President of my Dreams

I’ve been reading a lot recently about how leftists are supposedly disappointed with Obama because he was not leftist enough and centrists are disappointed because he was not centrist enough. I’m disappointed, but none of that rings true with me, perhaps because I am neither a leftist nor a centrist and my criticism of Obama does not lie along that axis.

Most critics of the critics, like Chait in New York Magazine, rattle off a list of accomplishments that Obama achieved and that liberals should be grateful for. It’s the usual list of left-leaning wishes like health care reform and the draw-down in Iraq that allegedly could not have been achieved by anyone else but, still, none of that addresses my dissatisfaction.

In the centre, conservatives like David Brooks and Douthat claim that centrists are disappointed that Obama wasted his time on health care when he should’ve been focussing on the economy but, nope, that’s not it either.

Conor Friedersdorf comes closer with his continuing observations that Obama has institutionalized some of the Bush/Cheney excesses like starting wars without congressional approval (even wars that I, in principle, might approve of) and the detention and even assassination of american citizens without judicial or congressional oversight. That comes closer to the source of my discontent but it still misses the mark.

An insidious version of the we were dupes narrative says that we, fools all, projected our hopes and dreams on Obama who, like the Mirror of Erised, reflected them back at us. Instead of supporting Obama, we were supporting idealized versions of ourselves. Our disappointment was inevitable when we found that Obama fell short of our impossible aspirations. This narrative infuriates me but I struggle to explain why it does not apply in my case.

Until today, even I could not have articulated where Obama fell short of my expectations. You could’ve listed all the obvious accomplishments and advances and I would have nodded but said… yes……but….but…

Today, Friedersdorf hit the nail firmly on the head.

Here’s Obama circa 2008, via Lawrence Lessig, via Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

“But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

“We are up against the belief that it’s all right for lobbyists to dominate our government–that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”

“Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”
“If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change–change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans–will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”

And here’s Lessig’s version of Obama’s promise:

I was convinced by Obama. More than convinced: totally won over. It wasn’t just that I agreed with his policies. Indeed, I didn’t really agree with a bunch of his policies–he’s much more of a centrist on many issues than I. It was instead because I believed that he had a vision of what was wrong with our government, and a passion and commitment to fix it… In speech after speech, Obama described the problem of Washington just as I have, though with a style that is much more compelling.

This is it exactly.

When Obama took the throne he was overwhelmingly popular and he could’ve used some of that popularity to hold congress’s feet to the fire to bring about some change we could believe in. He didn’t.

Starting with the stimulus bill and continuing through the long-drawn out health care bill everything was passed with the usual scuzzy compromises – the special deals for the conservative democrats in the mountain states and the reach around for the public sector unions.

He campaigned heavily through the primaries and the general on ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than a quarter of a million dollars and on closing Guantanamo. On both those issues, it wasn’t the evil pubbies who did him in, it was the craven politicking in his own party. Either could’ve been a good moment to show that things would be different in Washington. He could’ve whipped out some soaring rhetoric on the presidential megaphone and marshalled some of his popularity into heat for Pelosi and Reid. Instead he played it safe and let the political wheels spin.

In the end his popularity just leached away. What a waste! Instead of investing his political capital in good causes, he hoarded it like a miser. If he had spent some of it to bring the changes he promised, he would have earned interest on his investment ten-fold. Instead he let it moulder in his safety deposit box where it eventually withered away.

The biggest tragedy of all was the way he let the pubbies win the war of words over health care reform. How on earth were the pubbies able to distort a message about controlling healthcare costs into a story about pulling the plug on grandma? Since when have republicans cared about grandmas? Leaving responsibility for selling health care reform in the mouths of Pelosi and Reid was negligence of the worst kind.

Still, if the economy picks up a bit over the next year, I expect he’ll be re-elected. This time around, instead of soaring rhetoric, I expect he’ll pull out the dirty tricks. People will still pull the lever for him with heavy sigh that at least he’s not as bad as the other guy.

/heavy sigh. Time to renew my green card.

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

– Barack Obama, 2008

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

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