Thoughts and Questions About Obama

Thoughts and Questions About Obama December 11, 2011

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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