THE OBAMA WHITE HOUSE

New York Times photograph of then-Senator Obama campaigning in Austin, Texas in early 2007 by Scout Tufankjian.

ANALYZING THE OBAMA PSYCHE

by Paul Hogarth

The past three months have been really depressing – as the Obama White House has done everything to make 2008 a distant memory. Today, the President will hold a “bipartisan summit” to solicit Republican ideas on health care reform – as if he hasn’t already done so, and the GOP were suddenly willing to give bipartisanship a try. It makes us wonder how we were so wrong about the guy – who has proven to care more about compromise for the sake of compromise than following a public mandate. A possible hint comes from a Daily Kos diary that Obama wrote back in September 2005, which criticized the netroots for stridently attacking moderate Democrats. Obama argued that we need less partisanship to get public support, and the Howard Dean line that Democrats need to be “more tough” only preaches to the choir. But Republicans play by different rules, and they get rewarded handsomely for doing so. As liberals now push Senate Democrats to revive the public option, two things are clear: change won’t happen without the people demanding it, and we can no longer rely on this President to be that change.

Any progressive knows that it’s not enough to call out Republicans when they commit the latest atrocity that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Democrats who vote for a Bankruptcy Bill that rewards credit card companies, send low-income kids off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan or filibuster a public health insurance option must be condemned.

Otherwise, it fosters an abusive relationship where Democrats can please their corporate contributors while telling the Left they have nowhere to go. Calling out Democrats does not mean we won’t support them in the next election, but we have a duty to give them heat when they’re wrong. And any quick review of liberal blogs echoes that sentiment.

Back in September 2005, Barack Obama – a freshman U.S. Senator in his first year – wrote a diary on Daily Kos called “Tone, Truth and the Democratic Party” that took issue with this approach as if it were a sectarian firing squad. Being “more tough” like Republicans, he argued, would not win a majority of Americans – which is ultimately what we need to reverse the 40-year trend of conservatism.

Bloggers misread the American people, he wrote. “From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don’t think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don’t think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs.

Of course, what Obama left unanswered was – in that case, why have Republicans been so successful? If the public abhors ideology and labels so much, why did they re-elect George Bush and allow the most abhorrent right-wing policies to go unabated for years? If Democrats “lose” with such tactics, why do Republicans win? If they hate ideologues, why have Glenn Beck and the Tea Party driven political discourse over the past year?

Obama has governed very much as a “non-partisan” figure who allows himself open to compromises – while Republicans who want him to fail have refused to give an inch. Rather than appeal to non-ideological voters who don’t think like Daily Kos, such a strategy has bled support for his Administration from independents he wants to court.

The 2006 and 2008 elections were a decisive repudiation of right-wing ideology, and red-state voters turned blue not because Democrats suddenly trimmed their sails and became “centrist.” Just because Obama won Indiana does not mean they wanted him to govern like Evan Bayh. Republicans had ruined the country, and these voters gave him a shot.

Writing last week for The Nation, Katha Pollitt asked the same question: whatever happened to Candidate Obama? He may have won support from independent and even Republican voters, but they knew perfectly well at the time that he was a Chicago liberal named Barack Hussein Obama. The Democratic ticket didn’t change – America did.

In his 2005 Daily Kos diary, Obama argued that “we won’t be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate.” But Obama’s approach has done nothing to quell the polarization that has hamstrung our country – the Republicans were going to oppose him every inch, but I don’t believe the President thought this would happen.

What he did not anticipate was the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, that her presence on the national stage re-energized the cultural wars. The Tea Party movement doesn’t represent a majority of Americans – but they are a white, conservative minority that knows it is shrinking and fears a multicultural society. To them, a black President called Obama epitomizes this.

Just look at the survey of Republican voters. 63% believe that a President getting advice from Tim Geithner is a socialist. 58% don’t believe or aren’t sure if the native Hawaiian was born in America. 53% think Sarah Palin is “more qualified” to be President, and 23% want to secede from the union. Obama will not get bipartisan support, because Republican politicians are afraid of their loony base.

“What is the point of Obama being conciliatory and careful,” asked Katha Pollitt, “if his opponents are reckless and don’t want to conciliate? Why not use this awful moment when so many are losing their jobs and houses, and states are cutting services to the bone, to remind people why they voted for him?” Progressives are dying to see a backbone.

Obama did make one point in his Daily Kos post that I wish he were living up to today. “I think the whole ‘centrist’ versus ‘liberal’ labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark. Too often, the ‘centrist’ label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy and education and tackling poverty, I don’t think Democrats have been bold enough.

Keep that in mind today, when Obama kicks off his bi-partisan health care summit.

–Paul Hogarth is a lawyer and community organizer at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a non-profit in San Francisco that also publishes Beyond Chron – voted the Bay Area’s “Best Local Website” in 2008. Paul is Beyond Chron’s Managing Editor, where he covers City Hall, affordable housing, and marriage equality. He is a former elected member of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.  Paul has appeared on CNN’s “Blogger Bunch” to discuss Prop 8, and is a frequent guest on Bay Area radio shows about local politics.

This piece first  appeared in Beyond Chron on 2/22/10.

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