Monday, January 28, 2013
The President's Tragic Flaw
by David Atkins
The New Republic has an interesting interview with President Obama out. There's not much earth-shattering in it, but this bit in particular is both maddening and instructive. For context, the conversation is about Republican obstructionism:
CH: You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you've made headway on that?President Obama is a man of many admirable qualities and strengths. But he has a character flaw worthy of Shakespearean tragedy that is perfectly illustrated in this little snippet. That flaw is the desire common to many tragic anti-heroes imbued with a certain narcissism, to believe that he can do what no others can--in this case, to transcend seemingly impossible political divides by bringing the two parties together to achieve bipartisan policy goals.
President Obama: Not yet, obviously.
CH: How do you imagine it happening?
President Obama: I never expected that it would happen overnight. I think it will be a process. And the Republican Party is undergoing a still-early effort at reexamining what their agenda is and what they care about. I think there is still shock on the part of some in the party that I won reelection. There's been a little bit of self-examination among some in the party, but that hasn't gone to the party as a whole yet.
And I think part of the reason that it's going to take a little bit of time is that, almost immediately after the election, we went straight to core issues around taxes and spending and size of government, which are central to how today's Republicans think about their party. Those issues are harder to find common ground on.
But if we can get through this first period and arrive at a sensible package that reduces our deficits, stabilizes our debts, and involves smart reforms to Medicare and judicious spending cuts with some increased revenues and maybe tax reform, and you can get a package together that doesn't satisfy either Democrats or Republicans entirely, but puts us on a growth trajectory because it leaves enough spending on education, research and development, and infrastructure to boost growth now, but also deals with our long-term challenges on health care costs, then you can imagine the Republicans saying to themselves, "OK, we need to get on the side of the American majority on issues like immigration. We need to make progress on rebuilding our roads and bridges."
There are those who claim that the President is fundamentally centrist and believes in a Rockefeller Republican vision on economics. And yet there is much evidence against this notion: the Affordable Care Act, the fiscal cliff deal and the President's successful negotiation on the debt ceiling all had fairly progressive outcomes given the standards of the era and the capacities of Congress to achieve them. The President's Supreme Court choices have been excellent. True, there has been little prosecution of Wall Street villains or abnegation of certain kinds of militaristic foreign policy. Those are problematic to be sure, but not necessarily determinative of the President's vision. There are other explanations for these problems, mostly having to do with a desire not to upset too many apple carts at once during a time of turbulence and overwhelming political hostility.
Rather than second guess the President's motives, Occam's Razor suggests that we take his words at face value. His words are remarkably consistent and have been for years: he wants to bridge the partisan divide and make Washington functional again. The fact that Republicans seem absolutely committed to breaking American governance and destroying the President at all costs doesn't seem to faze him much, nor does it cause him to question their essential goodwill and allegiance to nation's fundamental well-being.
The President seems to genuinely believe that if a Grand Bargain on taxes, spending and deficits can be reached, then Republicans will be placated enough to be reasonable on other pieces of the Administration's social and economic agenda.
This vision presumes an enormous amount of good faith on the part of the Republican Party that is not in evidence. It first presumes that Republicans actually care about cutting deficits instead of simply slashing the safety net and redistributing wealth upward to the obscenely rich. The deficit-ballooning presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush alone are evidence enough to prove otherwise. The President's assumptions secondarily presume that if Republicans were to see their deficit objectives fulfilled, they would be placated enough to be reasonable when considering the President's other policy goals. That, too, requires a suspension of disbelief. The history of the Republican Party over the last few decades has shown that any giving of ground is considered not a good faith effort at quid pro quo negotiation, but rather weakness to be exploited by further demands.
Significantly, it also presumes that making concessions to Republicans on taxes, deficits and spending is worth their cooperation on other issues such as immigration. Unless Republicans were to play against type by cooperating on significant action against climate change (a highly unlikely scenario), such trades would almost certainly be counterproductive to the overall interests of the American people even if they were possible.
But it appears that despite all evidence, the President believes that political reconciliation is somehow possible, and that a chastened Republican Party will come to the table as a legitimate negotiating partner once the deficit is taken off the table as an issue. He needs, for some deep-seated reason, to believe it. Perhaps he believes that American governance is reaching a point of no return and that if he can't save it, no one can. It would be an odd belief for an African-American President dealing with an entrenched opposition based mostly in the old Confederacy. Perhaps he believes that no policy legacy would be more celebrated than the cultural legacy of having "solved" the hostility-generating issues for all time and having brought back an era of good feelings to Capitol Hill based purely on his own charisma and determination to accomplish the goal.
Who knows? But it's increasingly clear (and has been since he began running for President back in 2007) that the President is pushing for a Grand Bargain less out of a conviction that benefits must be taken from the middle class for the benefit of the wealthy, and more from a belief that only from such pain can a broken legislative system be fixed. He is bound and determined to be the man to fix it, and no amount of direct Republican hostility to him and every fiber of his being will dissuade him.
The President's tragic flaw is ultimately a function of misplaced idealism. The problem with Washington isn't that Republicans and Democrats can't get along. The problem is that the entire Republican Party and far too large a section of the Democratic Party has been utterly captured by corporate and plutocratic interests. Worse still, a majority of the Republican Party has been taken over not just by run-of-the-mill plutocrats, but by rabid Objectivists not just corrupted by wealth, but enraptured by an intense, pseudo-religious allergy to empathy and the common good. Cooperation between the parties in this climate isn't something to be wished for. It's devoutly to be avoided.
The President is right about one thing: legislative accomplishments worthy of a legacy etched into Mount Rushmore are utterly impossible in the current political climate. But changing that equation depends not on bringing the two sides together, but rather on serious reform of the legislative system that helps cleanse both parties of what ails them. If President Obama wanted a legacy worthy of his considerable ambition, he would spend more time pushing for filibuster reform than for Grand Bargains, and more time weeding money out of politics than defusing partisanship.
But it will be difficult to convince him otherwise. Like many a Shakesperean tragic hero, his own misplaced idealism and overweening confidence in his own personal charisma will likely deny him the legacy of success he so deeply craves. Fortunately, it is only the beginning of his second term, and the curtain has barely risen on Act III. There is still time to adjust course and change the fate of this Presidency before the tragedy is etched irrevocably into the history books.
thereisnospoon 1/28/2013 07:30:00 AM