Thoughts and Questions About Obama

Before Obama, America had not elected as president a legislator, either a congressperson or a senator, for decades. We have consistently preferred governors, vice presidents, and generals. Now in electing Obama we have a legislator, law professor, and grass roots organizer. We have someone whose skills are building consensus, managing intricate relationships with allies and enemies, building community level cohesive planning, and engaging in patient abstract dialectic in good faith.

And he has led by persistently deferring to the Congress to do the leg work of writing legislation that satisfies them and by persistently reaching out in advance to his opponents by writing into his proposals the concessions he thinks are rational to make to them.

This means that repeatedly, the right wing can run to the right of where they would have because Obama already built in right wing considerations into his initial proposals. And by waiting on Congress he never has a clear, decisive message to rally people around with clarity. And because the right wing did a fantastic job of characterizing his enthusiastic 2008 campaign crowds as wide eyed, ignorant zealotry, he has largely shied away from big rhetorical flourishes and mass rallies. In return, he has been patiently professorial to a junior high school class throwing spit balls at him.

From a personality standpoint, I absolutely love the guy. From a policy standpoint there is no denying the disturbing continuities with the Bush administration (including the ways he is at least as bad, if not worse, on civil liberties than Bush and the way he caved and kept Bush’s tax cuts for the rich), but also it is hard to deny he also has numerous progressive accomplishments.

What do you think of his record? Are the strengths and weaknesses we see traceable to the virtues and vices of abstract thinkers and concrete collaborators? Or is he more nefarious, more incompetent, more pragmatic, more goodhearted, or more strategically shrewd than anyone gives him credit for? Do you think his apparent indecisiveness is a function of careful thought about the best policies and true patience with the realities of the political process? Or is it chalkable to too much concern with his own standing?

Basil Mitchell wrote a classic analogy about the two ways that religious believers and nonbelievers look at evil in the world and what it tells us about whether there is a good God which reminds me of progressives’ struggles to make sense of Obama sometimes:

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend the night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance—indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.

They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, “He is on our side.”

Sometimes he is seen in uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, “He is on our side.” He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, “The Stranger knows best.” Sometimes his friends in exasperation, “Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?” But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, “Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over the other side the better.”

The partisan of the parable does not allow anything to count decisively against the proposition “The Stranger is on our side.” This is because he has committed himself to trust the Stranger. But he of course recognizes that the Stranger’s ambiguous behavior does count against what he believes about him. It is precisely this situation which constitutes the trial of his faith.

When the partisan asks for help and doesn’t get it, what can he do? He can (a) conclude that the Stranger is not on our side; or (b) maintain that he is on our side, but that he has reasons for withholding help.

The first he will refuse to do. How long can he uphold the second position without its becoming just silly?

I don’t think one can say in advance.

Mitchell goes on to give possible ways to trust the Stranger (none of which ultimately are satisfying to overcome the unfalsifiability charges against religious belief in an omnibenevolent omnipotent God, as far as I am concerned).

But are there reasons for progressives to trust Obama in spite of the various clear ways he seems to have betrayed them for corporatist interests? Or are they faith believers, comparably impervious to dissuasion as religious believers?


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Lou Doench

    “But are there reasons for progressives to trust Obama in spite of the various clear ways he seems to have betrayed them for corporatist interests?”

    Sure. We can trust him a lot more than we can trust the alternatives, Mittens or the Gingrinch.

    One of my favorite progressive bloggers/podcasters, Bluegal of the Professional Left Podcast always responds to such questions about Obama by dismissing them. What Obama does hardly matters in the long run as long as he’s doing as little active harm as possible. Progressives need to be focused on long term gains, expanding the progressive base and pushing for change at the local level that can “trickle up” to national politics.

    For instance here in Cincinnati, a city that once wrote discrimination against gblt citizens into its charter, we elected our first openly gay councilman, Chris Seelbach, who joined the most liberal city council in my 43 years (happy birthday to me!) That’s where we make long term change. And in a lot of ways, despite his flaws, Obama has enabled a great deal of that change just by being.

    Another point, I think the lesson we can take from the Bush admin is that we’d rather have an indecisive and ineffective liberal in charge than a decisive yet deranged conservative. ;)

  • Stuartvo

    Good point, Lou. Americans can at least tolerate Obama for now as they work to reform American politics from “the bottom up”.

    And then there’s “Occupy” – We can’t say yet if they’ll be effective in the long run, but they’re getting a lot of attention and are putting pressure on The Establishment that might just accelerate the process.

  • Lou Doench

    Occupy has been a smashing success if for no other reason than they have proven that it is much easier to move the Overton window back our way than anyone had previously expected.
    Another thing about Obama. He’s a massive victory just by existing. My kids go to majority African American public schools. Obama is a huge symbol to these kids, an amazing net positive as long as he doesn’t completely screw the pooch.

    • Leo Buzalsky

      I agree. The best thing Occupy has done is move the Overton window. The biggest complaint, though, that I have about Occupy is the oddly pessimistic people in the movement who encourage third party voting, as they likely fail to realize that the two party system will adjust to them (and that any third party would be susceptible to the corruption in the current system without backing from an Occupy movement). Instead, they should encourage voters to evaluate their candidates on an individual basis instead of painting with a broad brush. For example, when they discourage voting for Democrats, they effectively discourage votes for Elizabeth Warren (at least for those in MA), but I hope many people realize Warren should make a good Congresswoman.

  • Evan Guiney

    I agree that the sheer awfulness of the republican alternative is a strong element in my continued support for Obama.

    I’d also say that when analyzing his failures, you need to include, along with the “incompentence” or “too willing to compromise” hypotheses, the simple hypothesis that “things are really fucked up right now”.

    Obama’s been bad on wartime civil liberties, but he also inherited two huge wars and a deeply inertia bound police state beurocracy.

    Obama’s been stymied and made compromises with an embolded opposition, but in a democracy with an uniformed, uninquisiteve swing vote, the opposition party is always empowered by 9% unemployment.

    Only two things come close to an “unforced error”: the size of the initial stimulus, which Krugman et al correctly predicted to be too small; but how much bigger a bill could have gotten passed? hard to say, and, the failure to push hard on the Fed to use aggressive monetary policy to help push down unemployment, after the Fed had shown itself willing to do the same for the banks.

    So when I hear dissaffected liberals complaining about Obama, I feel like they’ve abandoned the very realism and pragmatism that the claim to find lacking in Obama. Most of the criticism is idealistic woolyheadedness, and it ends up empowering the batshit crazies on the right. And Obama is the weak and ineffective one?

    • Camels With Hammers

      So when I hear dissaffected liberals complaining about Obama, I feel like they’ve abandoned the very realism and pragmatism that the claim to find lacking in Obama. Most of the criticism is idealistic woolyheadedness, and it ends up empowering the batshit crazies on the right. And Obama is the weak and ineffective one?

      Where’s the line between realistic and pragmatic and continuing policies of the Bush administration on taxes, taking a corporatist solution to health care reform, and continuing the precedence that the president is above the law whenever he says the word “terror”? Is that all just “pragmatic realism”? If it is, was Bush just a pragmatic realist too?

      Yes, some of Obama’s compromises are pragmatism. But some are just the choices of a liberal Republican. Is that all we can hope for? A liberal Republican Obama or a radical extremist [fill in the Republican presidential candidate of your choice here]?

  • vjack

    Should we trust Obama? Of course not! We should look at his record, including both his accomplishments and his failures. We should realize that he is not a progressive and not expect him to suddenly begin governing like one. We have ample evidence to lead us to this conclusion.

    What we’re left with is trying to determine whether he’d be better enough than Mittens to justify voting for him. Are we willing to select the lesser of two evils once again (assuming we decide that he is a lesser evil), or have we tired of the game? That is what we’ve got to ask, and I don’t think there is one right answer.

    • Camels With Hammers

      I don’t think there is one right answer.

      No way in hell do I want a panderer to the religious right to get the chance to tip the scales of power in the Supreme Court decisively to Scalia.