Campaign Mode

Andrew Leonard in Salon on Obama’s speech last night:  “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was exactly right in his comment before the speech Thursday morning: ‘This isn’t a jobs plan; it’s a reelection plan.’”  According to Leonard, Obama was “being a little too cute” when “[h]e tried… to pretend otherwise.”  The reason we know it was a reelection speech is, apparently, because “there’s zero chance of anything like [his jobs plan] passing.”

Quite apart from a concern about whether Andrew Leonard, or anyone at Salon, should be carrying Mitch McConnell’s water for him, the analysis seems to offer no way for Obama actually to address the jobs crisis.  I’m having difficulty imagining what, in Leonard’s ears, a real jobs proposal would have sounded like.

Didn’t everyone agree that the Republicans would reject any proposal the president made?  Weren’t we also agreed that Obama should nevertheless come out swinging, with a strong proposal for solving the crisis, a proposal that would not pull punches based on the Republicans’ presumed intransigence?  Am I the only one who understood the rationale behind that as more than electorally strategic?  Aren’t Obama’s choices right now pretty much reduced to forcing the Republicans onto the defensive, not just so he can win reelection—though that would be nice—but because by keeping them on the defensive he can have some slim hope of breaking through the obstructionism that has prevented anyone from doing anything about the economy?  The president’s threat to take the argument to “every corner of this country” seemed to be as much about the opposition’s reelection campaigns as his.  He was saying, “I may not be able to keep you from blocking me, but if you insist on blocking me, I will do everything I can to make it cost you.”  You’re only allowed to reduce that to electioneering if you can come up with a better strategy for getting the opposition to yield.  If the test of the speech’s seriousness is whether any of its proposals are likely to pass, then perhaps thirty minutes of silence would have better pleased Leonard.

I don’t think I’m being naive.  I understand that reelection is and has to be part of Obama’s calculations right now.  The problem, though, with Leonard’s analysis, and analysis like it, is that it doesn’t leave room for strategies that are not merely electoral.  We wanted him to come out fighting and he did, and now we’re assuming that he was only fighting for his own ass.  Or is that what we wanted him to fight for?

It’s a version of the problem I have with the more Glenn Greenwaldian among my friends.  If you’re going to go on and on about how disappointed you are in Obama, how much of a sellout he is, then you’ve got to have a credible answer to one question:  who would be doing better?  And your answer to that question—the person you propose—has to satisfy two conditions:  that person has to have a reasonable chance of (a) getting elected and (b) being allowed to govern once elected.  There may, for all I know, be lots of people who fit those criteria, but only two occur to me off the top of my head:  Hillary and Bill.  And if the Glenn Greenwaldians don’t like Obama, they REALLY don’t like Hillary and Bill.

By all means push back on Obama when you feel that he’s reneged on his promises or principles—Guantanomo, the public option—but do it in the context of the circumstances the man is actually in.  If you don’t like the system, work to change it, but don’t accuse Obama of bad faith because he hasn’t managed to transcend it by dint of personal magnetism.

Moreover, Obama has been subjected to attacks whose vitriolic craziness makes Bill’s troubles look like a champagne brunch.  The question of whether those attacks have been racist obscures the way in which Obama’s mixed heritage—mixed not just in race, but in geography, in lived experience—stand for an America that many of us have felt coming into being for a long time.  Obama’s election seemed to ratify that America for us.  Which, for a huge segment of the country, was exactly the problem.

The level of obstructionism he’s faced has been unprecedented.  Could he have finessed that obstructionism more adroitly?  Maybe. He’s one limited person with his own set of failings, as Bill had his.  Given a choice, I’d take Obama’s failings over Bill’s.  And I’d take both of theirs over those of Obama’s predecessor.  But these seem to me real—or at least imaginable—choices.  Just as Obama/Perry or Obama/Romney is an imaginable choice.  The choice between Obama and some unnamed person who would somehow tame Wall Street, neuter the Republicans, and defeat the corrupting power of money and lobbyists does not seem like a real choice to me, and because it’s not real, it’s potentially dangerous.

If I have hope for Obama’s reelection and his chances of making headway against the Republicans, it’s not because of the eloquence and fire that everyone agrees he summoned again last night.  The eloquence wasn’t what won him the election, though it certainly helped.  It was his ability to take the long view, to see the separate skirmishes as part of an overarching narrative.  He managed to squeak by with this strategy on the health care bill.  Who knows?  He may squeak by again on his newest proposal.

But if he doesn’t we should not be standing on the sidelines, arms chummily linked with Mitch McConnell, dismissing the game as unwinnable from the start.  We should be worrying, deeply, over what happens when the game is lost.

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