Our political Quote of the Day comes from Andrew Sullivan, who concludes what I have also concluded: Barack Obama seems to be operating on a different wavelength than many past Presidents so his foes may underestimate him at their peril.
I’ve concluded that when history is written Barack Obama won’t be categorized as “another JFK” or like FDR, Harry Truman, or even as his critics suggest like the ever-hapless Jimmy Carter. Rather, he has his own unusual style and the jury is (literally) still out on whether this has been wise or not. I see him as sort of a “Raging Bull” type who takes the body blows and seems almost on the ropes but then hits hard and has the potential of prevailing in the end. Will this be the case? Gallup notes that the conditions facing Obama don’t portend well for him and he faces a “challenging” re-election climate but the ballgame ain’t over yet.
Sullivan begins his most-read-in-full analysis with this:
You hear it everywhere. Democrats are disappointed in the president. Independents have soured even more. Republicans have worked themselves up into an apocalyptic fervor. And, yes, this is not exactly unusual.
A president in the last year of his first term will always get attacked mercilessly by his partisan opponents, and also, often, by the feistier members of his base. And when unemployment is at remarkably high levels, and with the national debt setting records, the criticism will—and should be—even fiercer. But this time, with this president, something different has happened. It’s not that I don’t understand the critiques of Barack Obama from the enraged right and the demoralized left. It’s that I don’t even recognize their description of Obama’s first term in any way. The attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren’t out of bounds. They’re simply—empirically—wrong.
He analyzes the attacks from both sides and then gets down to it:
And what have we seen? A recurring pattern. To use the terms Obama first employed in his inaugural address: the president begins by extending a hand to his opponents; when they respond by raising a fist, he demonstrates that they are the source of the problem; then, finally, he moves to his preferred position of moderate liberalism and fights for it without being effectively tarred as an ideologue or a divider. This kind of strategy takes time. And it means there are long stretches when Obama seems incapable of defending himself, or willing to let others to define him, or simply weak. I remember those stretches during the campaign against Hillary Clinton. I also remember whose strategy won out in the end.
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game. He did this with his own party over health-care reform. He has done it with the Republicans over the debt. He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets. Nothing in his first term—including the complicated multiyear rollout of universal health care—can be understood if you do not realize that Obama was always planning for eight years, not four. And if he is reelected, he will have won a battle more important than 2008: for it will be a mandate for an eight-year shift away from the excesses of inequality, overreach abroad, and reckless deficit spending of the last three decades. It will recapitalize him to entrench what he has done already and make it irreversible.
Yes, Obama has waged a war based on a reading of executive power that many civil libertarians, including myself, oppose..
And what does this mean in terms of Obama’s re-election chances?
Sure, Obama cannot regain the extraordinary promise of 2008. We’ve already elected the nation’s first black president and replaced a tongue-tied dauphin with a man of peerless eloquence. And he has certainly failed to end Washington’s brutal ideological polarization, as he pledged to do. But most Americans in polls rightly see him as less culpable for this impasse than the GOP. Obama has steadfastly refrained from waging the culture war, while the right has accused him of a “war against religion.” He has offered to cut entitlements (and has already cut Medicare), while the Republicans have refused to raise a single dollar of net revenue from anyone. Even the most austerity-driven government in Europe, the British Tories, are to the left of that. And it is this Republican intransigence—from the 2009 declaration by Rush Limbaugh that he wants Obama “to fail” to the Senate Majority Leader.
Mitch McConnell’s admission that his primary objective is denying Obama a second term—that has been truly responsible for the deadlock. And the only way out of that deadlock is an electoral rout of the GOP, since the language of victory and defeat seems to be the only thing it understands.
If I sound biased, that’s because I am. Biased toward the actual record, not the spin; biased toward a president who has conducted himself with grace and calm under incredible pressure, who has had to manage crises not seen since the Second World War and the Depression, and who as yet has not had a single significant scandal to his name. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” George Orwell once wrote. What I see in front of my nose is a president whose character, record, and promise remain as grotesquely underappreciated now as they were absurdly hyped in 2008. And I feel confident that sooner rather than later, the American people will come to see his first term from the same calm, sane perspective. And decide to finish what they started.
I wish I had the same faith in the electorate. In the 1960 televised Nixon-Kennedy debates we saw how those who watched the debates thought JFK won; those who listened to it just heard content and were not swayed by appearances and felt Nixon had the edge. We’ve seen the enormous impact in the 2010 mid-terms and now this primary season of Citizen’s United. And over the past 15 years we’ve seen conservative talk radio become in effect the Republican Party’s strategist, town hall, rallying point, and place where Republicans and many who lean that way will readjust their thinking or pick up and run with a talk show riff (I had a relative who had been a Democrat try to pick a fight with me on partial birth abortions because he had heard Rush on this and he had totally tossed out his previous attitude and shifted almost on a dime). New and old media use as their filters to analyze their perceptions of past political models. It is entirely possible that Obama is a new kind of political model — one pundits are not ready to accept for being unusual. On the other hand, if he’s defeated he’ll just look like a lousy politician who talked a good game, didn’t fight for what those who voted for him thought he’d fight for, and was in over his head in office. The jury is still out and history has yet to be written. Both the left and right in America have almost edged out the center and the word “moderate” is a filthy one in the bases of both parties. Yet, centrists, independents and moderates make up a key part of the electorate and neither party can win with just its obedient choir alone. GOPers seem to be falling all overthemselves now to publically state how much contempt they have for moderates. If Obama can peel off the Republican leaning indepedendents plus the non-Republican leaning independents he could piece together this kind of coalition. Sullivan’s argument that he’s slowly and steadily building a case to appeal to the center (which shifts often in American politics) is a convincing one. Whether his long game is smart or not will depend on who the GOP nominates and whether they have a viable long tame or not. It increasingly seems as is likely nominee former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could have problems moving to the center. He has had to move far right and repudiate his past incarnation. His nemsis former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who will live forever as someone who successfully rebranded himself, then destroyed his own rebrand — is hammering home the idea that Romney is really a moderate. Romney has to deny it strongly. Which leaves and opening for Obama. Does Romney have a long game?
So Obama’s success in 2012 won’t just hinge on his game. It’ll also hinge on the ability or incompetence of his opponent.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.