Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Authenticity matters: Why Obama's surrender to Republicans is bad for his future and ours

One of the most beliefs that we at the Northwest Progressive Institute hold as activists is that authenticity matters in politics. It's why we don't forsake or compromise on our own values, and it's why we don't hesitate to criticize friends and allies who make the mistake of selling out for political gain.

We believe that Barack Obama's deal with congressional Republicans to extend George W. Bush's giveaway to the rich for another two years symbolizes the bad strategy, bad politics, and bad policy that NPI was created to counteract.

By surrendering to congressional Republicans' legislative blackmail, the President has demonstrated that he lacks the courage and the strength to fight for what he believes in. He can say otherwise — and, in fact, he has — but actions speak louder than words. Rhetoric is meaningless and empty when there is no follow-through.

We're normally not fans of the White House press corps, but we have to hand it to reporters like Chuck Todd for illustrating the absurdity of the White House's position at yesterday's hastily-called press conference.

Chuck's initial question was as follows:
Mr. President, what do you say to Democrats who say you’re rewarding Republican obstruction here? You yourself used in your opening statement they were unwilling to budge on this. A lot of progressive Democrats are saying they’re unwilling to budge, and you’re asking them to get off the fence and budge. Why should they be rewarding Republican obstruction?
His follow-up was just as good:
If I may follow, aren’t you telegraphing, though, a negotiating strategy of how the Republicans can beat you in negotiations all the way through the next year because they can just stick to their guns, stay united, be unwilling to budge — to use your words — and force you to capitulate?
We don't normally care for the narrow-minded, insider-like focus on political implications which afflicts the White House press corps. But in this case, the political implications are quite relevant. A Democratic president has surrendered to a Republican opposition that is currently out of power in both houses of Congress on a major issue, setting a terrible precedent that bodes ill for the next two years.

If the President wasn't so cut off from reality, he'd display some real empathy for disappointed supporters and former staff, who are justifiably angry that he is breaking a campaign promise. Instead, the President has turned on his own donors, volunteers, and voters, denigrating them for not blindly following him off the cliff he has chosen to jump off of.

From his press conference yesterday at the White House:
So this notion that somehow we are willing to compromise too much reminds me of the debate that we had during health care. This is the public option debate all over again.

So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting conditions or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
President Obama has some nerve calling supporters of the "public option" purist and sanctimonious. The public option was no idealist's dream. It was forged and named by incrementalists. Many progressives, ourselves included, strongly supported the inclusion of that provision because we recognized that trying to create a single-payer system overnight was unrealistic.

In supporting the public option, we were being practical.

The President also exaggerated in his own role in describing the outcome of the battle to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He did not "pass a signature piece of legislation". Congress did. And specifically, Nancy Pelosi deserves the credit for doing the heavy lifting required to move the bill through the House after many pundits, talking heads, and insiders had pronounced it dead. Obama would have had no bill to sign were it not for the efforts of Nancy Pelosi.

The President fails to understand that there are two kinds of pragmatists, and there is all the difference in the world between the two. As related by George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute in Thinking Points:
Changing to a position you do not believe not only lacks integrity, it's a flawed and ineffective political strategy. There are, of course, progressives who are truly biconceptual and are partial conservatives. Here, too honesty — and authenticity — is the best policy. If you believe the conservative perspective is more appropriate to some issue area, argue your case, but do so using the linguistic frames that best represent your larger values and worldview.

The prevalence of biconceptuality among voters requires to consider the role of pragmnatism in issue politics. There are two kinds of political pragmatists. Both are willing to compromise, but for different reasons.

The authentic pragmatist realizes you can't get everything you think is right, but you can get much or most of it through negotiation. The authentic pragmatist sticks to his or her values and works to satisfy them maximally. The inauthentic pragmatist, on the other hand, is willing to depart from his or her true values for the sake of political gain.
An inauthentic pragmatist surrenders his or her moral vision by selling out, and in so doing, surrenders trust as well. That is the sin President Obama has committed.

The President, of course, is claiming that he has abandoned his previous stance because he wanted to save the American people from having to pay higher taxes. By characterizing taxes as an affliction, and any increases in taxes as harmful and unacceptable, the President is reinforcing the George W. Bush/Grover Norquist/Tim Eyman right wing frame that we at NPI have been trying so hard to deconstruct.

The President can defend his intentions all he wants. But he's mistaken if he thinks we're going to take him at his word. His own political operatives have already suggested that one reason they made this deal is so that they can turn tax cuts for the wealthy into a campaign issue in 2012.

If that's not crass gamesmanship, we don't know what is.

What is perhaps most outrageous is that despite having capitulated so obviously, the White House is arrogantly and defensively insisting that progressive activists and progressive media are wrong to criticize because the deal is not as bad as we think, and we would agree with them if we would just read all of their fact sheets and talking points. Sadly, this isn't the first time they've talked down to hardworking activists. As Keith Olbermann said last night:
Yesterday I had an exchange with a very Senior member of this Administration who wanted to sell me on this deal. I pointed out that that was fine, except that — as I phrased it to him — "frankly the base has just vanished." "Well," he replied, "then they must not have read the details." There, in a nutshell, is this Administration. They didn't make a bad deal — we just don't understand it.

Just as it was our fault, Mr President, for not understanding your refusal of even the most perfunctory of investigations of rendition or domestic spying or the other crimes of the Bush Administration, or why you have now established for those future Administrations who want to repeat those crimes, that the punishment for them will be nothing.

Just as it was our fault, Mr. President, for not understanding Afghanistan. Just as we didn't correctly perceive, Sir, the necessity for the continuation of Gitmo. Or how we failed to intuit, President Obama, your preemptive abandonment of single-payer and the public option. Or how we couldn't have foreseen your foot-dragging on "Don't ask, don't tell." Just as we shouldn't have gotten you angry at your news conference today and made all the moderate Democrats wonder why in the hell you get publicly angry so often at the liberals who campaigned for you and whether you might save just a touch of that sarcasm and that self-martyrdom for the Republicans.

And of course, Mr. President how we totally betrayed your Administration by not concluding our prayers every night by saying "Thank you for preventing another Great Depression, you are entitled to skate along on your own wonderfulness indefinitely and if you get less than you could have on healthcare reform or taxes, well, that'll be okay, we're happy to pay $10,000 for a $300 car because hey, it could've been $20,000, right? And because we only expect you to do one thing correctly during a presidency and you had pretty much cleared that obligation when it proved that you were, indeed, not John McCain."

We are very, very sorry.
Like Keith, and like most of our brothers and sisters in the progressive movement, our allegiance is not to any person or party, but to our country and to our values. Freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. Protection, fulfillment in life, fairness. Caring and mutual responsibility, carried out with strength. Community, service, cooperation. Trust, honesty, two-way communication. These values form the basis of our moral system. These are the values we are committed to.

And these are the values we will defend, no matter what.

As Keith correctly concluded in his Special Comment last night: "We are bound to principles. If the individual changes, or fails often and needlessly, then we get a new man. Or woman. None of that is disloyalty. It is self-defense."

Fortunately, it appears that there are a growing number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate who feel the same way. There is open rebellion in the House over the deal (which Obama struck exclusively with the Republicans) and Senate Democrats aren't much more enthusiastic. Complicating matters for the White House is that some extremist Republicans aren't willing to vote for it either.

What this White House just doesn't seem to understand is that surrender is not a way to win respect from anybody, let alone supporters. Throwing in the towel without even fighting — and then blaming friends and allies for the outcome — isn't leadership. Pretending that it's possible to do business with people bent on your destruction is foolish and irresponsible.

Authenticity matters in politics. Voters can sense dishonesty, complacency, and desperation. And they punish it. Given how little Carter, Clinton, and now Obama — the only Democratic presidents since Johnson — have done to address the root causes of our greatest problems, America can't afford another Republican presidency. Modern Republican presidents are simply better at demolition than Democratic presidents are at construction.

So it's incredibly important that Democratic presidents and presidential candidates not surrender their authenticity. They have to protect it at all costs.

Barack Obama isn't just putting his own future at risk by capitulating to the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. He's putting our future — America's future — at risk, too. Shame on him.


OpenID pcjewel said...

The President has been telling us that this is the best he can do. Why don't we listen to him and realize that he's just not the man for the job? He gives away the store because he doesn't know how to negotiate and gives the other side everything they want without even trying? We need someone else in 2012 or we going to be start fighting in the streets. If the right takes over in 2012, we are headed the down roa to destruction. We know what to do, we just need to organize and get it done!

December 11, 2010 5:24 PM  

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