Even those of us who strongly support Barack Obama concede that this may be the nadir of his presidency. His approval ratings are dreary—though perhaps a bit better than expected, given that job and economic growth are maddeningly—and tragically—stalled. We live under a cloud of fear and pessimism.
Precisely why crippling inertia has gripped the nation—well, that question provides job-creating stimulus for pundits on every point of the political spectrum.
To be sure, Republican obstructionism—the willful suppression of the US economy, the resolve to maintain a dire unemployment rate, no matter how many lives it shatters—all support the main plank of the GOP platform. As party boss Rush Limbaugh declared, they want Obama (and by extension the other 300 million of us) to fail. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed, the party’s prime objective is to make Obama a one-term president.
But liberals and center-leftish moderates would argue that it didn’t have to be that way. That Obama yielded the national narrative to the Right. That instead of pursuing a robust progressive agenda of job creation and growth, he got sucked into a job-killing (to borrow the GOP’s favorite Homeric epithet) deficit-cutting obsession (and perhaps wasted his first year on Health Care Reform). And that in a quixotic quest to preserve the Obama Brand (“there are no red states, no blue states, only the United States…”)—as well as POTUS’ innately non-confrontational nature and a kind of fetish for compromise—he has repeatedly capitulated.
Or, to use the preferred term, “caved.” On the public option, on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, on the debt ceiling, and just today, on anti-smog regulations. Even on “Speechgate,” the flap (or was it a kerfuffle?) with House Speaker Boehner over next week’s Jobs, Jobs, Jobs address to Congress (minus wingnut Tea Party Rep.—and deadbeat dad—Joe Walsh).
At worst, some liberals compare the President to that iconic appeaser, Neville Chamberlain. They’re the most extreme faction. But many less strident critics on the Exasperated Left say that, in an obsession with the political center, Obama has forsaken the core values of his party. And that he’s losing the center anyway—that Adult In the Room bit only goes so far. Moderates like strong leaders, too.
Lately, Obama has received a healthy helping of tough love from the African-American community—wherein unemployment is nearly double the 9.1 national rate, and nearly quadruple the national figure among young adults. Rep. Maxine Waters and the Congressional Black Caucus, and non-politicians like Princeton professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been particularly vocal. Indeed, on Tavis’ show last night the host got into a civilized, but spirited, debate with Prof. Randall Kennedy of Harvard over Obama’s “Black Problem.”
Tavis argues that the President seems to be running away from African-Americans—for instance, on his recent Midwest “listening tour,” when he did all his listening in white neighborhoods— and from the progressive agenda that, skin color aside, fired up an unprecedented African-American turnout in 2008 (if you think it was just a Black thing, and not ideological, see Cain, Herman, West, Allen, et. al.)
Prof. Kennedy countered that, while he, too, is sometimes disappointed in Obama, one must never forget that he is “an electoral politician.” Democrats always lose the white vote—as did Obama in 2008, though he fared better than John Kerry did in 2004. The more the first black president is identified as “The Black President,” the longer his odds of reelection, especially in this bleak economy.
In short, faced with an extravagantly funded Right-Wing hate machine that, despite his mild manner and moderate policies, repeatedly portrays him as a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Anti-American Manchurian Candidate Other—Obama has to be careful. He has to walk a fine line. He has to be Jackie Robinson in his early years with the Dodgers, absorbing all the slings and arrows (and beanballs and spikings) and turning the other cheek.
But eventually, Branch Rickey unleashed Robinson—and the great second baseman’s naturally fiery, combative temperament, flying fists, flashing spikes and all. Anyone who played major league baseball during the 1950s will attest that Number 42 took no shit from anyone.
Obama, while intensely competitive, (ask Hillary Clinton; or, for that matter, Osama bin Laden) isn’t likely to challenge Eric Cantor to fisticuffs under the Capitol dome next week. And, if we recall, that cool, temperate mien—contrasting with McCain’s post-traumatic anger issues—is one of the reasons we elected him.
But we also elected him to act, and to fight—in his way—for Democratic values, for the middle class, for workers, for the environment. No, direct confrontation isn’t Obama’s style. But is it also possible that he’s holding back, even subconsciously, because of his race?
Specifically, has such race-based restraint done more than mute further Obama’s constitutionally cool public demeanor? Does it carry over to the negotiating table—and, above all, to his policies? Has pulling his punches meant not only refraining from “losing it” on the GOP—but from aggressively pursuing the principles he and his much maligned “base” believe to be right? And, in the process, giving away the store, essentially governing as what, in saner times, used to pass for a Republican
While under Branch Rickey’s gag order, Jackie Robinson channeled his suppressed rage into his work, his .300 hitting, superb fielding and thrilling exploits on the basepaths. The President too, has many accomplishments to boast (see the wonderful web site wtfhasobamadonesofar.com).
But at this crucial juncture, with the nation’s economic and social future hanging in the balance—and the looming threat of a far Right GOP that, (perhaps in the nightmare-inducing person of Rick Perry) strives to undo the 20th Century and take us back to circa 1893—maybe it’s time for Barack Obama to start flashing his spikes.
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