As one who happily voted for Barack Obama last fall and who is now perplexed, if not downright disappointed, by his less-than-aggressive advocacy of a truly liberal agenda, I readily admit to being mystified by the negative attacks from the right against the nation’s president.
Depending on the forum and the speaker, Obama has been compared to Hitler and to Stalin (right- and left-wing dictators apparently being indistinguishable to some people) or called, as one of my readers defiantly claimed last week, “the most totalitarian president in history.”
Excuse me? Are we talking about the same guy? This man can’t even control his own party. And as a leader, he is more like Gandhi than Mussolini.
So just what gives? What is behind this broad-ranging attack on the man that over half the country chose to lead it just ten months ago?
The obvious answer would be pure politics, as can be the case when the “outs” have no other way to attack the “ins.” But we aren’t talking about a president who has a perfect batting average, not by a long shot. Whether he can rightfully be blamed or not, the fact is that on his watch unemployment is now precariously close to the dreaded double-digit level, the country continues to be engaged in two seemingly endless and fruitless wars, budget deficits are out of sight (and promise to continue to be so for the foreseeable future), and his most significant legislative initiative, health care reform, may well be headed down the same road the Clintons traveled some sixteen years ago.
No, whatever hope Barack Obama brought with him when he took office last January seems to have been dissipated by a combination of hard cold reality and an ineffective grasp of the office he holds.
I take no joy in this critique of the man. He captured the hearts of many Americans with his rhetoric during the long campaign that ended with his election. But running for office is one thing; performing in office is another.
Where Obama still scores well is in his ability to speak to a vision. He is at his best when he gets out of the weeds of policy details and just reminds his listeners of broad-ranged goals, like affordable health care and peace in the Middle East. These are visions everyone can appreciate and get behind, and Obama is great at giving mouth to them.
He also rates high marks for his efforts to eschew partisanship, but those marks are more than neutralized by his inability to generate bipartisanship in return. In this respect he may be naïve or he may be timid; sometimes the two are hard to distinguish.
In any event, his legislative record to date is not marked by anything close to consensus-building. His big victories so far (the stimulus package being the principal one) have been almost entirely secured on party-line votes.
And yet, with so much to criticize and attack on the record itself, this president’s critics seem far more anxious to engage in ad hominem attacks replete with pictures of a Hitler mustache and claims that he wants to take everyone’s guns.
It’s puzzling, to say the least. Or maybe it isn’t.
In their excellent study of politics in the new millennium, Paul Pierson and Jacob S. Hacker provide at least a hint of what might really be going on.
In “Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy” the authors offer a historically-based perspective on the current political scene. Tracing the roots to the election of Ronald Reagan, with a dramatic escalation during the presidency of George W. Bush, the authors describe the aggressive move to the right that the power brokers of the party have directed.
The strategy has been to sensitize the country to anything remotely left of center by continually pitching themes like tax relief and the war on terrorism as a means to polarize and isolate moderates and liberals.
Thus, what used to be a moderate wing of the Republican Party has now been jettisoned, as witness the recent defection (purely for purposes of political survival) of Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter.
The seeming impossibility of someone like Nelson Rockefeller (the country’s Republican vice-president just 33 years ago) to have any political career in the GOP now makes the point abundantly clear: the Republican Party has become a monolithic union of conservatives and ultra-conservatives, in which the former are tolerated only if the latter have not yet ascended to prominence.
Seen in this light, the demonizing of Obama may be at least remotely comprehensible. To attack him for his failures of leadership does not underline the issue sufficiently for the new “off-center” party of the right. He isn’t held in disdain because of his leadership skills (or lack thereof). He is held in disdain because of what he represents.
And what Obama represents is a return to the pursuit of rational solutions, or put in simplest terms, of “doing what works.” This approach completely obliterates the principal goal of the new Republican Party in that it negates ideology.
Yes, Obama’s policy proposals tend to be on the liberal side of the equation. But he is not an ideologue. He can be criticized for espousing solutions that adopt liberal solutions (universal health care with a “public option,” for example), but he is much more interested in results than he is in his liberal credentials, which is why he has allowed a cadre of moderate and conservative senators (e.g. Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley) to control much of the drafting of the bill he may (with a lot of luck) get to sign later this year.
This kind of guy can’t be attacked from the right for his policy agenda alone. He’s too hard to pin down in that single arena.
It’s much easier and much more effective to demonize him. And so we have Obama as Hitler, Obama as the evil socialist, Obama as “the most totalitarian president in history.”
Never mind whether it’s true. It’s the new Republican way. Get used to it.