“WHY OBAMA?” REVISITED
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
On August 17, 2008, the blog Largehearted Boy published a piece I wrote as part of a series entitled “Why Obama.” I am reproducing it here in its entirety to point out precisely why I thought that the time was ripe for an Obama Presidency. Clearly, I was correct that the time was ripe for an Obama candidacy … but the issue I was attempting to address didn’t involve his electability, but his effectiveness if elected. It was on that point that I seem to have been, to put it mildly, less than prescient.
Here’s the 2008 piece:
“On July 27, 2004, the same day I turned 44, I sat in my mother’s living room mesmerized by the television set. It was showing the Democratic National Convention, and the nominee, John Kerry, had selected a young state senator from Illinois to give the keynote address. On that night, the speaker, Barack Obama, was introduced to the American public. Obama’s address, entitled “The Audacity of Hope,” positioned him as a mainstream progressive who, with good looks, a gifted flair for rhetoric, and a biracial background, would appear to represent the future of American politics. Still in his early 40s, he seemed years, perhaps even decades, from reaching the pinnacle of his power, but there was no question that the sky was the limit. This man, stated simply, was a natural.
“Obama made many fans that night, but few could possibly have been more impressed than I was. That address, you see, came at a pivotal time in my life. I was in the editing stages of my first novel, The Creed Room, which is both a story and an exposition of my personal philosophy. Like all first time novelists, I was insecure about my prospects for publication, or for that matter, the quality of my work. That’s when I saw Obama speak. He seemed to personify just the type of statesman I had been calling for in that book. And that fact accomplished two things. First, it told me, once I saw the incredible reaction to the man, that my book was on to something. Second, it made me feel that The Creed Room wasn’t quite as original as I had thought. There was at least one man out there, I realized, who hardly needed to read the book. He instinctively understood everything I was saying and, unlike me, was in a position to make my vision a reality.
“Consider the qualities Obama exemplifies. Merely by looking at the guy you can’t help but think of such ideas as “melting pot” and “unity.” When you hear him speak, it is also apparent that this man is thoroughly grounded in spirituality. We may not like his pastors, but we have trouble denying his passion. Barack is also a former president of the Harvard Law Review, so he’s obviously intelligent. In fact, he exudes a mental capacity even more than intelligence: thoughtfulness. This guy is professorial without being didactic. He obviously loves to think things through, but he isn’t simply interested in his own thoughts; he wants to learn from others as well. And it is perhaps those qualities that give him such good judgment, including the judgment to buck the trend among ambitious politicians and reach the correct view on the critical issue of the last several years -- whether to support the Iraq War from its inception.
“I know from the practice of law that some litigators trade above all else on their reputation for integrity, whereas others trade on different things – like their willingness to fight like hell for their client and never back down. Barack is in the former camp. For him, his reputation for ethical excellence is everything. As I watched Obama’s keynote address, I said to myself that this is a man who will think long and hard before he would get himself mixed up in a Watergate or a Monicagate.
“We all know what a great orator Obama is, and how much he has been able to move people in America and abroad, including many who had grown apathetic about politicians. And yet what excites me the most about Obama isn’t merely his ability to inspire, but his ability to inspire something very specific: the hope that, just maybe, we can bridge the fundamental chasms that divide us so profoundly as human beings.
“When I get into political discussions with Obama’s detractors, I sometimes hear the criticism that he is an “empty suit” or “lacks substance.” Presumably, people are referring to the fact that he hasn’t enunciated what two or three issues are most important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle them, or what other issues are nearly as important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle them as well.
“Don’t you see why he hasn’t? Don’t you see why it would be unfortunate if we forced him to? Obama has been honest with us about who he is and why he’s running. He has written books about his checkered personal life. He has spoken about his cocaine use. He has even said, in reference to another drug, “Yes I inhaled. That was the point.” He has a record of votes that shows he’s a liberal and has mentioned various areas in which he’d like to implement reforms. He has also laid out a specific ‘plan’ to address our inadequate health care system.
“But the truth is that if you buy my vision for an Obama Presidency, you must know that he needs to remain flexible. Once he wins the election – assuming the nation wakes up before it’s too late, which is often a lousy assumption – he needs to take the temperature of the nation to determine which fundamental changes are ripe for the picking if only we had a modern-day Demosthenes to lead us in making them. Then, he can work to make these changes … one at a time … all the while remembering that it takes a large coalition of conservatives as well as liberals to wage wars, whether they involve killing people on the battlefield, stemming global warming, or alleviating the scourge of poverty.
“I don’t want to lie to myself. Even assuming Obama can get elected, I don’t know if he can sufficiently unify this nation to form the type of critical mass needed to implement necessary changes. But this much I do know: without him, there’s not a lot of gas in our collective tank. And for those of us who call ourselves progressives, or who dare to call ourselves liberals, isn’t it worth taking a chance on someone who can at least use the word “hope” and pass the laugh test?”
There you have it – a coherent argument that turned out to be just plain wrong. The problem with it is not that it trumped up positive Obama traits that didn’t exist. Well, OK. Possibly Barack isn’t as spiritual as he came across in 2004. But for the most part, he has demonstrated many of the positive traits I discussed: he’s intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded, honest, flexible, articulate, ethical. And I could have added others: charismatic, classy, empathetic …
There are no shortage of compliments that could aptly be bestowed on our President. But the problem is that it does not help being an Achilles once you have been shot in the heel. And now that we are more than halfway through the Obama Presidency – or at least his first term – we can see that this Presidency has a fatal weakness, which has become more like a cancer than a simple arrow to the foot. Achilles died quickly. But this Presidency lingers, through battle after battle, and in each case, the victors are the ones who voted AGAINST Obama, not the ones who voted for him. Barack’s weakness is not his heel, but his stomach: specifically, his stomach for an honest-to-God fight against his adversaries.
Perhaps the key part of the above essay is the following: “I know from the practice of law that some litigators trade above all else on their reputation for integrity, whereas others trade on different things – like their willingness to fight like hell for their client and never back down. Barack is in the former camp. For him, his reputation for ethical excellence is everything.” But isn’t the problem that over and over and over again, Barack’s Republican adversaries have demonstrated that they are Mixed Martial Arts fighters – willing to throw elbows and choke holds, if necessary, to bring down the Obama Presidency and the progressive agenda. Barack knows it, everyone knows it. Clearly, the only responsible way of responding is to “fight like hell … and never back down.” Right? But for some reason, Barack has been unwilling. When in December 2010 he had a chance to demand that if the Republicans wanted their God-forsaken tax cuts for the rich, they’d have to take away their God-forsaken threat to destroy the Government’s credit worthiness, did he make that demand? Of course not. Barack isn’t one to make demands on his adversaries; he prefers instead the style of making concessions, and trusting that they will make concessions in return. (That is, after all, the Christian thing to do.)
Perhaps the wisdom behind Barack’s leadership strategy is lost on me because I’m a Jew, not a Christian. I was taught that “turning the other cheek” is the model of absurdity, not holiness. I was taught that just as there is a time for peace, there is also a time for war. My 2008 argument for Obama was premised on the idea that he was ideally suited to lead us in undertaking massive projects that only a unified nation could accomplish: like tackling global warming or the increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth. Quickly, however, it became clear that the Republican powers-that-be were unwilling to play in that sandbox. But Barack was fortunately in charge of a political party that controlled both houses of Congress and had the 60 Senators needed to defeat a filibuster, so sure enough, during his first two years, the Dems were able to enact landmark health-care legislation. The real problems came once they lost that supermajority in the Senate and any majority in the House. At that point, Barack was forced to look the Republicans in the eyes while standing on level ground. And repeatedly, he has been the one to blink. It’s not exactly what I had in mind back in 2008.
To all of you progressives who have difficulty admitting that you were wrong, please at least refrain from blaming what has transpired solely on the Republicans. Most political oppositions, given the blessing of knowing that they can get the party-in-power to capitulate at every juncture, would indeed play hardball. Why shouldn’t they? You can’t really accuse them of playing dangerous games of chicken – for that game involves taking risks, and there never seems to be any risk in entering into negotiations with today’s Democratic party. We all know from the outset that they’re prepared to cave. The only mystery is in whether they will give the GOP 60% of what they want, 70%, 80%, or more. As long as the Republicans give in on 5% of their demands, the President is prepared to tout the deal as a “compromise” – and, in at least one case, blame his progressive critics for being “sanctimonious” and “purists.”
Seriously, how can anyone blame the Republicans for playing this game? If there is blame to be placed, it should be placed on people like me who thrust Barack into the spotlight before he had demonstrated the ability to go toe-to-toe against street fighters. Blame should be placed on the blogosphere, the vapid Hollywood celebrities, and the other softhearted, utopian elements who were so blinded by Barack’s brilliance that they didn’t bother to inspect his heel … or his guts.
We have already enabled Barack enough. Let’s please stop, shall we? Barack is big on asking us to call our elected officials and implore them to do the right thing. Well, fine -- let’s just do that, shall we? It’s time to call our elected officials in Washington – assuming they are Democrat – and ask them to stop spinning that the Administration is on the right track and blaming all the universe’s problems on the Republicans. Ask them to stop pretending that the Democratic party is not accountable for anything – even though they have controlled the White House and the Senate for most of the last three years.
Right now, the central problem with our Government is that neither Barack Obama nor his supporters in Congress have demonstrated the willingness to fight for the causes that got them elected in the first place. They have collectively failed to show that they stand strongly for anything – other than their own precious re-elections.
So if and when you call your Congressperson or Senator, why don’t you demand that they act like Democrats and not DINOs – Democrats in Name Only – who don’t deserve to be re-elected. And why not remind them that the election of 2012 doesn’t seem to matter as much as past elections, for no matter who is nominally in charge in Washington, the Republicans will rule. That point might actually get their attention.
The times they are a changin’, and progressives need to change with them. If that means supporting the candidacy of bare-knuckled schmucks like Lyndon Baines Johnson over prophetic figures like candidate Barack Obama, so be it. You don’t always fight fire with love and Christian ethics. Sometimes, as Ecclesiastes would remind you, you fight fire with fire. And as the Presidency of Barack Obama has amply demonstrated, this has become one of those times.