In the Arena

Dems Depressed and Disheartened

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The lead item on Politico–titled “Dems Urge Obama to Take a Stand”–is almost surrealistic. Take a stand? The guy passed health care, a stimulus bill that helped avoid a Depression, a groundbreaking financial reform bill that is too complicated to be popularly described, a bailout that enabled General Motors and Chrysler to survive. He nominated two estimable women to the Supreme Court. He restored America’s image in the world. I can go on…

But Dems are distressed? He’s not populist or ideological enough? Oh please. There are several ways to go about the presidency. Ronald Reagan chose one way: he said one thing and did another. He was for cutting back the size of government, but didn’t. He was for lowering taxes and he did, but then he raised taxes–two of the laegest percentage increases in American history–when his supply-side “philosophy” proved a phony. He confronted the Soviet Union, but he also would have agreed to massive reductions in nuclear arsenals if the Soviets had allowed him to pursue his Star Wars fantasy.

Barack Obama has chosen another way.

He has pretty much done what he said he’d do. His achievements are historic. But he hasn’t wrapped them up in an ideological bumper sticker–or provided some neat way for the public to understand it, or pretended to be a yeoman simpleton, noshing on pork rinds, clearing brush and excoriating the business community. That is a real political problem. He delivered a stealth tax cut to 95% of the American people; I’ve never seen a politician cut taxes and not take sufficient credit for it before. He made it impossible for Americans to be denied health care coverage because of pre-existing conditions or chronic problems; somehow this has gotten lost in the “socialist” shuffle as well.  He ended major combat operations in Iraq, on time and without much fuss–without using the word “victory” or denying the continuing problems involved in cobbling together a coherent government there. Another President might have hyped this “achievement” relentlessly.

I find this diffidence sort of admirable and extremely incompetent. But even if Obama, and his communications shop, had been more focused on touting his achievements, and even if he delivered his major speeches on financial reform brandishing a pitchfork and a torch, I suspect the Democrats would be in pretty much the same dismal electoral shape as they are now. The country’s economic problems–the depth and devastation of this recession; the possibility that we’re in a different sort of trough than we’ve ever been in before; the confusion and anxiety wrought in certain sections of the country by changing social mores and an influx of non-white immigrants–trump and undermine abstract reports of successful government activism. So long as the Great Recession continues, it’s easy–indeed, it’s natural–to question any bailout, any stimulus project, that might protect and create jobs for some, but leaves the vast majority of Americans unaffected. So long as white middle-class Christian Americans live in the fear that their children won’t live as well as they have, it’s easy to blame Latinos, Muslims, gays, mixed-race couples (who produce ethnically confusing amalgams like Barack Hussein Obama) and elitists for attempting to steal the “real” America. It’s easy to credit the paranoid prejudices of Glenn Beck.

The idea that these tumultuous anxieties would somehow be addressed if the President behaved more like Reagan is foolish. The idea, promoted by the Democratic Party’s myopic left, that being more “progressive” might clarify things and restore the party’s status is a fantasy. The fact is, Obama has done a great many of the things liberals have always wanted–starting with health care reform–and the country is still, for the moment, a mess. That’s a problem. Democrats would be in trouble this year even if health care had passed with a “public option,” even if the stimulus package had been larger, even if “cap and trade” had passed, even if Obama hadn’t decided to double down in Afghanistan or continue many of Bush’s national security protective measures. In fact, I suspect they’d be in worse trouble. This is a profoundly moderate country. It has a distinct libertarian streak; it distrusts “big”–government or business–even as it prospers from the carefully applied benefits of both. If there is any national ideology, it is informality, which is neither left nor right. (And it occurs to me that Obama, preternaturally cool and private, is deficient in the informality zone–another much-discussed problem.)

Sure, it would be nice if the White House were Reagan-savvy (that is, Michael Deaver-savvy) about public relations. But Democrats should not delude themselves by thinking that ideological purity, or a phony populism foreign to the President’s character, is the answer. At a moment as complicated and unnerving as this, there are no easy answers.  At a moment as complicated and unnerving as this, it isn’t hard to imagine a failed presidency–although, of course, it would be foolishly premature to do so. But it is not possible, at this point, to imagine a dishonorable Obama presidency; he has faced the national crisis in a manner that may be politically flawed, but he has not run from, or fudged or demagogued, the problems. He has done pretty much what he said he was going to do when he ran for office. That is something Democrats should be able to live with, proudly.