Sunday, September 9, 2012

Frank, Baker, and Sullivan on Obama

Your blogger is a devoted and longtime fan of Harper's magazine. I love the periodical for its trenchant political analysis and investigative journalism, its legitimately thoughtful essays, its legitimately funny cartoons, and its old-fashioned refusal to talk down to its readership. Harper's is like Time, but for adults.

That said, recent content of the magazine and its website merits some criticism.

I. Baker

First, the online-only content. Commenter Kevin Baker devotes not one but two posts to various complaints about the recent political conventions. In "The Path to Genuine Political Change" Baker begins:

President Barack Obama’s speech to the 2012 Democratic Convention was one of the best he has given, and one of the best in recent history. It was an almost word-perfect defense of the liberal idea and American exceptionalism. I just wish he’d meant half of it.

(Note: Obama's speech was lame.)

In the first half of his post, Baker lauds Obama for "skewering" and "dissecting" his GOP adversaries. In the second half, he bemoans Obama's moderate record. If only Obama were a real liberal, Baker laments, instead of just playing one on TV.

His other post, on the RNC and DNC, is much weirder. In "Party Like It's 1984," Baker describes how he was " [sic] woefully inadequate the two southern host cities [i.e. Tampa and Charlotte] were to the task." The bulk of the post is dedicated to describing this inadequacy in detail, from the understaffed bars to the inconvenient schedules of restaurants and the lightrail. Also, Tampa is ugly, evidently. Only in the last 3.5 paragraphs does Baker turn to his titular subject and describe how party leaders live "in sterile, luxurious enclaves, protected by steel, barbed wire, and heavily armed security guards." He expands:

In each city, the merest whiff of dissent attracted a swarm of police on bike and foot, hemming in the protesters and trying to direct their every movement. We witnessed this up close, outside a downtown hotel, when a small band of Occupy demonstrators tried to rally. Instantly, they were surrounded by the Swarm, the sort of wild security overkill that now accompanies every political convention, major economic summit, or military conference held in the United States.

This kind of firsthand reporting on silenced dissent--an increasingly widespread phenomenon which ought to send shudders through the nervous system of any halfway civic-minded American--seems to me to be obviously superior material for political journalism, at least when compared to Baker's long complaints about the conventions' logistics. E.g.:

For more than five hours before the president’s speech, a large crowd of media and others was left to mill about aimlessly in the dripping humidity outside the entrance to the arena, with no announcements about what was happening or what their chances of gaining egress were likely to be.


Yet for some reason, the outgoing [lightrail] never managed to anticipate the end of the night’s speaking, always forcing a long wait on a crowded platform.


Nevertheless, at one point the bar managed to run out of vodka. 

The contrast between Baker's eloquent, personal whining and his straightforward coverage of First Amendment repression confuses me. It doesn't seem plausible that he couldn't find enough material on the collusion of police and Big Politics to silence protesters to fill an entire post; less plausible still that there was nothing else to write about besides how long he had to wait at the hotel bar. This problem is especially weird considering that Baker clearly has an ax to grind: his previous Harper's titles include "The Vanishing Liberal: How the left learned to be helpless," "Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again," and "High Noon for the Republican Party: Why the G.O.P. must die." When you already know what you're going to write ("Republicans, evil; Democrats, lame"), it's much easier to find material to write about.

So the presence of this well-written, irrelevant material in his otherwise well-written, relevant post is bizarre. My best guess is to blame Hunter S. Thompson for introducing witty, pointless Gonzo-journalism to the mainstream.

II. Frank

Let us begin by reviewing the fact that any article which begins with the sentence "Let us review" is at high-risk for excessive smarm. Regular readers of Frank's column, "Easy Chair," will be used to his clever and sometimes insightful pedantry, but this month's "Easy Chair: Compromising Positions" ups the curmudgeon-ante. Or so it seems to me.

Frank first notes the paradoxical fact that even as 1) Obama has perennially stayed the middle course throughout his presidency, he 2) is continuously branded by the Right as a Red extremist. Frank provides exhaustive examples of Obama's centrism, such as his refusal to prosecute Bush-era crimes and his adoption of right-wing rhetoric against 'red-tape.'

Frank's central contention is that GOP extremism plus Obama's toothless moderation has pulled the American political spectrum sharply to the Right.  Echoing Baker's contention in "Path" that Obama is "an inadequate and often nebulous protector of the commonweal," Frank writes:

The president is a man whose every instinct is conciliatory. He is not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it. He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is right and the other is wrong.

This instinct to conciliation, in turn, allows Republicans to drag Obama toward their own (real) position by exaggerating it:

Republicans have grasped that if the contest is not about issues but about the relative position of the two parties, then they are free to move ever-rightward, dragging the center with them, always keeping it a few inches away from the president's anxious, conciliatory grasp.

Frank uses The Audacity of Hope, Obama's memoir, as evidence that Obama's nice-guy approach is philosophically motivated:

Read the book and you will find Obama's pronouncements to be the standard-issue let's-all-get-along stuff of the sort that Beltway thinkers have been cranking out for decades.

Thus the problem, according to Frank, is that Obama's commitment to bipartisan centrism nullifies his putative commitment to liberal leftism, and makes him the perfect mark for Republican negotiation tactics. If only, Frank cries throughout the piece, Obama was a real liberal, instead of only playing one on TV.

III. Sullivan

For the record, yours truly is a full-blooded leftist. I waver somewhere between union-style liberalism and storm-the-Bastille radicalism. By no means do I generally approve of Obama, as you can see in the third-to-last paragraph of this post. So Frank's and Baker's criticisms of the POTUS are not a priori unacceptable to me. I am at the forefront of the socialist cabal.

However, it's hard for me to see how attacking Obama for the very same conciliatory centrism upon which he campaigned in 2008 is better than attacking the alternately fanatical/cynical GOP which, say Frank and Baker, is exploiting Obama's naive weakness. Better still, why not argue in support of those very same liberal policies which they fault Obama for not sufficiently supporting? Wherefore Obama the pinata?

(I recognize the irony of yours truly unconstructively criticizing Frank and Baker for the fact that they unconstructively criticize Obama; I have no defense.)

Moreover, it's not clear that Obama is being taken advantage of. Back in January Andrew Sullivan wrote this piece for Newsweek, in which he argues that nothing Obama does makes any sense unless you see that he's playing a "long game," planning his moves with the assumption of an eight-year presidency and judiciously building a legacy that will outlive him.

Sullivan correctly sees right-wing attacks on Obama (at least those fashionable among Romney et al) as "unhinged." It's not that there aren't thoughtful conservative arguments to be made against Obama and the Dems; it's just that the GOP has, for my entire adult life, eschewed substantive debate for emotion-exploiting cynicism.

Sullivan sees Democratic-base whinging against Obama as saner but still mistaken:

What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.

Sullivan's analysis speaks so elequently to the gripes raised by Frank and Baker that, rather than summarize, I'll simply quote at length:

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.

Sullivan goes on to note the substantial achievements of this presidency, such as averting another Great Depression, the withdrawal from Iraq, the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and above all Obamacare.

Whether or not Obama's politics are far enough to the left (and if by "left" we mean "concerned with civil liberties and economic equity," then no, they're not), it's simply not plausible to take seriously claims that he's letting himself be taken advantage of or pushed around by the GOP. Neither Frank nor Baker address the fact that, whatever his 'real' sympathies are, Obama is in a position of perpetual negotiation with his own party, his opponents, and the US and world at large. Their critique seems to boil down to a severe distaste for political moderation; they want a liberal version of Bush.

My guess is that Sullivan's right: Obama realizes how quickly the appeal of an idealogue passes, and he doesn't want to be remembered as The Liberal Bush.

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