Is this the real Barack Obama? I hope so. I like this one.So begins Charles M. Blow in The Real Obama, his New York Times column today. He immediately follows with this paragraph:
The president used Tuesday’s State of the Union address to detail a vision of America’s future, and his second term, in which the country is not in perpetual war, government plays an expansive role, Congressional obstruction is named and shamed and he is bold and unapologetically progressive.He thinks this is how politician who no longer has to worry about re-election looks, more like himself.
And yet - this administration has made clear through the confirmation hearings of John Brennan that it is prepared to continue using drone strikes to make targeted kills. We might not still have massive numbers of troops in combat situations, but surely this is stilla continuation of war.
Government MAY plan an expansive role, but Obama has yet to make clear how he can avoid Republican retribution by refusing to fund the roles the President wants government to play.
Congressional obstruction may be named, but that does not necessarily stop the tea party elements and others from continuing to obstruct, as we see with possible Republican efforts to filibuster the nomination of Chuck Hagel.
As far as being " bold and unapologetically progressive" - I'm sorry, as much as I liked some parts of the speech, his continued education policies are very far from progressive, naming Ben Ginsburg who was the legal brains behind voter suppression efforts to a panel with little binding authority on voting is not at all progressive, and I heard nothing about his administration's continued abusive use of power to go after whistleblowers nor its refusal to either punish those who violated rights in the "war on terror" or those who ripped off this economy to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Obama may seem progressive, but only in comparison to the Tea Party direction of the Republicans. To real progressives, he remains very much of a mixed bag.
But there is more.
THere WERE things that were clearly more progressive than anything we have seen in several decades. The proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9/hour and index it to the cost of living was good, although I have several comments on that
1. It is still not enough
2. It will not get through the current House
3. It is indexed insufficiently: if you are going to make it automatic, tie it to Congressional pay, or at least insure that someone will not tie it down by referring to chained CPI.
Still, Blow writes with sweeping approval of much of the speech, and there are parts of what he writes with which I can find strong agreement, for example, this:
The speech was a full-throated rebuke and disavowal of the conservative argument that government must shrink and cower. It was a rebuke of the economic theory that a government’s role in revival is to retreat and lift regulations. It was an embrace of the country’s growth and diversity and an elevation of those down on their luck. And it was a bring-it-on gesture to the gun lobby and the politicians who fear it.I would agree that the speech set out some strong rhetorical markers, but it is not clear, even with some ability to accomplish goals through executive action, that we will see similar strong changes in Federal government policy.
Don't get me wrong - there is much this administration has already accomplished which progressives can cheer, from the Lily Ledbetter Act to ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Yet the appointments this President has chosen to make remain very much of a mixed bag. I'm sorry, I do not see the appointment of John Brennan and Jack Lew as indications of progressive policies dominating this administration. I think they do represent the "real" Obama in that I do not see him as a full-throated progressive.
I think Barack Obama is basically a good man, someone who has some pretty good instincts on some topics, but who is also often too cautious, too much of the person seeking conciliation rather than being willing to move the nation forward over the obstructionism - not just objections - of people with a different vision. Given his rhetorical gifts, at times the actions of his administration seem very much weak beer, disappointing when compared to the big visions implied in his rhetoric.
I greatly admire Charles M. Blow, and usually find myself in agreement with what he says.
Today I cannot agree with the high praise he offers this speech, perhaps because I have been disappointed in the past by the disconnect between the words I hear Obama speak and the actions I see from his administration.
Blow notes the President addressing the issue of the poor. Yes, he did. But I failed to hear specific policies that would address that. Raising the minimum wage ameliorates some economic pain but still does not address major issues, including some states refusing to participate in Medicaid expansion, including access to legal services to protect economic rights from things like wage theft, including companies and now states cutting the hours of low-wage workers to be able to deny them benefits such as medical care. It is worth noting that voter suppression is targeted at communities that are often low-income to discourage them from participating in the political process. It is easily worth noting that our approach to criminal justice falls most heavily on minority communities overrepresented as the lower levels of the socio-economic pyramid.
And yes, I can agree with this:
The president dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the issue of gun control, and it was the most moving and effective part of the speech. He recognized the hard politics of the issue, but still issued the challenge. He knows well that there are vulnerable Democratic senators in red states who are wary of such a vote, but the president still stood up for what he and most Americans know.I can agree - in part.
The President called for a vote - but he did not make explicit for a vote on ALL the American people are willing to support.
He can use the bully pulpit and we will probably get universal background checks.
It is not clear that we will get a vote on large-capacity magazines.
We will almost certainly not get a vote on assault weapons, at least not in the House, even if it gets through the Senate.
And Americans will continue to die from guns.
20,000 a year will be suicides. As one expert put it recently, with suicide attempts, when you use a gun you usually do not get a second chance.
Perhaps another 10,000 will die in accidents and in deliberate violence.
Too many will be innocent bystanders.
Too many will be children.
To be truly progressive a President would be explicit on these and other issues in a way I did not really hear in the speech.
Yes, he addressed issues we have not heard in other State of the Union messages.
For that I compliment him.
I say: this president seems different. He seems more confident and sure. He seems aware of the animus that greets him, but not cowed by it.I'm not sure Obama was ever "cowed" - somehow that seems too redolent of things like Boehner saying Obama lacked the guts to take on entitlement cuts. Obama is a political realist, often too much so, often too willing to give away things in negotiations. But that is less being cowed than misjudging how much leverage he actually had, and perhaps not being as willing as some of us might like to use public pressure and the power of his office to persuade.
Blow concludes his piece by writing
He seems to have decided to move beyond his political opponents and the pundits and talk directly to the American people. It seems a smart tactical turn: running away from the circus.I find that also a bit of a misreading. It implies that the President has not been talking directly to the American people. I think he has, in speeches on the campaign trail, in his acceptance speeches at Conventions, in his victory speeches in each of the elections, and certainly in his State of the Union messages. It is also not clear that he is prepared to use his rhetorical gifts to encourage the American people to pressure Congress, to pressure his political opponents, so that he can accomplish his goals through legislation that has more staying power than actions taken by executive order.
Usually a 2nd term President as about 18 months to accomplish his agenda. Then he is in the midst of the midterms, a time when usually his party loses seats in both the House and the Senate. Then one is in the midst of the election cycle for his successor.
I think these times are different.
I think a good deal of this two year cycle is a debate about the future of this country.
Despite gerrymandering of House districts and attempts by Republicans to suppress the votes of those who would vote Democratic and/or for progressive policies and candidates, the midterms are potentially as important as any election cycle in my lifetime.
If the President is laying down clear markers about policies and procedures, and he holds to the fire the feet of Republicans willing to obstruct, he lays the foundation for a mid-term election campaign that can fundamentally change the balance of power, and enable him to continue to advance a more progressive agenda in the last two years of his Presidency.
If in fact Obama feels less constrained by no longer facing reelection, and if he truly wants to move this nation in a progressive direction, we would have heard this more explicitly - he would have not just said that "they deserve a vote" but that "they deserve changes in the law." He would have said not merely than if Congress did not act he would do what h could by executive action, but also that he would take the case to the American people in the midterms.
That would have been confrontational, to be sure.
Many in "the Village" would have criticized him.
But it would have been much more forceful leadership.
The American people respond to forceful leadership.
That would clearly have shown that he was not "cowed" to use Blow's term.
"The Real Obama" - perhaps
- a man of extraordinary rhetorical gifts
- a man who is fundamentally decent and caring, unlike some who have previously held his office
- a man of extraordinary intelligence
- a man who for all his gifts seems to want to avoid being confrontational, even when confrontation is not only warranted, it seems to be demanded.
There WAS much in the speech that a progressive could praise.
There were also things that disappointed.
It was a very good speech.
It was to my mind something of a missed opportunity.
In that sense it was very representative of the Obama presidency to date.
In that sense I will agree this much with Blow - it was "the Real Obama."