Monday, August 12, 2013

Obama's drinking gourd ain't no Holy Grail

(reposted from 8/10/13)
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? -- lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board.
-- King Arthur to his knights, in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, The Holy Grail
Now, I think the really interesting question is why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail, their number-one priority. The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care and, presumably, repealing all those benefits I just mentioned -- kids staying on their parents' plan; seniors getting discounts on their prescription drugs; I guess a return to lifetime limits on insurance; people with preexisting conditions continuing to be blocked from being able to get health insurance.

-- President Obama, press conference, 8/9/13

Obama has more than once tagged his Republican opposition with a fundamentalist mindset on economic issues. In his mind, they do indeed follow wandering fires -- mirages of a "holy quest." He has used the metaphor before to denote their worship of false economic gods.

For example, in announcing his 11th hour deal with Republicans of the 111th Congress in a press conference on Dec. 7, 2010, he gave this explanation for his agreement to extend all the Bush income tax cuts, including for the wealthiest, for two more years in exchange for various stimulative measures (e.g., a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits):

Ben Feller: Was there a failure either on the part of the Democratic leadership on the Hill or here that you couldn’t preclude these wealthier cuts from going forward?

Obama  Well, let me say that on the Republican side, this is their holy grail, these tax cuts for the wealthy.  This is -- seems to be their central economic doctrine.  And so, unless we had 60 votes in the Senate at any given time, it would be very hard for us to move this forward.
And earlier, in his marathon confrontation with the House GOP caucus on Jan 29, 2010, in which he presented the pending healthcare reform bill as an essentially centrist approach to near-universal insurance, he illustrated his receptivity to any good-faith GOP input thus:
This [the dysfunctional healthcare status quo] is a big problem, and all of us are called on to solve it.  And that's why, from the start, I sought out and supported ideas from Republicans.  I even talked about an issue that has been a holy grail for a lot of you, which was tort reform, and said that I'd be willing to work together as part of a comprehensive package to deal with it.  I just didn't get a lot of nibbles.
While Obama implies some potential validity to the goal of tort reform (though he favors methods other than simply capping damages), he again exudes a conviction that Republican ends are faith-based, pursued with fanaticism (though in this case, foregone when clashing with an object of even more fanatic opposition).

In contrast, he casts his own economic goals as more...reality-based. In economic matters in particular, Obama's favorite metaphor for his own guiding light is the North Star -- a reliable, verifiable guide to the direction he wants to go (though with a Civil Rights echo).   It's a metaphor he reverts to when laying out long-term goals for a sustainable, shared prosperity. Indeed, in that December 2010 press conference, stung by questions implying that he'd given up on his principles to impassioned defense of the direction he'd taken the country in his first two years, he implicitly contrasted his flexible political navigation to the GOP tax-cutting dogmatism noted above:
This country was founded on compromise.  I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding.  And if we were really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.

So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there.  What is helping the American people live out their lives?  What is giving them more opportunity?  What is growing the economy?  What is making us more competitive?  And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.

And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight -- not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?
The North Star is a two-way metaphor for firmness of principle and flexibility as to means -- a pragmatist's talisman. And so it's remained, e.g., in this year's State of the Union address:
A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.  Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation:  How do we attract more jobs to our shores?  How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?  And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?
And again, more recently, at Mooresville Middle School, Mooresville, North Carolina, June 6, 2013:
And the middle class has to be prospering -- not just folks at the very top.  That’s got to be our focus:  a growing economy -- (applause) -- we’ve got to have a growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs.  That’s got to be the North Star that guides all of our efforts. 
For Obama, no single policy is a  a holy grail, i.e., an end in itself.  Each is questioned as means to the more broadly defined end -- which is a direction, not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The more perfect union is never perfected, but the way forward can be divined.

P.S. In this same press conference I thought Obama was disingenuous in his discussion of Edward Snowden and surveillance matters generally.

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