My entry into the Obama wars is two similes: an acorn and a hand grenade. Both are capable of great change. I am not trying to suggest that one is superior to the other. And it just may be that our moment needs a hand grenade--because of the environmental and economic cross roads at which we find ourselves.
But that said, I believe we have elected an acorn. Below I'll explain my logic a little bit.
If Obama is indeed an acorn, then that means we ought to recognize that his approach is a model for great change. If so, we might err on the side of being a little slower to call him a sell out, of being a little more patient. But acorn or not, it does not mean that we ought to cease debating his actions, criticizing him where appropriate, and using this community's means to move him to the left. Even "acorns" make mistakes. Heck, a lot of mistakes. After all: acorn and hand grenade are not evaluative terms, they're simply similes to think about strategy.
A lot of people were impatient with Obama for failing to end the ban on out gay men and lesbians in the military by executive order, when he could not do that. (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is an act of Congress and had to be repealed by Congress, or invalidated by the courts.) Others were angry with the Obama Administration for defending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in court. Why did he defend it? It’s at least possible that Obama understood that ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by a court decision might have to further appeals to the Supreme Court (and so be messy and protracted, and really: who trusts this Court to do the right thing?) and that national policy created by Judicial decision always feels a little less valid than law passed by Congress—especially when that law is passed through a bipartisan coalition.
So? He pursued the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” the slow way: by working with the military brass, setting up their survey and report, applying behind-the-scenes pressure to Senators and satisfying Republican demands that the tax bill be handled first. The result is a solid repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama’s slow process will make the integration of the armed forces as easy as it could be; there will be as little backlash in the military and in the country as a whole, as possible. Yes: it took patience. But he made change it in the way that is most likely to stick, and in the way that would be palatable to most Americans.
And on to the taxes? Well, I don’t like the idea of giving the wealthiest Americans a tax break, not one bit. Giving them an extra tax break—since they would have already gotten one on the portion of their income that was below $250,000 per year. But rather than see Obama as selling out on this issue, once could also see that as: 1) horse trading that allowed him to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, and unemployment; and 2) a kind of doubling down.
How so? Well, the two-year time frame at least suggests the possibility that Obama will run hard on not renewing these tax rates in 2012, knowing that no Republican candidate can run on that. (No Republican candidate can run on raising taxes of any kind.) So people talk about Obama selling out on taxing the highest income. I think it’s also possible he’s upping the stakes: making it central to the 2012 campaign, knowing the Republicans can only sit on one side of this issue.
I think the health-care debate can be seen in the same way. We all know the health care bill did not contain a public option—and many, including myself, would have wished to see one. It is possible that such a bill might not have gotten through Congress. I don’t know; I’ve read a lot of debate on this website about it, and I guess I just don’t know. But what I suspect: that would have been a more contentious, harder vote—would have made the new law even more challenging to the status quo. And it just might be that Obama recognized that the principals established in that law would be enough to completely change our healthcare system over the next decades. How will the principal of universal-care change America? I don’t know: but clearly we’re going to be moving closer and closer to public option type situations in individual states, and with the increase in funding to community health care centers.
On April 4, 2008 (the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King) then Senator Barack Obama, quoted the line:
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
Well, the arc of the political fortunes of this country are long, too. And maybe, with the right governing now, they can bend toward the left. I think one thing that differentiates Obama from the previous administration—and even previous administrations (I’m including Clinton, here)—is his willingness to be patient, to take short-term loses if he believes they make long-term gains more likely—even long-term beyond the years of his Presidency (2016).
This strategy is not suited to the media of our age, especially the blogosphere, which fosters our impatience, our need for instant gratification in politics as in everything else. The next thing, and the next, and the next. . . . And I’m not saying those who are disappointed with Obama don’t have a right to be, or that they are acting unreasonably. (The “pony” argument.) I feel the disappointment myself, too, though I’m not yet convinced that my visceral reaction is the correct one, the most useful one.
What I am suggesting is that Obama’s kind of revolutionary Presidency (perhaps even his explicit vision of a revolutionary Presidency) is closer to an acorn than a hand grenade.
Granted, our government feels like it needs a hand grenade: something to explode the current landscape, to leave blast marks and destroy the manifest corruption of our system. But an acorn is powerful, too: you have to wait a few decades. Eventually, its roots will uproot sidewalks and roads: it will create a huge, immobile structure right where it landed. Maybe the healthcare bill and the passing of the principal of universal coverage is an acorn. Maybe the money for renewable energy in the Stimulus Bill, the increased CAFE standards and the EPA authority to regulate carbon will be.
Furthermore, I don’t think the American people could take a “hand grenade” approach from an African American. So many of us Americans—God help me, my own parents—are ready to resist this President because of the color of his skin. If Obama is going to create radical change and bring the American people with him, he needs to use the acorn approach.
One last thought: maybe I’m giving Obama the benefit of too many doubts. And I suspect I’m exposing a lot of my ignorance, too. BUT I’m a Democrat, and I’m proud to be a Democrat, and I give members of my party the benefit of the doubt wherever I can. At this point, I can still do that for Obama. There have been some painful compromises, sure, but also some significant steps in the correct direction.
My cynicisim? My trigger-finger suspicion and dismissal? I save that for the other party.
Thanks for reading (if anyone has).