(Cross-posted to Vote Obama 2012. Please visit me there, and add your voice...)
So there we were, eight at the table, talking politics. It was one of four round tables set up for a celebration of the Passover seder, where talk often turns to politics. On this occasion I refrained from joining in, in part because I never find the right words in such a circumstance—I think better on the keyboard than on my feet—and in part because it would have seemed futile. Such discussions rarely lead to a change of opinion. So I kept quiet. But I have been thinking about that discussion ever since.
Good left-leaning people all—some further to the left than others—our group was indulging in the familiar luxury of damning the president with faint praise. The focus was particularly on the economy, and particularly upon his choice of advisors to deal with the dire situation he had inherited from the disaster of the Bush years, the Goldman Sachs gang. The argument has been repeated so often that it is by now an accepted truth. Or perhaps a cliché. The president erred terribly in appointing men who had, in their recently previous lives, been a prominent part of the culture that created the problem. In so doing, he allied himself with the corrupt elite that had brought us to the brink of disaster and poisoned the system for everyone except the elite themselves, the obscenely wealthy and the profiteers.
It’s an emotionally appealing argument. It satisfies that inner sense of distrust, indignation, anger and disempowerment—feelings that I absolutely share. But then I think to myself, who better to understand and address the problem than those who helped create it? And I think of the old adage, “the proof of the pudding”… It doesn’t matter much who the cooks in the kitchen are, what matters is the result. And while we may gripe a good deal about the speed of the recovery, there seems to be little doubt now that it is taking place. A British economist on Sixty Minutes last night, pretty much as an aside as she compared the situation here to the one in Europe, used a (to me) surprising word like “spectacular” to describe the American recovery. Even the columnist Paul Krugman, a powerful advocate for bolder steps than Obama was able to make, acknowledges the fact of the improving situation—though he never fails to add that it could have been faster and more robust.
Okay, I agree with Krugman. I wish the steps taken from the earliest days of the Obama administration had been bolder, more decisive. But politics is famously the art of the possible, and I’m in no position to know what was then possible to achieve, and what sheer pragmatism might have dictated. By the same token, I agree most heartily with those who wished for a single-payer system, Medicare for all, and who were disappointed that the “affordable health care” measure did not go much further than it does. But then I consider how fierce the opposition was, and how virulent the animosity—not merely on the part of very far right-wing Republicans, but on the part of a significant number of Americans who were persuaded, rightly or wrongly, by the propaganda from the right. I would personally have wished for the president to hold out for the principle, but am in admittedly no position to judge whether that position would have scuttled the whole deal. After a century of failure and frustration, we finally managed to arrive at the beginnings of a health care system for all. It seems to me counter-productive, now, as we face the presidential election in November, to make light of that achievement, or to pronounce it a failure.
I spoke of the luxury of “damning with faint praise.” It’s what we Democrats, in our political righteousness, do best. We have done it to too many of our leaders, who fail to live up to our exacting standards and our idealistic expectations. Like all luxuries, it comes with a steep price tag—in this case, potentially, the loss of the White House in November to a Republican contender. For all that he has failed to do, or perhaps done wrongly, Obama remains consistent in the articulation of his vision of a more just, egalitarian America, a country that honors and supports its creative entrepreneurs and its technological visionaries; a country committed to the education of its young and the protection of its most vulnerable; a country tolerant of the religious views and protective of the individual rights of all its citizens. Mitt Romney—if he indeed is the choice of Republicans—is equally consistent in his devotion to the interests of the wealthiest among us and a narrowly conservative, if not repressive view of the social issues that affect us all.
In the face of this, and of the virulence of the hatred directed at the president personally, faint praise will not get Obama re-elected in the Fall. As Ellie rightly pointed out at our dinner table, even a hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-him attitude contributes only to a thoughtless dissemination of the poison in the already too swollen ranks of the thoughtless in this country. Those of us who believe in the vision of this President must be willing to work, and with enthusiasm, for his re-election; or to surrender to the forces of those we believe to be dangerously misguided.