Diary

David Bromwich

On Sunday 21 March the House of Representatives passed a healthcare bill that had been promoted for a year and brokered in many particulars by Barack Obama. This marked a victory for a substantial piece of social legislation, the first of its kind in more than three decades; and the result appears to have given the president and his party fresh confidence in their efforts at comprehensive reform. Whatever may happen now, it was plain the defeat of healthcare would have been a death-blow to the Obama presidency; its passage has given him time to discover the means for a renewal of presidential energy. Yet the bill passed without a single Republican vote, and its revisions, augmentations and delays, many of them prompted by Obama in a vain search for bipartisan support, made the process a textbook example of ‘winning ugly’. When the president launched his proposal last spring, two-thirds of Americans approved the idea of national healthcare. By the time it passed the number had shrunk to a third.

To recruit votes from his own party, Obama surrendered much of his prestige by making concessions to senators from Louisiana and Nebraska and arranging a tax exemption for unions covered by high-cost insurance plans. His claim to transcend the corruption of ‘business as usual in Washington’ was in this way nullified by his practice of the usual arts of political adaptation. Those compromises are remembered daily on right-wing radio. All the vehemence and animosity of the anti-Obama movement is concentrated now on handing him a defeat in this year’s midterm elections. Don’t do anything rash to jeopardise our victory – that is what the radio hosts say. (The Tea Party crowd with their anti-tax, anti-debt, anti-government views are regarded sympathetically by something between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the voters: they know they are less than a groundswell but more than a splinter-group.) There have been violent exceptions to the rule of self-restraint. On 18 February a wild man who hated taxes flew a single-engine plane into a federal building in Austin, Texas; a group of Tea Partiers mobbed the Democrats on the Capitol steps after the healthcare vote and shouted epithets at the lawmakers; and on 19 April gun-rights fanatics carried their weapons to a rally at Fort Hunt National Park, near Alexandria, Virginia. But the tone of the anti-Obama protests has calmed down. The radio hosts now constantly remind their listeners that the surest imaginable vindication will come at the ballot-box in November.

The results of off-year elections seem to bear out that hope. On 3 November last year, Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was elected governor of Virginia; on 19 January, a Republican who describes himself as independent, Scott Brown, won Ted Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts. The scale of these victories made them particularly ominous. McDonnell took 59 per cent of the votes and Brown 52 per cent, in states where Obama a year earlier had pulled 53 per cent and 62 per cent respectively. Interviews suggested that these contests were interpreted by voters above all as referendums on the Obama presidency. The first bank bail-out had of course been engineered under Bush, and cost three-quarters of a trillion dollars, but the subsequent bail-outs and the stimulus package, which have taken federal spending on the financial collapse far into the trillions, are held against Obama. Likewise, the government takeover of Chrysler and General Motors and the early proposal for an emissions-trading (‘cap and trade’) energy programme overseen by the government. Finally, there was the anger accruing over a year against the healthcare plan itself. The idea that the nation is becoming insolvent has spread very widely, and nothing Obama has said, no testimony from the experts he calls to his side, has begun to quell the popular fear. Yet two-thirds of the Tea Partiers support both Social Security and Medicare (the national healthcare now enjoyed by everyone over 65). Why Obama’s people did not choose to call their plan ‘Medicare for Everyone’ remains a mystery. Anyway, the damage from a long series of policy redescriptions on the way to his victory has not yet been repaired. The length of the process and the suspicion drawn by the changes gave his enemies plenty of time to gather strength. These would seem to be the leading lessons of his costly triumph on healthcare.

Yet, when Obama last month initiated a second campaign for energy reform under the rubric of cap and trade, he seemed to look back on the way the healthcare bill was managed as a blueprint for successful lawmaking in the future. So, with cap and trade, he has once more started out with pre-emptive concessions. He brought in the nuclear industry by announcing a plan to permit the building of a new generation of reactors. The right to offshore drilling for oil, which Democrats had held back for eight years under George W. Bush, was granted by Obama without a word of contest. The coal industry, too, doubtless will be accommodated as a prelude to cap-and-trade bargaining, but the recent mining disaster in West Virginia has rendered an early statement inadvisable.

Once again, Obama is choosing to leave behind the popular base of the Democratic Party and build an ecumenical consensus which starts in his head. The process seems to be intuitive, and to explain it one can only fall back on psychology. Obama sees himself as the establishment president. If a populist insurgency on the right presses hard against his legitimacy, if disappointed supporters stop giving money or knocking on doors, still he has the confidence of a leader whose standing is buoyed up by corporate leaders, by a famous general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, by a decent preponderance of Wall Street, and by the mainstream media, whose resources he deploys and channels with a relentlessness no other president has approached. Barack Obama, in the first 392 days of his presidency, put himself on public view for photographs, interviews, ceremonies, or mingling with the public in one way or another on all but 27 days. He gave more interviews in his first year than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined. His approval rating, which stood at 70 per cent a year ago, now hovers around 45 per cent, but it is possible for a president of doubtful popularity to win re-election if the mainstream voices rally to his side and the opposition lacks credible talent. Many people who voted for Obama in 2008 were voting against McCain and Palin. The same people are capable of voting that way again.

Obama’s calculations, then, are plausible and may pay off; yet he has made mistakes nobody would have predicted. The truth is that he did not come into office a fully equipped politician. He was new to the national elite and enjoyed his membership palpably. This came out in debates and town meetings where he often mentioned that the profits from his books had lodged him in the highest tax bracket. It would emerge later in his comment on Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan: ‘I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.’ One can’t imagine Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy saying such a thing, or wanting to say it. They had known ‘those guys’ all their lives and felt no tingle of reflected glory. Obama has not yet recognised that his conspicuous relish of his place among the elite does him two kinds of harm: it spurs resentment in people lower down the ladder; and it diminishes his stature among the grandees by showing that he needs them.

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their absorbing history of the 2008 campaign, Race of a Lifetime, speak of Obama’s ‘million-dollar smile’.[*] It is indeed a great asset. His voice has proved not so sure a thing. It alters obviously and with discernible intent, according to its audience: taking on King-like overtones for a crowd of black people; in the Midwest dropping the terminal g and dipping into homey cadences (‘What we’re tryin’ to do’); massively sober in speeches to Congress but relaxed in town-hall meetings (with reliance on the word ‘folks’). The conscious Obama heft, audible everywhere, is something one either likes or doesn’t – on the order of Reagan’s genial roll of the head. On the other hand, the lack of humour can’t easily be converted to an advantage.

A spontaneous ability to laugh at oneself, or to make a witty remark that doesn’t wound, is always appreciated in a politician, but it has not been given to Obama. His self-depreciation is stiff and rehearsed, and his cutting comments always sting. His equability in interviews has partly concealed this defect from an admiring press; the radio shock-jocks make more of it, and dwell on his superior airs. When Obama feels edgy or tired, his manner turns condescending and priggish. It is at just such moments that he seems most heartily one of the elite. His saying to Hillary Clinton in an early debate when she called Obama likeable, ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary,’ was an early example of the propensity. He did it again in the healthcare summit when John McCain was making heavy weather of the campaign promises Obama hadn’t kept, and Obama, where no response was necessary, chose to say: ‘Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning any more: the election’s over.’ Before the putdown, McCain had looked small and confused – there was dead air all around him – but Obama by his response awarded him the pathos of a beaten man. An oddly unpleasant schoolmasterish moment.

Obama’s besetting political fault is his automatic adoption of the tone of command, accompanied by a persistent reluctance to be seen as the source of the policy he commandeers. This especially marks his leadership of his party; and his precociousness has worked against him here. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, adores Obama, and at public events can be seen to bestow on him the melting look of a senior sponsor for the protégé who has fulfilled every hope. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader – who is widely blamed for the mismanagement of healthcare but likely took the hit for many wrong calls by the White House – was another early admirer. He noticed how bored Obama was in the Senate, and told him to run for president. When he won in 2008, Obama went to the head of the class, above the reach of pragmatic advice from people who could have taught him some things. They could have taught him, for one thing, that the Republicans of these years are not placable and will not ‘come around’.

The American establishment as a whole, rather than the leaders of a party, became Obama’s tutor in statesmanship. It was not an adequate substitute. Obama when he entered the presidency had seen more of the world than most people but less of America than many Americans. What he knew were the academic, the liberal-political and the corporate milieux, where doors swung open in gratitude and wonder at a man of his qualities. Fellow students at Harvard Law School and colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School knew him as a ‘mediator’ without marked opinions of his own. He left almost no trail of position papers – nothing substantial, quotable or quoted – though he cast votes and made decisions after listening to others make their case. He led a charmed life and aroused few suspicions. Two decades of ambitious but unadventurous apprenticeship on this pattern left him baffled at the first strong signs of resistance in 2009. Until that year, it is only a slight exaggeration to say the Republicans whom Obama had met were judges, lawyers, corporate leaders and academics. He had never encountered a determined man in the black hat quite like John Boehner, the congressional minority leader; as for Fox Radio, it was a distant island, heard of in chuckling rumours at dinner parties, its noises dissipated by the ocean of seminars and think-tanks in between. Obama is still mystified by the idea that there are people who don’t like him.

His sense of personal invincibility was always accompanied by an extreme cautiousness. Many people think this has served him well at a time of crisis. I don’t agree; I wish Obama had acted more boldly, and think he could have done so. The large majority who admired him a month into his taking office included people disgusted by two wars, by the Cheney-Bush encroachment on civil liberties, and by the scale of the support being requested from taxpayers for the banks and brokerage houses. The war party and the ‘banksters’, as they are now called, were discredited; the time was ripe for a change and Obama had run with the idea that he would be its executor. It was a moment in foreign policy to pull back from militarism, and in domestic policy to create jobs and reroute the economy without following the advice of those who had ruined it. There were opportunities for reform of a sort that comes less often than once in a generation. Yet Obama acted on the assumption that the establishment is one and irreplaceable, and must be served in roughly its present form. This assumption he seems to have acquired between the summer of 2008 – the time of his capitulation on domestic surveillance and his Aipac speech affirming support for Israel – and the National Archives Speech on security a year later. The trajectory was completed by the sacking last November of Greg Craig as White House counsel: Craig was the lawyer who drafted Obama’s original plan for the closing of Guantánamo.

If one were to compile an Obama Retreat Checklist – composed of the advisers whom he cut away when under pressure, or persons he nominated to important posts but withdrew from consideration – the names would include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Malley, Rashid Khalidi and the anti-war Republican senator Chuck Hagel, whose leaked note to George W. Bush may have saved the US from a war with Iran in 2007. If one made it a list of incidents as well as persons, one would have to count the snub to Jimmy Carter that denied him a prominent part at the Democratic Convention of 2008 – a graceless as well as a gutless omission. By contrast, the delay in the closing of Guantánamo might be supposed an effect of sheer miscalculation, except that it so plainly falls in with the Obama style. Obama is unique among politicians in running out the clock when there are many minutes left on it and he is not ahead. He did that on Guantánamo. He did it with Israel-Palestine when he required a settlement freeze and then assumed, if he waited long enough, Netanyahu would grow amenable. He did it and still is doing it with Iran, where US policy remains in suspension: between the preference of Robert Gates and Admiral Mullen for a strategy of containment, by which Iran would give up nuclear-weapons research in return for a guarantee of regional security; and the counter-pressure from Dennis Ross, the antenna and prod of the Israel lobby within the White House, urging a series of tripwires by which sanctions would be followed by crippling sanctions and the failure of the latter would argue the necessity of bombing.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has seemed to prefer disengagement from war as soon as possible. But, thus far, he has shifted the burden rather than changed the pattern: the active war is now Afghanistan, with extensive deployment of Predator drones for assassinations in Pakistan also. Meanwhile, he has held on to the Bush protection of state secrets to counter lawsuits that accuse the US of torture. He has supported the Cheney-Bush violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He has vowed to keep certain Guantánamo prisoners in indefinite detention under an emergency war provision still to be drafted. He has given reassurance to the lawyers from the Office of the Vice President and the Office of Legal Counsel under Bush that he does not intend to hold them accountable for the ‘torture memos’ that broke America’s treaty obligations. He has claimed a new presidential power to assassinate an American citizen on foreign soil, without process or oversight, when the citizen is accused of inciting violence against America. Finally, he has chosen to drop his nomination of a libertarian lawyer, Dawn Johnsen, to head the Office of Legal Counsel – a lawyer who would surely have disapproved the policy of placing the torture lawyers beyond accountability, and have discountenanced the idea that a president can authorise the assassination of an American.

Many people continue to feel a certain relief at having Obama as their president; and I can’t deny sharing that feeling. It springs from the possibility that after eight years of catastrophe we have a leader who at least is capable of understanding the size and nature of the problems he confronts. The change of feeling is a fact, if only a psychological fact, and it exists elsewhere in the world, too. But it corresponds to actual changes. On 8 April, the Muslim religious reformer Tariq Ramadan spoke at Cooper Union in New York City and, on an occasion that was part colloquium and part debate, a crowd of the curious were permitted to hear a leading moderate voice of world Islam. This would not have been possible under Cheney and Bush: Ramadan’s visa had been revoked by the State Department in 2004, and it took the leadership of Hillary Clinton to reverse the ban. Whatever speed Obama works at, this is the sort of opening that seems possible in his presidency.

Though one may regret the temperament that moves him in the direction of pre-emptive concession, one has to be aware of the obstacles he faces on many sides. A reminder appeared again in the recent controversy over Israel’s announcement that it intended to build 1600 colonising units in East Jerusalem. That the plan was declared with impolitic brazenness, in the middle of a state visit by Joe Biden, enabled Obama to establish vividly his differences with Netanyahu. Here, after a year of delays, with considerable craft the president marched behind not only the vice president but a statement by the most famous American general, David Petraeus, in testimony before Congress. Petraeus said that the unsolved question of Palestine was the largest ‘root’ danger to American security at home and abroad. For this resistance to Netanyahu, President Obama has been assailed in an open letter by Ron Lauder (president of the World Jewish Congress), an open letter by Elie Wiesel, and a Senate petition got up by Aipac and signed by 76 senators, 38 of them Democrats.

The opposition to Obama’s policies within America has probably not yet peaked. The consistent project of the Republican Party since 1970 has been the southernisation of American politics; and those who deplore the Democrats for ending segregation in the South are apt to admire the Israelis for trying to maintain it in their fashion. Lyndon Johnson said as he signed the Civil Rights Bill on 2 July 1964: ‘We have lost the South for a generation.’ It has been two generations now, and there is no sign of the South returning. Political control of the region has reverted to the party of Abraham Lincoln; and that party in 2010 is heavily involved in the celebration of Confederate History Month. The new orthodoxy of the Republican South holds that the Civil War was not about slavery so much as ‘economic disagreements’.

This extrusion from the ideology of the modern-day Republican Party of the sentiment of constitutional equality – the right of equal treatment under the law, and the justice, as Lincoln put it, of lifting the ‘artificial weights from all shoulders’ – must be accounted one of the strangest twists in all of American history. Yet Lincoln himself noticed something like it in the reversion, by the first Americans to call themselves Democrats, from the libertarian party of Jefferson to the party of territorial expansion and property rights under Andrew Jackson and Stephen Douglas; while the Whig party, once associated with John Adams, under the new name of Republicans extended the cause of liberty beyond the right of property. ‘I remember,’ Lincoln wrote in 1859,

once being amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.

John Boehner was far into the sleeves of his new great-coat when he bellowed his ‘Hell no!’ rejection speech against Obama’s healthcare bill to close the Republican side of the congressional debate. Boehner – a capable speaker, a callous man, and a politician who treads the brink of disorder – was using the voice and words one would use to harangue a crowd to string up a wretch the sheriff was holding. A step down in class, for a national politician, but akin to the shout of ‘You lie!’ to the president on the floor of Congress last September.

Probably racism was a necessary but not a sufficient cause for the launching of the Tea Party movement. The organised right-wing crowd, whom Obama is tempted to ignore but who will certainly play a part in the next two elections, are not appeasable in the mass. Yet some of its members can be reached (some of them voted for him). What, then, could he say to them? It is curious that one asks the question in that way, rather than, for example: ‘What should he do?’ But an odd thing about Obama’s presidency has been the extent to which his speeches are taken to be the site of the real action. ‘There’s something weird,’ a close observer of politics said the other day, ‘about the way when you talk to people about Obama, they mention his speeches and compare them to his other speeches. “Oh, it’s like that great moment in the Race Speech.” Or: “The West Point Speech was a disappointment but he really recouped it in the Nobel Prize Speech.” They talk about what he says and compare it to what he says.’ A species of aesthetic judgment has never been allowed to supplant political judgment in quite this way for any previous president. Obama must be aware of the unearned allowance, widely evident in the respectable media, and it can only encourage a false belief that his words are the moral equivalent of actions, as the words of other politicians somehow are not.

Off-script, Obama speaks so deliberately – with such compunction lest a misjudged word escape – that he seems a lucid expositor of sentiments and intentions. Yet he lacks the ad lib skill of the born politician, skill at making the explanation that actually explains. He has not yet given an entire speech that unfolds a coherent policy in any area of governance; and all of his speeches bear the impress of his belief in the transparent soundness of his own position. He talks as if by full certification of the relevant establishment, corporate, financial, military, medical, and he never takes the trouble to imagine a strong opponent. He is, by nature, a man of tendencies rather than commitments.

He would like things to improve for everyone, even for the rich, but especially for the poor because they need it. Yet he shuns the language of economic equality. He is a Fabian non-socialist. Libertarians are right to see him as an outsize admirer of legitimate authority who relies on state power far too much and too implicitly. This is the assumption guiding his increased use of Predator and Reaper drone-surveillance and the robot-killings by Hellfire missiles. He tends to dislike war and would prefer to wind down the military action in Afghanistan. But it would take more than a tendency, it would demand a commitment for a president to say at this moment: we can no longer live beyond our political, financial and psychological means, we can’t have multiple wars abroad and taxes that subsidise them on the backs of future generations, and rising debts and deficits, and all the while maintain our constitutional integrity.

A single-minded leader, one who planted himself in convictions more definite than tendencies, would use the word ‘empire’ often in a neutral and non-endorsing manner. He would make Americans wary of it as an unpleasant fact. And while acknowledging the necessity of this or that measure of emergency defence, he would convey the burden of the unloading of billions of dollars that renders the maintenance of empire untenable. This is a work of persuasion Obama has not come close to beginning. Yet he has made interesting promises that are being closely watched. If he can keep one or two – say regarding nuclear proliferation and Palestine – he may gain a credit that widens other possibilities. That is the hope that many cherish already from healthcare. Meanwhile, agents are working against him at home, sometimes in collaboration with others abroad, and their impact will be felt in the nomination of candidates for office, in elections and election tactics, on billboards and in radio soundbites. To push through even one more victory on the order of healthcare, Obama will have to give up the posture of mediator that comes naturally to him. He will have to admit in his political practice that there are parties; that he is the leader of a party; that there is a worse and a better cause; that it feels like a fight because it really is a fight. This does not mean just the adoption of a new set of tactics. It will require almost the emergence of a new character.

[*] David Runciman reviewed Race of a Lifetime in the LRB of 25 March.