Monday, December 27, 2010


Increasingly, Democrats, liberals, progressives hope and pray that Obama will assert leadership on this or that issue. Sorry, my friends on the Left, give it up. It ain’t gonna happen. This Prince Hamlet decides and does nothing; instead, he dithers and dodges.

Two years ago, I opposed McCain more than I approved Obama. I rightly credited Obama as informed, intelligent, articulate, and reasonable; and with mostly sensible policies. I wrongly assumed that his personal qualities and his political policies and experience would translate into smart but strong leadership. But I quickly recovered, and quickly discovered that Obama is not so smart or so strong as I had expected. As a man and as the president, he is so conflict-averse that his preferred personal and political strategies are bob-and-weave, cringe-and-cower, and duck-and-run.

Even as I have criticized Obama, to the disappointment or disparagement of some family and friends on the Left since the election, I have defended him against Tea Party and Republican rampages of indecent personal and baseless political attacks. If right-side troglodytes had not gone after his birth certificate; spread lies about his country of origin, religion, and economic or political orientation; and distorted or lied about his policies, they might have been done two constructive things. They might have enabled a useful debate on important national issues, and they might not have forced left-side supporters to defend the problematic as well as the practical.

Playing to a public wanting results, Obama has advocated bipartisanship. But, in its name, his concessions in advance, or instead, of negotiations camouflage his desire to avoid confrontation or controversy. Ironically, his strategy obviates bipartisanship; Republicans need not negotiate in any kind of faith since they can get what they want by being partisan and unpleasant. Looking back, I ask myself how did he not learn in Chicago, in Illinois, in Congress, and in the campaign that politics is a contact sport?

First, Obama ducked controversy by discounting likely violations of international and national law (torture); disregarding obligations under treaties and laws, and precedents for legal action; and discouraging their investigation. Despite his special expertise in Constitutional and civil rights law, he established precedents for later administrations to justify future encroachment on, or erosion of, laws, liberties, and democracy itself.

Thus, he has squandered the goodwill and respect which foreign governments granted him as one different from his predecessor in international affairs. America’s reputation is now tarnished by its choice to disregard treaties—a tactic which will come back to haunt this country’s efforts to work with other countries. For leadership in a multi-polar world must be by the example of moral leadership and mutual respect.

Second, Obama dodged conflict by accepting a face-saving but empty promise by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to slow down, not halt, as Obama requested, further construction in the West Bank. Foreign leaders realized that Obama lacked backbone. Result: no influence with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, little with Afghanistan’s Karzai, and less and less with other foreign leaders on international issues.

Third, Obama deflected contention with the financial industry by appointing some of its members to his administration, and by bailing out bankers and brokers before bailing out the bankrupt and the broke, still not bailed out. By first loaning them hundreds of billions without securing their agreement to terms and conditions effecting reforms, he later enabled the financial industry to resist reforms and made it difficult to enact them.

Meanwhile, to avoid conflict with Republicans, Obama rejected nearly unanimous advice from most economists, who urged a stimulus package of nearly $2 trillion dollars. Instead, he proposed a stimulus package about half that size, just large enough to save some jobs and prevent a depression, but not large enough to reverse the recession, from which the country has yet to recover.

Fourth, whatever one thinks of him or his positions, no one can deny that he gives no problem his clear and uncompromised support for any solution, including those which he himself has advocated. He let health care reform, his signature issue, become and remain a muddle because, without indicating that he had any convictions on the subject, he let Democratic Congressional leaders take 15 months to produce a piece of legislation, the making of which discredited or disgraced just about everyone involved in either party, no matter what position or positions he or she took.

Likewise, Obama cannot reconcile his strenuous campaign promises and current positions on extending all or only some of the Bush tax cuts. The House, which must initiate tax legislation, has voted to extend them for individuals making up to $200,000 and for couples making up to $250,000. But Obama is undermining that legislation approved by a large majority of House Democrats by trying to negotiate a face-saving surrender to Senate Republicans standing firm on extending the tax cuts to all.

Obama has turned away from the trigger of the continuing meltdown, the collapse of the housing market, as millions of foreclosures continue to occur. Because he has allowed too-big-too-fail financial corporations to grow even bigger, the damage to the economy threatened from this sector dwarfs the damage just done by it.

So the economy continues to stagnate, and Obama is not using his office—who can associate something like the “bully pulpit” with him?—to rally the nation to transform the economy, including deficit reduction and tax reform. Instead, he takes the bold, creative, and decisive action—not—to create a commission.

Obama has abandoned most of his campaign issues. Guantanamo is still open for business, with detainee trials still deferred and discredited. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act remain laws of the land and likely to remain so because he is taking the path of least resistance and least right to protect or expand civil rights. Education reform under the “Race to the Top” is “No Child Left Behind” with money and smiles, and not more than one whit better. Green industry initiatives have flagged. Cap-and-trade has failed.

Republicans are responsible for their obstructionism, but Obama is responsible for its duration and intensity. He refuses to repudiate personal attacks on his birthright and beliefs; he refuses to rebut distortions of, and falsehoods about, his policies. Obama’s tolerance of persistent personal and political abuse indicates a serious personality defect and grave moral weakness. His desire for peace at any price has costs.

The biggest is Obama’s loss of peoples’ respect, even among supporters. Regardless of what they believe, regardless of what place they occupy on the political spectrum, Americans follow with respect, if not without reservations, a leader who fights for the right as he sees it or even someone who is strong but wrong. But they do not follow someone cringing and craven however right he may be.

The sad fact is that, good and decent as is, Obama is temperamentally incapable of getting it back; getting it back would require what Obama lacks: courage, which is an essential element of convictions, and, in his case, convictions which are Democratic ones. He will not get it back by re-runs of his belief in bipartisanship and public relations activities: speeches, photo ops, interviews, and TV appearances.

By tolerating abuse, Obama has made personal disrespect and political disregard painless. By contrast, imagine Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or any of the other pipsqueaks-in-opposition talking or walking as they do if Lyndon Johnson were in office. He would have a glass bowl full of their soft body parts prominently displayed on his Oval Office desk.

Democrats, liberals, progressives hope and pray that mid-term Democratic losses will give Obama the grit to fight. But they have already witnessed his self-abasing backdown: he blamed himself for not talking enough with Republicans, who have talked only “no.” Cajoling or scolding him by turns, the Left has wanted him to succeed and has worked for his success, but the reality no longer deniable is that Obama has irretrievably failed.

So, my friends on the Left, get over hoping and praying for anything but a Democrat up who can replace him before he takes down all those who have hoped and prayed for him for two years. Find yourselves a real Democrat, man or woman, smart and strong enough for the presidency.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


With everyone else talking or writing about Sarah Palin, I have to catch up. But I am not going to slog through the personal stuff about her family life or the gulf between her moral pretensions, and her and her family’s performance. Nor am I going to rehearse her alleged ethical or criminal lapses in office. Tabloids and talking heads have done that work in mind-numbing detail. Psycho-social drama is their thing, not mine. Everyone else sees her as a politician, a celebrity, or a political celebrity. I see her differently, as a threat, ironically, to the one thing which she purports to hold most dear: freedom (whatever it means to her).

Saint Ronnie versus Saint Sarah

Someone near and dear to me argues that Palin is a female doppelganger of Ronald Reagan. Palin herself invites the comparison despite her ignorance of the basic facts about the man. For example, speaking at Cal State Stanislaus earlier this year, she extolled Reagan for coming west to California to get his college education in nearby Eureka. Wrong: Reagan got his diploma from Eureka College in Illinois long before relocating. Such ignorance of the icon whom she disses by exploiting keeps her from realizing that the comparison is not flattering to her. For the parallels are few and flimsy. Both come from modest backgrounds, went to college, entered politics, and became governors. But the disparities in the details of these parallels reflect big differences between these iconic figures.

Reagan grew up during the Depression, worked hard, mixed easily with people of all sorts. He majored in economics and sociology, got a job in broadcasting, then became a prominent Hollywood actor in B-grade movies, including “Bedtime for Bozo” and “Knute Rockne, All American.” Raised a New Deal Democrat, he led the Screen Actors Guild; working as a GE spokesman, he became a Republican. He entered politics, became a successful, two-term governor of the state with the largest and most diverse population and economy, and then became a successful, two-term president.

By comparison, Palin knew no economic hardships, never worked hard, and knew or mixed easily with few people different from her. Her college education in communications was haphazard, but she got a job in broadcasting. She entered small-town politics as mayor of a small city and later became governor of state with a small, mainly white, population and with a small economy funded largely by federal money and corporate royalties. She quit after two years with relatively little to show for her tenure.

The big difference: Reagan knew, respected, and liked people (his friendship with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House who opposed much of his legislation, was legendary); had a working knowledge of domestic and foreign issues; and demonstrated geniality, good sense, and self-confidence. Palin is his opposite in these respects. She describes herself as a “pit bull with lipstick”; she remains indifferent to knowledge or nuance about national issues; and her sense of grievance and her resentments motivate her attitude toward, and attacks on, those who question or criticize her or her views.

Reagan is Reagan, and Palin is no Reagan. Reagan was a charismatic political leader who worked with political friends and foes alike; Palin is a charismatic demagogue who uses political power to reward friends and punish enemies. In real life, Reagan was an extrovert, a nice guy; Palin is a narcissist, and nasty.

Palin Is a Unique Populist

Palin is a populist unlike the traditional advocate for the down-and-out who emerges in tough times. In the 2008 economic meltdown, she did not demand economic reform, financial assistance to the needy, or public works programs for the unemployed; she did not deplore the abuses which caused misery to many or sympathize with those who lost, or feared losing, homes, jobs, health insurance, or education. In the 2010 BP-created Gulf disaster, she had no feeling for people affected, livelihoods destroyed, and way of life threatened. Yet she has her greatest appeal to, and support from, whites suffering most.

So what is Palin’s appeal, and how does it work? My guess: it reflects a new kind of populism, in three respects. First, the old populism supported anti-trust, anti-rich rhetoric and government-effected wealth redistribution (Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt). Her populism is capitalistic, even corporatist. Palin fans traditional slogans about lower taxes, less regulation, and smaller government, into inflamed loathing of government (“death panels”) and rabid support for environment-damaging corporations (“drill, baby, drill”).

Second, the old populism used traditional anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, with its lexicon of sneers at “Boston Brahmins,” “limousine liberals,” “eggheads,” and “pointy-headed” or “ivory-tower” academics. Her populism is original in discounting, or dispensing with, facts, logic, and truth. Palin knows that “you betcha,” a wink, and an aura of ill-usage work—and work better than policy papers or program details—because her followers can grasp them intuitively.

Third, the old populism attacked economic inequality but asserted personal equality—you’re-as-good-as-they-are stuff. Populism for the past 40 years has played the victim-making identity issues of race, gender, and culture. Her new populism moves in a new direction. Palin makes no use of the old populism to address economic fears and makes modest use of identity issues in code words, notably her repeated phrase about “real Americans.

Rather, she aggravates her followers’ feelings of inferiority and inequality to those who have what they have not. She shares their feelings and knows them to care more that she runs against those whom they begrudge than runs for any issues in particular. She knows that the little required of them to feel an affinity with her and appreciate her as a celebrity is all which her campaign requires of them for her to succeed. So she will continue to ignore and outwit conventional politicians who think that her ignorance or incompetence matters to them and will diminish her appeal. They like her because she seems (and is) like them

Dealing with Palin and Palin Dealing with Decline

Republicans are particularly worried about Palin and her possible candidacy. The Democrats probably want her be Obama’s opposition. (If so, they should think again by recalling the Harry Reid liked the idea of running against Sharron Angle until he had to, and nearly lost. Harry won because he is skilled fighter; Obama may not because he is not.) I have my fair share of concerns about Palin and then some, so I am happy to offer advice to Republicans with their fair, but different, share of concerns.

My advice begins and ends with a strategy mindful of her personality and her propensities: avoid triggering her sense of grievance or her resentments. In any engagement, be respectful, attentive, undemonstrative, unresponsive. Discuss your views; disregard her views. Neither agree nor disagree with her; if necessary, rebut by indirection. Avoid criticism, even its appearance; ask no questions, seek no specifics, dispute no views. If you fail, she will tailor her response to any confrontation, direct or indirect, to elicit the sympathy of her followers and possibly others.

Palin has rallied the chronically disgruntled or resentful members of society, culled and gulled them, and led them to the polls. However, such attitudes and emotions lose potency over time, and I think that they already are losing it. She is discovering, and has more to discover, that, no sooner has she helped Tea and Republican candidates, than those elected are turning, and will continue to turn, on or away from her. When Tea Party representatives fail to fulfill campaign rhetoric and, instead, turn into run-of-the-mill politicians seeking re-election, they may tarnish her reputation and diminish her power. Whether she can retain her celebrity status with its political appeal remains to be seen. Her likely future: increasingly frantic, inane or degrading, futile efforts to restore the glory.

Slighted and scorned, she will turn on those who turn on her and may run for president in spite. If she does run, she is popular enough with her followers to win some primaries, but probably not popular enough with Republicans or Independents to win a nomination or with most Americans to win election. This majority, reasonable and responsible more often than not, elects presidents to work their hardest and do their best for four years, not quit for fun and profit after two.