The congressional elections that just concluded with spectacular Democratic losses in both the House of Representatives and at the state level can only be regarded as a failure for Barack Obama. The question, however, is: Where did the failure lie?
Was it, as some on the Left claim, a failure to remain true to principle and to seek pristinely progressive solutions to problems like health care (e.g., single payer), terrorism (e.g., not continuing Bush’s incarceration policies), the financial meltdown (e.g., putting fat cat bankers in the dock), and social issues (e.g., unilaterally ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”)? Or was it, as the Republicans and Republicrats would have us believe, an inability to compromise even more, to adopt an even more conciliatory tone, to disarm even more unilaterally? The answer, in my opinion, is neither. To consider these interpretations is to completely misread Obama’s real challenge. He is not in a contest with the Republican Party. He is confronting an alternate reality.
In this alternate reality, many things that are known to be empirically true are nevertheless false. For example, Barack Obama has already raised taxes massively on everyone (he has actually reduced them), cut back in the war against terrorists (in fact, he has launched more attacks and killed more militants in two years than Bush did in seven), bailed out the big banks (actually, TARP was a Bush initiative, though Obama did support it as a Senator), and wasted hundreds of billions on a failed stimulus (in fact, the CBO estimates that the stimulus saved or added several million jobs even before it was fully spent). As these examples demonstrate, Obama’s challenge is not policy, but politics. His failure lies in not being able to counter the well-oiled Right-wing propaganda machine that routinely convinced millions of people that day is night and up is down (see scientific evidence for this assertion). His failure, in other words, is too much faith in Reason.
As even Aristotle understood, logic and reason are just tools – methods by which we can spin stories for ourselves and others to explain, legitimize or justify actions that our lizard brains have already committed to. Emotion, not Reason, is the fundamental basis of human behavior, just it is has been the basis of all animal behavior for millions of years. Beneath their fragile veneer of rationality, our brains are nothing but enablers for emotional control. That is why – Thomas Frank notwithstanding – it is not at all mysterious why middle class Kansans vote for Republicans against their own economic interests, nor why rich Hollywood actors vote for Democrats who are likelier to raise their taxes. No great change in human history has flowed from purely rational argument. Even Apple computers – objectively the best in the world – need to entice users with their seductive looks. This is doubly true in politics, where emotion, really, is all that matters.
Surprising as it may seem, Obama lost sight of this fact.
What, one may ask, can the Harvard-educated Leader of the Free World do against the onslaught of Fox and friends except to appeal to peoples’ rational faculties? The answer is that he should have engaged emotionally. Following on the enormous enthusiasm of his campaign, he should have tried to ignite a mass movement on the Left as Reagan did on the Right. In 2008 and early 2009, he had the opportunity, the magic, and the connections to do so. Instead, he sat back and decided to have an argument on the merits with Senators Olympia Snowe and Max Baucus!
I still believe that Obama is the one barrier we have to a complete takeover by the imagineers of the Right who are intent on creating their own reality. However, he has proved to be an ineffective barrier, and perhaps he never will be effective because of his natural inclinations. Perhaps it is too late in the process to hope that calm insistence on rational analysis will break through the haze of confusion created by the right-wing propaganda machine.
A few of weeks ago, I posted an article by Roger Cohen that, to me, captured the essence of Obama's failure so far - the disinclination to excite. He seems too taken by the "no drama" ethos of his campaign. I think that the inauguration in 2008 should have been followed by a concerted effort to build an active and long-term grassroots movement - an "Obama Revolution" like the "Reagan Revolution". Instead, they just focused on solving problems technocratically, and allowed the zeal to dissipate. The void was filled by the teabaggers who provided a home for the inchoate anger swirling about the country. That was a major failure of leadership, and will now have consequences for the whole country.
This doesn't mean that Obama himself should have continued to campaign. In fact, he should probably have been less exposed than he has been. But those under him should have built an infrastructure that could continue to keep the movement alive and churning after the election. They needed to create campus groups, meetups, think tank events, rallies, media voices, etc. The Left has traditionally had difficulty with this in America because most of the money is on the Right, and conservatives are more willing to be organized like lemmings. I think Obama and company saw that the only models to do something similar on the Left were a socialist revolution or a hippie movement, and neither appealed very much to their rational, capitalistic inclinations. However, that, in my opinion, was a failure of imagination. They failed to come up with a "fourth way" - a 21st century liberal uprising, and they're paying the price for it.
I don't see much reason to expect transformative change in the near future. The structural factors are all against Obama - a terrible economy, a dysfunctional Congress, a demoralized Democratic base, an even more difficult Senate election in 2012, an antagonistic Supreme Court (which will almost surely nullify the health care reform law), and a hostile media environment. There's a lot more pain to come.
But things are not as bleak as they seemed even two weeks ago. The last few days have seen the negotiation of a tax compromise between Obama and the Republicans, and its final passage in Congress in spite of grumbling on the Left and the Right. Then the odious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for the military was repealed with the cooperation of several Republicans. It now seems possible that the new START treaty will also be approved within this lame duck session. This duck is proving to be a champion waddler!
Many in the punditocracy are taking all this as the inception of Obama 2.0 – a President focused on triangulating away from Congressional Democrats and Republicans just as Clinton did in 1995. In fact, it is likelier that Obama is “pyramiding” – rising above all the bickering groups towards the apex of a pyramid, and moving in a direction distinct from all of them. He has already hinted that the tax compromise is a preamble to a more serious look at the deficit. Unlike other Democrats, he has not dismissed the draconian recommendations of his deficit commission. I think that he is getting ready to propose a re-orientation of American economic, fiscal and social policy so drastic that it will create mayhem in all political circles. And in this chaos, Obama will try to assemble a new coalition that can hijack the constituencies of various existing power bases like the unions, the environmentalists, small businesses and others. His recent actions suggest that he is contemplating a major political realignment just as Ronald Reagan did, but will do it in his “no drama” style. Whether he succeeds or fails depends on his ability to exploit the disruption he will cause by his proposals. He will be helped by the increased gridlock likely in the new Congress, and John Boehner may soon find new reasons to weep on camera. But it is just as likely that the Right-wing propaganda machine will continue to chew Obama up. It will certainly keep trying.
Obama supporters often claim that he is engaged in some mysterious form of 3-dimensional chess with Republicans that will, one day, suddenly leave them bereft. So far, the results are mixed, but perhaps he should be thinking less chess and more jiujitsu if he is to use the Right-wing media juggernaut against itself.
Some thing are certain: The State of the Union address in 2011 will have a lot more drama than 2010; Republican presidential candidates will shortly start assembling into a circular fring squad; Sarah Palin will keep beating up helpless halibut; and John Boehner will cry again. It will be an exciting year with much sport.