Barack Obama

Conservatives are still wandering stunned through the wreckage of the Bush presidency and have absented themselves from the policy debate. GOP politicians are hunkered down waiting for an anti-Obama backlash that may or may not materialize. Instead, as Rick Hertzberg wrote recently, the media personalities are running the show. And what a show:

The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful—they all routinely liken the President and the “Democrat Party” to murderous totalitarians—but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism—the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense.

As a group, politicians have incentives to be cautious – you know, politic – in their public statements. (There are, of course, exceptions.) But for media personalities, all the incentives point in the opposite direction. The more outrageous Limbaugh is, the more buttons he pushes, the higher the ratings and the more money he makes. In a Today Show interview, Limbaugh forswore any leadership role with the GOP while boasting of his ability to monopolize media coverage for days on end. During which, it should be noted, the media isn’t going to be paying much attention to John Boehner.

And when loudmouthed demagogues dominate the political discussion, it drives politicians further away from substantive debate, as they may be forced to pander to the most impassioned, red meat-devouring segments of the electorate.

All of this is to say, on the right there’s an inordinate focus on emotion and personalities that makes a real political debate impossible. One symptom of this is the right’s peculiar fixation on Obama’s personality and motivations – or rather, their imaginary versions of those things. To the conservosphere, Obama is a smug, preening narcissist, a character in a right-wing morality play, full of hubris and headed for a fall – any fall will do. When that happens the whole moral universe momentarily aligns itself with what is right and good.

Hence conservatives’ bizarre jubilation when Chicago lost its Olympic bid after Obama flew to Copenhagen and personally lobbied for it, and the view that Obama’s self-regard had finally done him in. George Will claimedincorrectly, it turns out – that Obama’s Olympic speech contained an inordinate number of first-person pronouns and snarked about narcissism as “an Olympic sport.”

Then last week, the Nobel Peace Prize spawned a thousand “narcissist” blog posts. conservative pundit Lisa Schiffren wrote: “Aides owe the president a dose of reality. Otherwise, the prize may exacerbate his vanity and narcissism, which are his most visible flaws, and inflate his cult of personality, which won’t create jobs or end wars.” At the Corner, Yuval Levin called it a Nobel Prize for Narcissism.

The problem with the Obama-the-narcissist idea is that Obama is not a narcissist. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” But there’s very little evidence for this, at least in the public face Obama presents.

All presidents have big egos – and they’re entitled, right? But that’s not the same as narcissism. I’m not a psychologist, but Obama seems like a pretty mature individual – certainly more psychologically “together” than many of his immediate predecessors. And his policies are ambitious, certainly, but not grandiose. Many presidents have attempted health care reform, for example, and Obama’s approach – to build on and alter the current system rather than setting up a new one – may not be ambitious enough. Levin and other conservatives say it’s grandiose to try to leverage Obama’s global popularity with speeches such as his Cairo address. But the White House would be crazy not to try this. It doesn’t mean they think those words will change the world all by themselves.

Nor is there an Obama “cult of personality.” Obama has done a lot to anger those on his left flank. They’re disillusioned at his “isms” – his centrism, pragmatism, incrementalism, and institutionalism. And those in the political center, who should most identify with his program, aren’t too pleased with him either. Nobody’s worshipping Obama anymore, if they ever did. Rather, polls show a majority of Americans personally like Obama. Last month, the WSJ-NBC poll put that figure at 71%, regardless of whether respondents approved or disapproved of his policies.

But conservatives personally dislike him. So they have ginned up an ex-post facto reason for that – if we don’t like him, he must be psychologically flawed. This is oddly reminiscent of Maureen Dowd’s trivializing approach to politics – pretend to know a politician intimately, take a few personality tics and spin them into a unified theory of psycho-political dysfunction that has at best a tenuous correspondence to reality. This is silly. If conservatives want to win back power, they should focus on issues. They could start by kicking Obama off the analyst’s couch and taking a spin on it themselves.

The George W. Bush presidency brought both the Republican Party and the conservative movement low, and it’s distressing to watch the GOP base get whipped into a frenzy by cynical demagogues, while its politicians do the only thing they know how to do – pander to the people making the loudest, most aggrieved noises.

Demagoguery and aggrievement are nothing new in American politics. But what’s strange is the scattershot nature and incoherence of the attacks on Obama. Usually, politicians – even demagogues – summon a sense of history, shared experience, and cultural traditions to move people. But there’s little evidence of those things in most of the critiques of Obama’s policies by Republican politicians or tea party activists, little evident understanding of what the president is doing or how it might be improved upon, changed, or replaced. Scare words and phrases have supplanted arguments. Those words have historical meaning. Once, history gave those words power. But now they’ve been shorn of all context. It’s a communist-fascist-socialist word salad.

Czar Nicholas II

Czar Nicholas II

One of the sillier examples of this is the crusade, by Glenn Beck and others, against Obama administration “czars.” They already got the scalp of “green jobs czar” Van Jones, and now the attacks continue. “Czar” sounds scary, I guess, because it’s a Russian word. Communists are taking over the government! Of course, the last real Russian Czar, Nicholas II, was executed by communists in 1918, so the historical reference is nonsensical. So is the substance of the attack. “Czar” is an informal – and semi-ironic – title that connotes a certain policy portfolio. It has been in use since at least the 1970s. As Dave Weigel noted in the Washington Independent, many “czars” actually occupy pre-existing jobs. Some of them been approved by the Senate. Some are mid-level appointees, and don’t require Senate confirmation. A few have been appointed to new positions, such as “Afghanistan czar” Richard Holbrooke – but most of them are well-credentialed.

So: Obama, the president, is appointing people to government positions that have certain policy coordination responsibilities. That’s what presidents do. There may be questions to be raised about their job performance or past activities, but in that respect they are no different from hundreds of other political appointees. Yet, exploiting the notion that Obama must be up to something sinister, Republicans have seized upon the czar issue. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is running for governor of Texas, attacks the “czars” in today’s Washington Post as an affront to the Constitution. It’s bizarre. (And also sad that the Washington Post provides a forum for a specious argument.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives had credible, coherent arguments to make about government policies and the nature of government itself. I sometimes agreed, more often disagreed. But their arguments had some heft: the liberal welfare state actually did have a lot of serious problems in the overlapping realms of policy and politics. Now, if I’m looking for a meaningful critique of Obama’s policies and appointments, (with some exceptions of course) I’m just not going to find it on the right. Conservatism has, effectively, gone AWOL from the policy debate – which is a great boon to Obama, but probably not so good for the American system.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate with myself here for a moment. Conor Friedersdorf has the best explanation I’ve seen of the public anxiety surrounding health care reform. While it’s clear that all those angry and misinformed town hall attendees are a small minority of the voting public, their anxieties – stoked by our current economic travails, rapid social and demographic changes, and government and politics that haven’t really worked for oh, a decade or longer – are real, and shared by millions more. For all the problems in the current health care system, and for all of Barack Obama’s talents, it would be crazy not to feel some trepidation at such a big undertaking. Many more people still have health insurance than don’t, and they don’t want to end up like those who don’t; so any change is perceived as a threat:

My grandmother, my mother, and countless other Americans may be misinformed about the particulars of health-care reform, and express certain misbegotten fears, but health care proponents would do well to understand the anxiety’s source: Theirs is ultimately a fear of rapid, sweeping policy shifts, especially those brought about by lengthy, amorphous legislative proposals that leave unclear exactly what might change the month after next.

How could that uncertainty fail to rile anyone with health care they like? Ours is a country where many citizens have premised career choices, financial decisions, and even where they reside on ensuring affordable access to quality insurance. Investment in any system, no matter how flawed, breeds a perfectly rational risk-aversion when changes are proposed. What perplexes me is how frequently elected officials underestimate that impulse.

This, he says, is an argument for taking an incremental approach to health care reform and other big structural problems. Handle it one piece at a time, in more digestible bites. Don’t overreach like Bill Clinton did on health care or George W. Bush did on immigration and Social Security.

This is a good argument – and, indeed, that’s pretty much how the modern welfare state came about, as Paul Begala points out in this piece – but I don’t completely buy it for the reason that so often, such anxiety proves politically transient.

A lot of people – liberals, skeptics of big government, deficit hawks – denounced Bush’s Medicare-prescription drug program (which Friedersdorf cites as an example of an incremental approach, but as increments go was pretty large) as unworkable. While it’s deeply flawed in various ways, bureaucratically it works better than anyone expected. Seniors aren’t storming into town halls demanding it be dismantled. The same thing is likely to happen with health care reform. Once something passes – and it may end up substantially closer to “incremental” than what Obama originally wanted – health care reform will disappear as a political wedge issue. There will be problems, of course, and controversies – the problems it addresses won’t go away overnight. But it’s unlikely that the Republicans will be running against Obamacare at this time next year.

Clearly, Obama underestimated public anxieties over health care reform – and a little extra humility won’t hurt him. But the political viability of reform efforts depends on a lot of things besides the public mood (which is by no means foursquare against health care reform): the party breakdowns in Congress, the actual need for the reform in question, the president’s own skills and ability to adapt. I’m betting Obama can leverage his advantages here.

Aside from the issue of whether the congressional “town hall” has outlived its usefulness as a way for politicians and the public to interact, there’s an important underlying question in those confrontations over health care reform now playing out. Do they represent an incipient a 1994- or 1980-style backlash against Obama?

To most of us on the outside, the town-halls-gone-wild appear to reflect the intense feelings of a relatively small group of people who are very badly misinformed about what’s actually happening in Washington. They’re angry at Obama for all kinds of things the government isn’t doing and has no plans to do. In the broadest sense, some of their suspicions are legitimate – if government does have more power over health care, it will screw it up somehow. But the health care system is very badly screwed up already, and there appears to be no awareness of that fact in those rude, angry outbursts.

But is this the start of a good, old-fashioned right-wing populist prairie fire? The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder argued yesterday that, strictly in terms of the health care issue, the protestors and their organizers have overplayed their hand – that they are alienating the independents who want a real political debate, not a shouting match, i.e., the voters who matter most to centrist Democrats who will make or break any health care bill.

Patrick Ruffini shot back, saying Ambinder is misreading things. His post, titled “Energy at the edges moves the center,” cites the left’s at-times over-the-top Iraq protests, ca. 2003 and 2004, as an example of something that seemed politically marginal at the time, with polls showing broad support for the war effort, but later became the majority view.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in politics. And there are signs of serious discontent with Democrats in the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races. But the circumstances here seem very different from 1980, 1994 – or 2003, for that matter. Ruffini’s argument likens health care reform to Iraq. But it took several years of disastrous mismanagement and dysfunctional leadership from the White House to turn the public against the war – and George W. Bush. Obama has been in office six months. Assuming some kind of health care reform passes, it’s unlikely to turn into an Iraq-like disaster. Most people will be only marginally affected, if at all. Many people will see their situations improve. There will be problems, no doubt. But “death panels” won’t be killing grannies every day like IEDs were in Baghdad ca. 2006. And remember, unlike his predecessor Obama actually seems to know some things about making government institutions work. If some kind of health care reform doesn’t pass (which I think is unlikely given the stakes), it will damage Obama. But it will also be over quickly.

In 1980, there was broad anger at, and structural problems within, the government and the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, those problems lingered: Bill Clinton was never elected with more than 50 percent of the vote. Obama won with 53 percent of the vote. Some of those Obama voters are no doubt disillusioned with what they’ve seen so far. But “government” is always a proxy for other things – in this case, widespread economic distress, wrenching social change, etc. The town hall craziness is channeling some of that – it is unfocused rage coming from a narrow segment of the population. But the circumstances in which we find ourselves are fluid: if the economy improves and health care reform passes, and America doesn’t turn into Nazi Germany, that anger is unlikely to result in a huge anti-Obama backlash. In part because there just aren’t any good alternatives right now.

Dick Cheney’s campaign of retroactive self-justification, culminating in his AEI speech, is bizarre, and not just for its historical footnote-worthiness, its political thuggery, or its graceless, hectoring tone. What’s strangest is that long after the policies he champions were cast aside by his own administration, and the Republican Party repudiated at the polls, he is still able to hijack an important issue with a campaign of pure rhetorical cant.

Let’s be clear: Cheney is not making an argument about what anti-terrorism policies work best. A genuine argument would engage the difficult issues at hand, asking “what is the best way to fight terrorism?” It would marshal facts to support its positions. It would not be layered with half-truths and bursting with straw men. It would endeavor to convince skeptics. Perhaps there are arguments to be made that “enhanced interrogation techniques” are the most effective ways to elicit information, that illegally warehousing and “disappearing” terrorist suspects is the most effective way to handle them, and that only virtually unlimited executive power can guarantee security. But I have never heard such arguments from Cheney or his supporters.

Instead, all we get are angry, contemptuous assertions. Cheney is, by his own account, self-evidently right. His speech did not acknowledge that he or his Bush administrations had committed a single error. It did not acknowledge that principled people might disagree. The only source of disagreement would be the weakness, arrogance and naivete of his critics, including President Obama.

But of course this has almost nothing to do with the real world of devising policies to combat terrorism. The Bush White House itself abandoned torture when it became clear it wasn’t very useful, was probably illegal, and was terribly damaging politically and strategically. If another 9/11 does occur, American officials will think twice before torturing again. And even if they go ahead and do it, what do you think will happen? Almost certainly a rerun of the same disaster that happened the first time. Cheney’s “comprehensive strategy,” as he calls it, wasn’t very strategic: it was series of ad hoc fishing expeditions accompanied by public bluster that got us mostly grief. It was incoherent, an anti-strategy, one man’s fantasy about imposing his will on a dangerous world. (Maybe there were some successes that can be attributed solely to Cheney’s post 9/11 decisions – who knows? But to figure that out we need some kind of truth commission to evaluate the record.)

Cheney’s demagoguery is nothing new in American politics. But what’s striking is the deference and credibility it’s granted by the media-political world. You’d think that there is an actual debate going on, that Obama and Cheney represent two positions with equal weight that Americans have to choose between. Today’s Washington Post is symptomatic: the print edition features a banner headline: “In Dueling Speeches, a National Security Debate.” The main story hits the familiar beats: “Presidential scholars could not recall another moment when consecutive administrations intersected so early and in such a public way.” Okay, but framing it this way ignores the content of the speeches, and recent history. Obama, whatever you may think of his recent compromises on the terrorism front, is at least wrestling with real issues (as this Post editorial correctly points out) attempting to create a legal framework for terrorism suspects. Cheney’s statements, meanwhile, should be treated with skepticism, as he has a record of brazenly uttering untruths in service to a political agenda marked by its determined detachment from reality. Do his words really deserve the respect, with its implication of importance and legitimacy, that they’re getting?

Besides embellishing a legacy, the current Cheney campaign seems aimed at one thing: setting up Obama for the stab-in-the-back treatment in the event of another terror attack. Please. Terrorism is a serious problem. It requires real strategic thinking. Such posturing may be catnip to the press, but it’s virtually irrelevant to the world we live in, and unhelpful to the hard work of protecting us.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama made clear his distaste of the news cycle and its trivial obsessions. Skeptics said this would hurt his chances: that to win, a candidate must dominate the news day-by-day, minute-by-minute, with attacks that keep the opposition off-balance. Yet the Obama campaign managed to win by emphasizing a longer-term strategy over the hair-trigger approach.

But on Jan. 20, for all intents and purposes President Obama became the news cycle. His ambitions for toning down Washington’s nasty partisan warfare – and with that, creating better prospects for his agenda – depend on his ability to nudge the news cycle away from the cable network- and Drudge-driven obsession with transient panics and cultural outrages. (An obsession that the Bush administration, with its focus on divisive electoral politics, actively cultivated.) On that front, he’s been only partially successful so far. But far more so than most of us would have thought going in.

The media love nothing more than scandal, failure and disaster. But so far Obama has declined to provide them. The White House’s frenzy of activity during the first 100 days – much of it politically and substantively successful, with the opposition in disarray – more or less requires that news about him focus on relaying facts. It’s hard to stick with “who’s up, who’s down” when there’s only one player on the field.

And as Dan Kennedy notes, Obama has been a boon to the media business. It’s more fun and better for ratings to cover a glamorous new president than an unpopular old one. The camera loves Obama, his family, even his dog. His professorial cool is a stark contrast to the at-sea press conference performances of his predecessor. We’re also facing various alarming crises, so for various reasons – information, reassurance – people want to hear what Obama has to say: his prime time press conferences draw an impressive number of viewers. Robert Gibbs’s White House press office, meanwhile, has been strategically smart. It has sat Obama down with conservative and liberal columnists and bloggers, and had the president give non-traditional media (including the Huffington Post) a turn at press conferences. Not surprisingly, these are explicit choices to bypass the insular White House press corps in the shaping of public opinion.

Obama has lagged on the transparency front — the creation of a friendly interface that will allow journalists, bloggers – and everyone else – full access to information and data from the White House and rest of the government.. But the technical obstacles are formidable, so this will take time.

Where is all this going? We probably won’t know until Obama makes his first big stumble and has to fend off the wolves. But a Lewinksy or Rovian gambit seems unlikely from this White House, so that’s progress in itself.

President Obama deserves credit for releasing the Bush torture memos. But his position on torture prosecutions is so muddled it gives nuance a bad name (and just when it was making a comeback). There are so many bad actors it’s hard to figure out how to handle them all, but Obama’s position is, or appears to be: CIA interrogators won’t be prosecuted. The lawyers who wrote the now-infamous memos may be. The top officials who were ultimately responsible – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Tenet, others – probably not. And – maybe – there should be some kind of 9/11-style commission to examine this. But Obama is not actually calling for that, just suggesting it.

This makes sense only through the prism of politics – and a complex politics it is, involving constituencies in the intelligence and defense bureaucracies, Congress and the nation as a whole. Obama is trying to please, or to not offend, as many of these constituencies as possible, while at the same time laying down a clear marker against torture.

Obama should be setting the tone for how the country handles the torture issue. Instead, the debate has slipped away from him entirely and taken on a life of its own. Democrats are agitating for investigations and prosecutions. Republicans are arguing that torture works (pivoting from, without completely abandoning, the now-untenable “we do not torture” refrain). And Obama is both parsing up a storm and trying to stay above it all.

I empathize – Obama is trying to accomplish a lot, and the torture debate can only suck attention from much bigger issues, while opening up political and social divisions the president is trying to put behind him. It may even make more sense, in terms of building a lasting anti-torture consensus, to have less accountability rather than more. But this process requires clarity, not endless caveats. How, for example, does Obama’s don’t-prosecute-the-interrogators-policy apply to the period before the legally enabling memos were written? A process has begun here; more disclosures will follow the ones we’ve already seen. It will be messy and politically contentious – exactly the kind of thing we know Obama doesn’t like one bit. But that is how democracy works, and Obama would be advised, to the degree he can, to simply get out of the way.

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