Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Where Obama's Green Lantern lies

Sean Trende offers up a kind of excuse for pundits and centrists who indulge in what political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls Green Lanternism. --lambasting Obama for failures of ill-defined "leadership," i.e., for failing to charm the Republicans out of their scorched-earth opposition or to overcome the extreme constraints the Constitution imposes on presidential power in domestic affairs.   According to Trende, the expectation that Obama would exert magical powers to overcome opposition derives from the campaign Obama ran in 2008:
Many of the president’s supporters thought they were voting for the Green Lantern in 2008.

Remember, the actual policy differences between Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were pretty limited. To help distinguish himself from the pack, and to attack Clinton indirectly, Obama all but dressed up in green tights, claiming that his candidacy would enable us to put old arguments behind us, bring people together, and transform the country.
There is an element of truth to this, as there was an element of malarkey in Obama's promise to usher in "a different kind of politics."  But only an element, on both sides of that equation. Obama's core pitch and promise in 2008 was more realistic and tough-minded than "I can melt the opposition."

As Trende points out, Obama's critique of American politics was born at least in part from a need to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton, with whom he had only trivial differences with regard to policy. He cast Clinton as part of the problem, locked in a partisan death match with the Bushes and their minions, fighting Rovian fire with fire.

His bid to transform our politics had four elements.  First, to curb the influence of lobbyists and campaign money, both by personal example  and by legislation.  Next, to avoid demonizing and lying about the opposition -- eschewing the "do anything/say anything" politics that as a Democrat he associated with Karl Rove -- and, to a lesser extent, with Clinton.  And yes, he did suggest that he would be better equipped  to defuse the furious partisanship and "politics of personal destruction" to which the Republicans had subjected the Clintons during Bill's term of office. *

The core of Obama's pitch, however, was not that he would charm Republicans into partnership.  It was that he would build a new coalition and win a large enough electoral majority to effect major change through landmark legislation. As, in fact, he did, before hitting a wall in 2010.  Here was the pitch that first won me over in a January 5, 2008 debate, between Iowa and New Hampshire (my emphasis):
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.

A few weeks later Obama's critique of the Clintons had a harder edge. Between the two debates, Bill Clinton went on the warpath against him, and Obama started complaining that Bill was lying about his record (though he avoided the word). And so he argued in a Jan 22 debate that Bill Clinton had failed to build a "transformative" majority because the Clintons were...not quite trustworthy.
Now, this, I think, is one of the things that's happened during the course of this campaign, that there's a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate. And I think that part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who's going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington...the larger reason that I think this debate is important is because we do have to trust our leaders and what they say. That is important, because if we can't, then we're not going to be able to mobilize the American people behind bringing about changes in health care reform, bringing about changes in how we're going to put people back to work, changing our trade laws. And consistency matters. Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.

Perhaps it was naive to suggest that trustworthiness was essential to building a strong majority (and perhaps not; Obama is still viewed as more willing to negotiate in good faith than his Republican opposition). But Green Lanternism it was not:
What I do want to focus on, though, is how important it is, when you talked about taking on the Republicans, how important it is I think to redraw the political map in this country. And the reason I say that is that we have gone through the 2000 election, the 2004 election, both of which were disappointing elections.

But the truth is that we as Democrats have not had a working majority in a very long time. And what I mean by that is a working majority that could push through the kinds of bold initiatives that all of us have proposed. And one of the reasons that I am running for president is because I believe that I can inspire new people to get involved in the process, that I can reach out to independents and, yes, some Republicans who have also lost trust in their government and want to see something new.

Obama was bidding fair to move the center of American politics to the left. He made an historical argument that American history was a process of  expanding opportunity to an ever-widening circle; that the process had gone into something of a reverse somewhere in the Reagan and/or Bush Jr. years, and that the time was ripe for a "transformative" president who would restore "balance" and "fairness" and a commitment to shared prosperity. Again, the engine of the restoration process as he presented it was building an electoral majority that would demand the policies he was pitching. Bringing elected Republicans along was secondary, or viewed as a result of winning a large majority.

Obama's concept and presentation of how change would be effected grew out of his experience as a community organizer. He always envisioned bottom-up change: a majority, channeled by a leader, that would demand what he cast as foundations of shared prosperity --universal healthcare, alternative energy development, action against climate change, investment in education.  Here he is in the Feb. 10, 2007 speech announcing his candidacy, a speech that Trende cites as evidence that he had donned the green tights:
I know there are those who don't believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different. All of us running for president will travel around the country offering ten-point plans and making grand speeches; all of us will trumpet those qualities we believe make us uniquely qualified to lead the country. But too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own.

That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice - to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
That message was essentially unchanged -- though it had a harder edge -- in Obama's DNC speech last September:
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change. 

You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that. 

You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible. 

You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: “Welcome home.” 

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves. 

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

The Green Lantern, Trende reminds us, "refers to the famous DC Comics character who receives a power ring from aliens. The hook is that the ring derives its strength from the willpower of its bearer; a normal person won’t be able to accomplish much with it, but someone with strong willpower can all but move mountains."

Obama's vision reverses the metaphor. It's the strength of the people's will that empowers the leader.


* Obama did, I think,  have some cause for thinking and claiming that he would be better equipped to win some measure of cooperation from the GOP than Hillary. First, there was his own track record of charming and forging personal and working friendships with conservatives, both at the Harvard Law Review and in the Chicago legislature (and to a far lesser extent, in his abortive U.S. Senate career).  Second, there was an expectation, quaint-seeming now, that Republican elected officials would be less willing to demonize a black president -- an assumption that they would not want to seem racist, and that they might even share a general wish to turn a new page in American race relations by seeing a black president succeed.  Finally, there was Obama's bid, with the political winds at his back, to come into office with a strong Congressional majority and so incent the opposition to move toward the center, as Democrats moved in Reagan's wake.

P.S. As I chose this post's title, I must admit that Shakespeare's Sonnet 24 came to mind

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