further Democratic erosion.

There is no reason to believe he’ll have the skill to do that. In fact there is no reason to believe he has the skill to do anything at all. Obama brings nothing to the office other that a thirst for reassuring praise.


Carl Wicklander said...

Very interesting insights. I'm wondering when he'll get rebelled against from within his own party because his decisions so far suggest that he is just feeling his way through.

You mention that the main dividing line between Obama and Hillary was that he opposed the Iraq war, but he's installed all these people in his administration who supported that war.

He was also supposed to be against torture, but he's got no problem with the Rendition program.

Plus, he's already overreaching with his economic plan. If it was not for a complicit media determined not to let him fail, there would be loud choruses against him.

Again, very interesting thoughts.

Sweating Through fog said...


Obama is, of course, deviating from his campaign positions. I guess this isn't surprising in a politician. I start to see some uneasiness about this in progressive blogs, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with this.

Thanks for stopping by. I started reading your blog, and I've added you to my blogroll.

David Schraub said...

"Oh, how much better I would feel about him if I could look in his past and see one, just one, failure!"

2000 -- Obama gets smashed in a failed primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush (talk about not waiting your turn). He bounced back nicely from that, no?

Seriously -- this a very silly post, and one that really would benefit from, you know, knowing Obama's biography before you try and deconstruct it. Obama never was a practicing attorney (I don't plan to become one either), making it tough to win cases. Non-tenure-track law professors don't generally publish articles (few professors of any stripe publish "treatises"). The oratory that launched Obama to a national stage was about dissolving "red America versus blue America" -- the furthest thing from a personal narrative. Obama was an extremely suspect member of Chicago's political class precisely because he refused to wait his turn and took matters into his own hands. He got his state senate seat that way, he launched his failed US Rep. bid that way, he entered the senate race (as a heavy underdog) that way, and he became President that way. He has built the most dangerous political operation in the country in the space of a year, and made allies out of former enemies in Clinton and Lieberman (and Biden). I could go on. You can't blink without reading something transparently wrong in this post.

There's no ground to say that the reason Obama has been successful is that he "hasn't been allowed to fail". That's unbelievably patronizing. You think Hillary Clinton "didn't allow him to fail"? No, I think she tried very hard to make him fail (as she should -- that's what one does to primary opponents), and Obama whupped her. The Republican Party tried their hardest to beat him in the general (again, as they should). He smoked them.

Obama's been successful, because he's got serious skills. You keep telling yourself that it's all society giving him a pass -- I'm happy to laugh all the way to my massive liberal majority.

Carl Wicklander said...

A couple more things I read about today: Obama quickly ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, but is allowing the prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan to operate in much the same way that made the Cuban base unpopular: detainees are held there without habeas corpus. If I was a cynical guy, I would say that he closed Guantanamo Bay because it was politically popular for him to do so, not because of some philanthropic concern for civil liberties.

Obama also announced today that he plans to have the deficit cut in half by 2013. I'm curious about how he plans to accomplish that considering the stimulus increased the deficit and the continued wars sap up billion upon billion. So far, money is only going out, not coming in.

David, even if Obama never wrote a treatise because he was non-tenure track, that doesn't mean he's accomplished anything other than playing on the right racial sympathies with his rhetoric and writing a couple of books about himself. As per my observations about the president, his actions are not matching what he promised.

And as far as Obama being a heavy underdog, he ran for state senate, U.S. senate, and president with no incumbent to face. He was definitely not an underdog in 2004. The Democratic primary field was wide open, giving him a good chance to begin with, while the Republicans had to drag in Alan Keyes so the November election could at least be a contested race.

As far as not being allowed to fail, it is more of the media than the society that hasn't "let him fail." It's not that Hillary "didn't let him fail," but the media helped prevent her from doing so. It's not patronizing on the part of Sweating Through Fog, but the media, they treated him differently and continue to do so. They saw the election of a black man to the presidency as virtuous and are giving him sympathetic coverage because they really do desire his success and they do not want to waste the investment they made in him. It is the media who have patronized him.

SNL's satire of the hypocrisy of the media's soft balling of Obama and belligerence toward Hillary was funny because it contained a lot of truth. They treated the two candidates differently.

People can't criticize Obama without facing an avalanche of media scrutiny. For instance, consider how Obama called out Rush Limbaugh during a meeting with some Republicans in which he told them to disregard Rush's ramblings. I'm no Limbaugh fan, but it made Obama look like he can't handle any criticism, even when it comes from a private citizen who holds no political power and who makes his living on AM radio. It would be like George W. Bush fussing about what Jon Stewart said on TV the other night. Nobody would take it seriously and Bush probably would have been called a whiner.

That should be enough. I look forward to reading more "Sweating Through Fog" and thanks for visiting me as well.

- Carl Wicklander

David Schraub said...

Carl, are you a law student? Because if you are, you should know that very few law professors write "treatises". Treatises (such as the Restatements in Torts) are extremely uncommon. Most law professors (tenure-track ones, that is) write articles. Most non-tenure track profs (who don't want to switch onto the tenure track) don't write at all.

Meanwhile, the 2004 Illinois Senate primary was the furthest thing from open. Obama was an underdog behind at least two candidates -- Blair Hull, and Dan Hynes. Hull got crippled midway (which was fortunate for Obama), but he still thrashed Hynes 53/24.

And given the way Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) was forced to grovel at Rush's knees after daring criticize him ("conservative giant"? Whatever floats your boat....), I think you might underestimate his relevancy.

Blame the media if you want -- again, you underestimate the President at your own peril. I suggest instead of crying to the refs, y'all try and raise your game instead, but it doesn't hurt me none. We're the ones cruising to a filibuster proof majority.

Sweating Through fog said...


Yeah, I gotta grant him that failure. Eisenhower at Kasserine pass; Harry Truman boarding up his haberdashery at age 37; Kennedy sitting with his men on a Pacific atoll after getting his PT boat sliced in half; Nixon losing the governorship of California; Roosevelt wondering if he'll ever walk again. As foundries of personal rebirth, all of those experiences seem small in comparison to Obama's long dark night of the soul after losing a congressional primary.

So I'll grant you that one, very ordinary failure, while noting that its very plainness merely suggests a plain, run-of-the-mill person.

So he gravitated towards a professional track that didn't demand he win cases or write anything. Seems pretty ordinary to me - lots of people grade papers for a living.

There's nothing wrong with being ordinary, but it is hard to understand such millennial focus on the ordinary.

Making an ally of the Clintons? I never saw the Clintons as being allied to anything other than their own personal advancement, and choosing the Clintons in your first try at converting an opponent is an odd choice. We'll see how much of an ally they are when Obama gets into trouble.

Obama has had the wind at his back his entire adult life. As far as I can tell, the only struggle he's faced was paying off some student loans. Maybe he really is an extraordinary person, with extraordinary skills, but I stand by what I said: there is no evidence backing up this belief.

So all his adherents can point to as an accomplishment is his campaign. And there is a circularity in this. I don't see the media as conspiratorial in promoting him, they just reflect the common, patronizing biases of the age. They just became part of the feedback loop of an emotional bubble: Look how wonderful he is! Look how excited he gets people! Oh, how wise we are for noticing his greatness! - as their leg starts twitching. It's like the dotcom business reporters, noting how exciting a stock is because it keeps going up.

So you point to Obama and say: look, he's won primaries! The fact that he's won our love and devotion is proof enough of his extraordinary skill.

You seem confident that you've found the dangerous leader you've sought. History is full of examples of fervent believers in Great Men who will set things right at last. The record is mixed, and simple disappointment isn't necessarily the worst outcome. The odd thing here is that all these hopes are fixated on someone whose record of fulfilling anyone's hopes in the past, or accomplishing anything at all, is empty. I guess that's the audacity part.

Carl Wicklander said...

David, I am not in law school but I am in graduate school for history. I was not disparaging Obama for having written nothing as a law professor. I was pointing out that that was yet another example of Obama not having accomplished very much outside of writing books about himself and giving speeches liberals like to hear.

You say that I am whining about the expansive mainstream media, but you also seem to be saying that Rush Limbaugh, one radio host, has this driving influence on the Republican Party. Who do you think has more influence, one talk radio host or the innumerable members of the mainstream media that scarcely asked Obama a tough question?

I'm a somewhat regular listener of talk radio, but I'm not much of a fan because the medium doesn't do very much that is original.

There is a myth going around that Rush Limbaugh and his imitators help set some of the Republican agenda. But no talk radio personalities ever really opposed Bush on anything and they usually defended what the Republicans were already doing. They unquestionably supported Bush's war in Iraq and kept quiet while the Republicans spent the country into oblivion. Talk radio does have influence, but it comes from the radio to the listeners, not from the radio to politicians in Washington.

And while Obama may seem mighty and powerful right now, which he is, he is not impervious and is destined for a fall sometime. Everyone does. As the British statesman Enoch Powell once said, "All political lives end in failure." The fall could be the economy or too many dead American soldiers in that graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, or even something else.

Obama has undertaken a lot in barely more than a month: an enormous stimulus bill, an upcoming plan for housing, and at least 17,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan. He is at the top right now, but that means the only place he can go from there is down.

Don't be fooled into thinking that things will always be as good as they are right now for the Democrats. Bush once had approval ratings over 90%. Things change.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of irrational criticism of Obama, much of it partisan. This goes both ways, of course, but I feel GWB gave more legitimate bait to the opposition; and many republicans agree that he had some serious and fundamental flaws to his character and policy.

You say he never experienced failure; in nearly every narrative of his rise and development, they cite his signature failure as the loss of his congressional race to Bobby Rush.
Much of both the exaggerated criticism and praise of Obama is because of race. Given the history of this country and the unprecedented and dark horse quality to his candidacy and its outcome, how could it not be?
Personally, I think he's fairly upfront about his goals and policy, meaning I do not believe he is some nefarious extreme leftist with a stealth and radical agenda, as some on the right contend.
What I am sure of is that the only real refinment of American politics of the last 20 or so years seems to be in the field of oppositional sabotage tactics, as the ridiculous levels and extremes of partisanship that now plague national races and terms is doing us all in.