The autumn of convenient narratives

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The most politically successful Democrat since JFK, Bill Clinton, could hope for many things but not the deep affection and loyalty of the nation’s liberal establishment. He may have achieved a lot but not what they were really after: a validation of their faith in the power of government to manage as much as possible all aspects of daily life.

Since Reagan’s arrival, that faith had been repeatedly challenged and defeated in elections, so the liberal establishment was yearning for a man whose election and policies would cast the past few decades as an aberration from what they consider the desired and normal trajectory of American history. That man wasn’t Bill Clinton. Decisively defeated in the midterm elections of ’94, he came back an utterly reformed fellow with welfare reform, business tax cuts and plenty of deregulation. “The era of big government is over,” he said. Not exactly the words of a bleeding heart.

Unable to push a liberal agenda, Bill Clinton could only ingratiate himself to the liberal establishment by portraying himself as the victim of visceral Republican attacks. He would get sympathy and support for that, but his inability to advance liberal policies and his success due to his centrist politics would only create skepticism and unease in the ranks of the liberal establishment.

Barack Obama has modeled himself as the opposite of a Clintonite centrist. The era of big government is back. After the $800 billion stimulus package, the health care bill and some other legislative victories, President Obama and his supporters thought that the way was paved for more political successes. Of course, everything hinged on the promise that Obama’s policies would work and produce tangible political benefits.

Nothing of the sort has happened. The choice for the liberal establishment thereafter has been to either reexamine its policies or take the easy way out: blame politics. It has chosen the easy way out.

One explanation for Obama’s troubles is that the man is just too principled and high-minded for American politics. The Telegraph’s Toby Harnden characterized Obama’s first comments on the 9/11 mosque as “high-minded, principled and legalistic.” How high-minded and principled can someone be if he artfully tries to avoid and muddle the issue at hand? The main issue for the opponents of the mosque wasn’t the legal right of building the mosque near Ground Zero but the appropriateness of doing so. The president’s first response was anything but high-minded or principled. It was an answer that Obama hoped would be read and understood differently by different audiences. Obama expected that the proponents of the mosque would view it as a high-minded and principled defense of it and the opponents as a disinterested and rather neutral response. At the end, the opponents viewed as an endorsement and the proponents understood the second Obama statement that tried to clarify that he wasn’t speaking about the wisdom of building the mosque on Ground Zero as backtracking. Arguing that Obama is too high-minded to be politically successful seems like a rather far-fetched explanation for Obama’s unpopularity.

Another convenient explanation for Obama’s unpopularity is that Americans just don’t understand how good his policies have been for them. As Senator John Kerry said, “We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.” Maureen Dowd noted that “Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America — a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age. The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown.” Does it matter that the stimulus has failed even by the administration’s own criteria? Or that the health care “reform” will do absolutely nothing to contain costs? The fault must be with the Americans voters, the “spoiled-brat electorate,” as columnist Eugene Robinson put it, that failed to see the wisdom of enacting an ineffective stimulus and a massive new entitlement in a time of economic distress.

Perhaps the American people are not so irrational. According to a third narrative, Barack Obama is unpopular because he has not done enough to get his message out. As E.J. Dionne put it, Obama “has chosen not to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all his achievements together.” In his first year alone, Obama gave 411 speeches, comments and remarks. He held 42 news conferences and gave 158 interviews. He had 20 domestic town hall meetings and 7 campaign rallies. He visited 58 cities and towns in 30 states. It seems that he tried to sell his goods but there were no buyers.

But if the problem is not the high-mindedness of the president, or his irrational citizenry, or his poor messaging, then what is it? How about the dark forces always lurking in the background ready to attack and destroy virtuous progressives? Meet David and Charles Koch, who, according to the New Yorker, are “the billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.” As Frank Rich explained in the New York Times, the Koch brothers, along with Rupert Murdoch, “are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled ‘Invisible Hands’ in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal ‘socialism’ of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our ‘socialist’ president.”

Of course, if you don’t like the corporate behemoths vs. Obama line, there is an alternative one: corporate behemoths have co-opted Obama.  According to Michael Hirsh, “the president proudly called the new [financial reform] law ‘the toughest financial reform since the one we created in the aftermath of the Great Depression.’ What Obama left unsaid was that his administration had argued against many of the toughest amendments in the bill. And Wall Street, in the end, didn’t complain about it all that much. The biggest firms knew that much of what their powerful lobbyists had failed to block or water down in the bill could be taken care of later on.”

There are multiple explanations for Obama’s troubles. You may choose any that is approved by the guardians of the liberal dream. In the meantime, we learn from Howard Fineman that “If you’re President Obama, here is a galling fact: most Democrats would rather have Bill Clinton campaign for them this fall than, um, you.” I’ll offer an outlandish and crazy explanation: perhaps this is related to the fact that actual policy success breeds popularity.

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