By Steve Hynd
Your Sunday "must read" is by Drew Westen in the NYT. Here's an extended excerpt:
When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.
IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public - a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn't bend that far.
Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama - and by extension the party he leads - believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction, one that weds "revenue enhancements" (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with "entitlement cuts" (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who've worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president's storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production - two methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on immigration reform after deporting a million immigrants in two years, breaking up families at a pace George W. Bush could never rival in all his years as president.
THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won't realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes - but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.
I think there's two very different things going on here. One is that, as I've written a few times over the last few years, Obama is America's Tony Blair: essentially a mildly rightwing Whig but someone who will use his ability at rhetoric to misdirect and dissemble in an attempt to please the maximum number of prospective voters the largest amount of the time possible.
The second is that, for that gambit to work, Obama must seem to deplore strong (the word used in criticism is often "hyperbolic") advocacy of any position he cannot stretch to accomodate from his deliberately centrist position. I say "deliberately" because it's an attempt to take a position which, even if it's never quite right is at least defensible as "not quite wrong". It's a weathervane approach to policy and politics. That's the exact gambit taken by most neoliberal policy "wonks" - who will tell you that "hyperbolic rhetoric" never solved a problem in utter disregard for Dr. King, or Keir Hardie, or FDR. Obama has surrounded himself with these neoliberal think-tank wonks who think, like him, that being "reasonable" and "centtrist" is the way to get to "consensus".
Westen dissasembles this belief in his final paragraph.
But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.
A.P. has just reported that Timothy Geithner has told Obama he will stay on as Treasury Secretary. MLK, FDR and Hardie are spinning in their graves.