IT IS an ancient assumption that tribulation is the threshold to deliverance. George Bush’s rule was so deeply ruinous in so many different ways and for so long that his successor’s campaign automatically lent itself to messianic hopes. It wasn’t that Barack Obama declared himself the messiah–to the contrary—but that many of his supporters tended to project onto him all their pent-up desires, while he practiced not only the politics of overlap but the politics of strategic vagueness. (“Hope.” “Change.” “Change You Can Believe In.”) It was as if in Barack Obama all the desires intersected.
The left wanted, in the main, financial regulation, Keynesian investment, civil liberties, green jobs, laws to cut greenhouse gases, a collaborative foreign policy, and the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The broader center-left, along with independents, had contradictory hopes: intelligence and greater equality, high-mindedness and practicality, simple decencies—transparency and telling the truth, for openers—coupled with a fighting faith. And don’t underestimate the compelling imagery of a black president. As long as he was ideologically simpatico to the great overlap, his skin color was a bonus. But obviously it would not have sufficed.
Ideological overlap was a precondition for victory. But it was never as simple as Obama and his well-wishers said. A lot of Obama’s supporters were Progressives—not in the current sense, a euphemism for liberals, but in the original sense, from the early twentieth century. They wanted, in other words, the politics of high-minded, middle-class idealism: throw the rascals out, clean up corruption, put adversaries around the table and reason together. A lot also were populists, who combined a politics of sturdy, working-class virtue—fairness and less inequality—with a politics of resentment. Progressives are, in the main, insiders—professionals, used to being deferred to. Populists are, in the main, outsiders—amateurs, galvanized by emotional furies. (I wrote about this split, under the rubric of Parties and Movements, in my book The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, and an article in Dissent, “Democratic Dilemmas: The Party and the Movements”.)
A lot of his supporters weren’t sure what they were and wouldn’t even have recognized the categories. But one way or the other they wanted a restart. The contradictions were real and hard to confront. It wasn’t cynical but tactically useful to suppress them.
ANY DEMOCRAT elected in 2008 would have carried a huge weight. Obama, so nicely equipped to bear this weight, found that what it takes to run a triumphant campaign is not what it takes to convert an electoral victory into tangible results. Once in office, he played to what is not only one of his strong suits but the strongest element in his character: Progressivism. He was eminently rational, and sounded that way, if with preacherly overtones. He deliberated. He was mannerly. (When it came to Afghanistan, he was more mannerly to war supporters than those who preferred phasing out.) He was mindful, perhaps too mindful, of the optics of rule—thus the stimulus had to be kept below the (black) magic number of $1 trillion.
He learned from the Clinton health care debacle of 1993-94 that the president cannot ram a bill down the throats of Congress. He veered in the opposite direction, leaving it to the legislators—meaning also the lobbyists—to write a bill. He thought he could drive a wedge into the “Coalition of No” by splitting the pharmaceutical lobby from the insurance lobby. That was a reasonable idea. The problem was that it turned out to be mistaken.
So all summer, everything fell into the hands of the “Gang of Six” from the Senate Finance Committee—representing states that account for a grand 2.6 percent of Americans. The most laughable national legislative body in the world spent the summer in thrall to the Party of No. The Party of No was fueled by an outsider movement, the Tea Party, more sure of itself—more activist!—than its quiescent opposites on the left. The Senate did what it normally does: stall its majority.
Stuck in a morass, Obama hung tough for post-partisanship. Months passed. After his fine September 9 speech to Congress, he retreated back behind the scenes. Republican “moderates”—all two of them from Maine—and that most immoderate quisling from Connecticut took every concession as a reason to demand more. When the country is largely quiescent and distracted, when the media love “death panels,” when the majority party plays post-partisan and the minority doesn’t, when supermajorities are taken for granted as having the moral standing of majorities, then the plutocrat-friendly partisans can stall.
Obama’s only chance of coming out of the stall was to return to campaign mode. But the White House—and the Obama movement of the year before—had let outside energy wither. Obama for America, the 13-million-strong Internet list, changed not only its name to Organizing for America, but its raison d’être. It surely wouldn’t have been easy, either for legal or psychological reasons, to fire up the popular engines again. But we see what happened when no one seriously tried. Enter the Tea Party movement.
AT THIS writing, there can still be a constructive health care bill. But a lot of time and momentum is already lost. We’re still facing double-digit unemployment. Obama has to play his other strong suits. He is a lucid explainer and an inspirational moralist. He needs to combine the two and go post-post-partisan. He can explain that choice to himself because he is an empiricist. (This is the upside of Progressivism.) You try an approach and you see what happens. If playing nice doesn’t bring the necessary results, then you adjust accordingly. The way to adjust now is take a certain risk of looking like an angry black guy—but with a smile. He should welcome the hatred of the corrupt financial industry, the Republicans, and the Tea Party.
The way to go post-post-partisan is to explain patiently, in large forums, how the Republicans erected one brick wall after another. Procedurally, the Party of No availed themselves of the Senate’s supermajority rules. Having brought down the country, made us despised around the world, let insurance companies and drug companies keep a hammerlock on health care, produced a gigantic deficit, and then–to boot–brought down the world economy and produced high unemployment, these know-nothings are hostage to a party base that believes, resolutely believes, that effective government = socialism = Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Che. (Glenn Beck made this case in an astounding propaganda film on Fox News Jan. 22, “Revolutionary Holocaust.” If you think I’m making this up, check it out here.)
Obama’s populist turn is overdue. How convincing will it be?
Todd Gitlin is on Dissent‘s editorial board and is a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School.