Fighting Words

Former Utne Editor in Chief David Schimke on conflict, compassion, partisanship, and peace

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President Obama's Personal and Political Plight

8/3/2011 3:26:56 PM

Tags: Barack Obama, pragmatism, president, ideology, apologists, civil liberties, Boston Review, politics, David Schimke

BostonReviewja11In an essay disguised as a long-form book review, writer Mark Schmitt delivers a decidedly progressive but even-handed evaluation of the current administration that culminates with a refreshingly pragmatic take on President Obama’s pragmatic political philosophy.

Published in the July-August issue of Boston Review, “All About Obama: A President Without an Ideology” should be required reading for progressives who, in the midst of an intensely polarized period of American history, initially mischaracterized the Democratic nominee as a rabble-rousing leftist, and have since compounded the mistake by labeling him as a weak-kneed sellout. Schmitt’s analysis should also be assigned to the president’s apologists, who too quickly dismiss or ignore his failings—the most egregious and disappointing being the continuation of the Bush administration’s abuse of civil liberties, foreign and domestic.

Schmitt first establishes that, thanks to a series of bureaucratic reforms, such as the strengthening of the Environmental Protection Agency, and social progress, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Obama will doubtless receive a kinder historical treatment than either Clinton or Carter. But his lasting legacy will be no more transformational, especially if health care reform fails to survive the shifting political winds, which is not just possible, but increasingly probable. After all, Obama is ultimately a mainstream politician, or, as pseudo-revolutionaries like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann like to say, a Washington insider.

While this analysis is beautifully written and expertly argued, it is not unfamiliar. What’s refreshing is that Schmitt doesn’t single out the administration for scorn. In fact, in many ways, despite the somewhat misleading tone of the headline, the essay comes to the president’s defense, in no small part because of the political, economic, and legislative barriers he inherited—including a friendly Congress that became decidedly uncooperative and impotent in a matter of months. Without letting Obama off the hook, the author holds a number of actors accountable, including the right-wing and mainstream media (often one and the same), and those citizens who voted for the Illinois senator and then assumed their work here was done.

As Schmitt reminds us, and as Utne Reader discussed prior to the 2008 elections, the president is not a superhero. He cannot single-handedly break the chains of reality or behave radically without expecting a radical response from an enemy. He must have a fan base capable of delivering tough criticism, but willing to do a lot of legwork and heavy lifting long after the polls have closed and the nasty, grinding task of governing in a representative democracy begins.

“Obama, therefore, has the challenge of building a more coherent ideological vision (as he did in his April 13 speech on the budget), or resorting to small-p pragmatism, just trying to get reelected and get some things done,” Schmitt concludes. “If he is to take the first path, though, it falls on liberals to help build the pyramid of ideas and organizations on which he and future presidents can stand. It can’t be all about him.”

Source: Boston Review 

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