Friday, June 26, 2009

Obama, Government, and the Ungovernable

Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was frankly surprised by the response to the piece I cross-posted last week to my Huffington Post site. It was called, if you remember, "When Do We All Grow Up?" and its subject was the kind of foot-stamping impatience with which progressives of all persuasions seem to be greeting Obama's first six months in office. Responses to my thoughts ranged from "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" to angry resentment and rebuttal.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that Obama is--or should be--above criticism. Don't count me among those who believe he can do no wrong. I am equally skeptical of those who invest the man with messianic qualities. But I do believe that criticism can be productive and supportive, if offered in the context of the bigger picture I was attempting to invoke.

When the critic allows his or her particular point of disagreement to become central and exclusive, though, the criticism soon becomes narrow-minded, parochial, and destructive. Thus, if I allow Obama's immediate resolution of the extremely delicate Guantanamo problem to become the exclusive yardstick by which I judge his performance, the sine qua non, I risk trying to bathe the baby while I watch the bath water drain away--to pervert an already overused metaphor. If I disagree with him on one, or two, or three issues, must I give up on him altogether and, worse, descend into dismissive vitriol?

The problem is that all-or-nothing progressivism plays into the hands of those who would destroy Obama at any cost--as they attempted to destroy Bill Clinton in the 1990s. While Clinton was able to hang on by the skin of his teeth, remember, it was at the cost of being elbowed further and further to the right in his political agenda. The divisiveness that results not from honest argument, but from anger, resentment, and bitter accusations of betrayal, lends both credibility and power to vitriol from the other side.

One of my respondents suggested the analogy of someone we'd hired to do a job and who should now be taken to task for failing to do our bidding. I prefer a different analogy: I see the President less as a hireling, and more as the captain of a sports team, to whom we've chosen to delegate the responsibility to make decisions in an ongoing series of ever-changing, unpredictable situations. In this analogy, we risk being the complacent armchair quarterbacks.

Then, too, the history of our recent decades should remind us that it's easy to sit back and whine about "the government," as though it were some evil, alien entity separate from ourselves. In doing so, we forget that the government is us. It's a compact between ourselves and those we have chosen to represent us. My point, to put it in a slightly different way, is that in each furiously riding the hobby-horse of our individual freedoms and in demanding that our individual needs be met, we fail on our side of the compact: we become, in effect, ungovernable, even as we blame it on the government.

I realize that my readers may not do so, but I still count myself a progressive. If I had been able--had the society in which I live made it even halfway possible--I would surely have voted for Kucinich. Given the realities of who we are as a society, my question is this: Do we really want to nitpick our current Democratic President to shreds, and clear the path for another right-wing ideologue to follow him--whether in four years, or eight? We complained quite bitterly about the ideological rectitude demanded by the other side. Do we want to sacrifice our own ultimate goals to another brand of ideological rectitude?

I think it's possible not to abandon our ideals and to exercise our right--our duty--to question policies we judge to be wrong-headed, all without losing sight of the big picture. I voted for Obama because I believe him to be a thoughtful man with all the right intentions; because I believe that he does have a firm grasp of the big picture--what Bush Senior dismissively called the "vision thing." I did not vote for him because I thought he could fix every problem in our society within six months, no matter how pressing; or that he would say nothing that I disagreed with; or so that he would take uncompromising stands on every issue. I voted for a man I thought would work, with whatever circumspection might be necessary, to achieve a more just society for us all.


roger said...

how do you feel about indefinite detention and a signing statement indicating that the law does not apply to the president (see today's news)?

isn't he straight ahead trashing some of the principles upon which he ran?

the daily show on thursday ran a montage of clips of obama on the campaign trail touting transparency in government. that's not working out so well.

i think he earned criticism on those fronts, but that doesn't mean i'm giving up on him. i agree that the government is us, and we get to speak up about it. i also agree on the destructiveness of vitriol. i'll save that for cheney in private conversations.

i am mindful of your warning about nitpicking and hope my critique is responsible.

Twilight said...

I discovered your blog via the Huffington Post piece you reference today. I stopped commenting on HuffPo during the infighting of the primaries last year, so didn't add my support to your excellent piece there.

You said at HuffPo, and express here today, exactly my own feelings. There are a few of us around of the same mind, very few (but do they all have British roots, as I do, and I discover that you do too!)

I keep irritating my husband with diatribes about Dennis Kucinich. Why, i ask, if the progressives wanted so badly what they say they wanted, didn't they get behind him in sufficient numbers to at least ensure him a seat in Obama's cabinet? I'd have voted for him, had he been on the ticket. I'm a socialist living in a red state, by the way.

Even Dennis is being a little naughty now, I fear, remaining obtuse in his non-support of the recent bill on environmental protection. I guess he's bitter.
I'd probably feel the same if I were in his shoes.

Thanks for your blog - I'll visit regularly from now on.

robin andrea said...

I wish I actually believed the government is us. I think after our votes are counted, we are basically shut out of the conversation. Only the big stake players get to sit at that table. I'm not an anti-government person, I am pretty much a pro-government progressive, but only if that means our government is responsive to the voters. If 72-76% of us want a public health care option, what does it mean if we don't get one? Whose interests will be served?

I am appalled, as is Roger, that Obama used a signing statement already. I remember being outraged by the notion of executive privilege when it was wielded mightily by the Bush administration. I will not compromise my principles just because Obama is a Democrat. That makes me more like a "if my guy does it it's okay" republican than I care to be.

PeterAtLarge said...

Roger, eminently responsible, thanks! And to answer your question about how I feel: badly...

Hello, Twilight, and welcome to The Buddha Diaries. Always pleased to have a fellow Brit on board. I'm looking forward to exploring your blogs. I love your Doctorow quote in writing, by the way. It echoes my own favorite dictum: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say. Cheers to you...

Robin, I guess I think the government is us insofar as we elect those people who then shut us out, as you elegantly put it. We have little choice, of course, but is that not "our" fault, too, that "we" have created and perpetuate a political system operated by those with power and money. Perhaps Bill Maher is right: we need a third party, some way to the left of the Democrats, consisting of those who are unafraid of the corporations, the NRA, and the multitude of lobbies. And incorruptible. I wish...

secret agent woman said...

I'm still hopeful, and still believe that we are far better off than we were for the past 8 years. And yet, I sometimes get the hopeless feeling that there is no politician who will not disillusion me.

roger said...

i just went and read the comments to your piece on huffpo. wow. interesting and compelling.

John Torcello said...

We often hear and are told rhetorically, usually for political purposes; that, in the sense of a democracy, we are a nation comprised of a majority of middle- to ever slightly leaning-right people.

I never wanted to accept that notion; I think it serves none of us to the degree we also claim and want to believe about ourselves to be, to represent in the context of the rest of the world.

Having worked on the Obama campaign, I have always felt that the degree of success for the kind of change he spoke, and speaks, about requires a significant shift in the thinking and subsequent actions of those fence-sitters I'm speaking about.

I fear that Obama's administration and his time in the sun, may, at best, only bask in the pendulum shift he represents. I am not seeing enough of the 'others' willing to commit to a difference in their lives; a willingness to forego their false sense of security that the dogma of conservatism brings; a failure, a fear, to allow themselves to blossom in this new light offered to them.

I think, hope is all we have in this regard. Encouraging others to take a chance on themselves, others and to try to live, determined, each day, in this manner.