Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sully breaks with Obama

Readers of Andrew Sullivan's blog have probably picked up on a subtle shift in the reader's attitude toward Barack Obama over the last day or so. Here are a few examples of this difficult-to-detect change:
  • On gay rights: "What is remarkable to me is how many Republicans across the country have shown more actual - rather than rhetorical - support for marriage equality than the Democrats in the Congress and the White House. On this subject, Obama reeks of fear."
  • Again: "Oh, I forgot the cocktail party. Always great to throw a cocktail party for the gays. That's what they really want, isn't it? Just give them some cocktails, ask for more money and they'll forget about their civil rights."
  • On Iraq: "As long as we get out cleanly, it won't be so bad. But we won't - Obama will see to it that we are there for as long as he is president. I mean: that's why we elected him, right?"
  • This one just needs the title: "The Obama-Bush Police State."
Gee, anyone else get the sense that Sullivan has gotten over Obama recently? Or that he's trying to?

Look, not all of these criticisms are unfair. I would like to see Obama get into gay rights more aggressively, and I would like to see Obama start to roll back the Bush era security intrusions more forcefully. (I'll just ignore the third point--the Iraq withdrawal is more or less on track, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that he'll backslide there.) But while Obama hasn't moved quickly enough for my tastes on those areas, I think it's overstating the case to say that Obama doesn't care--he's known for his long game, as Sullivan has often admired. In reality, though, the problems for progress on these areas are almost exclusively Congressional and not Presidential. Congress seems to be absolutely terrified by the terror issue in a way that Obama isn't, and Obama has been markedly more progressive on this than they have. On the two most egregious examples of Bushian terror excess, Obama has ended torture and has tried to close Gitmo. Congress has tried to block him on the second one, and did not exactly speak up in his favor on the first. The reasonable conclusion is that Obama, while not perfect on these issues, is much, much better than Congress on these issues. I would argue that Obama isn't going far enough, but the politics of the situation are impossible. Anything Obama tries to do to salvage the rule of law or national dignity is going to be assailed by Republicans who are very invested in distorting the rule of law for a very simple reason: they either ignorantly or knowingly facilitated its derailment, as did a lot of Democrats too. So anything that Obama tries to do to right the wrongs of the Bush years is going to be greeted with a cavalcade of shouts, jeers and sneers by the Fox News/WaPo apparatus that wants desperately to avoid facing up to the Bushian barbarity of which they were all complicit in advancing. I had initially hoped that the remaining Republicans would dump the Bush legacy wholesale after that clown left office, just like the Soviets did with Stalin. This has not been the case. But absent full-scale support from Democrats (which doesn't exist) or support from the media (yeah, sure), there's only so much he can do. And much of this is true of gay rights as well. Obama's support for these issue positions is largely rhetorical because, well, that's kind of the limitation of the office. In a parliamentary system, Obama himself could introduce legislation to deal with these topics, and he'd be in a much better position to pressure legislators than he can in this system. Since everyone loves to celebrate the timeless wisdom of the framers, shouldn't it be pointed out that this is the way it was intended to work out? The founders saw Congress as the government's central institution. Congress sucking has little to do with Obama, so far as I can tell. And Obama's rhetorical skills didn't exactly help Congress take his plans on Gitmo seriously.

I don't mean to offer an unqualified defense of Obama's choices, but there are very few that are incomprehensible. And he's gotten a lot right--he took on a lot of his own base on the banks issue, specifically the Krugman-Stiglitz axis--and it seems like he got that right. He's been generally quite good on foreign policy, despite an iffy stance on Honduras and Biden's unfortunate remarks on Russia. Afghanistan seems to be stabilizing, Iraq is on track. Time will tell what happens on health care and climate change--they will probably not be what I'd like, but I'm reasonably confident that progress will be made. So it's not all been bad. I think it's a cop-out just to say that Obama couldn't do the right thing because of the politics, but I do think that Obama really is in an impossible position and is trying his best to fix things. Maybe he'll be successful, maybe he won't, but it's not like he's been sitting on his hands for the past six months, James Buchanan style, hoping that everything would just fix itself.

During the campaign, a lot of people projected their own wishes onto Obama. I get the sense that Sullivan is finally being disillusioned. I, however, am still hopeful. I don't intend to let Obama off the hook, but I still believe that his heart is in the right place and that he's doing his best. At best, I think Sullivan's attitude is another example of the idea that it's generally not a good idea to act as if the President is some sort of exalted, grand figure like Lycurgus or Solon, but rather a politician trying his best to do what's right for America, given the existing political constraints.

(Oh, and by the way, that first bullet point is really asinine. If Scozzafava gets elected to Congress, she'll be the only Republican I know of at a federal level that favors gay marriage, if she even keeps that position. There are half a dozen Democratic Senators that favor it now, as well as a number of congresspeople. It was Democrats that instituted gay marriage in all the states in which it is presently legal, while the biggest profiles in cowardice on this issue have been "pro-gay" Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Douglas. Sullivan has a point that Obama should be speaking more about this issue, but this is a really head-smackingly stupid statement. Sure, Democrats need to get with the program and do more, but liberals are committed to gay rights and conservatives generally are committed in the opposite direction. Making a statement like this (along with the Iraq statement) leads me to believe that Obama has disillusioned Sullivan on a level that goes beyond public policy. But I'm not a mind-reader, so who really knows.)

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.