The Education of Obama

by George Kennedy on September 14, 2011


The Education of Obama

The education of a new president has always held a certain fascination for me and I did look forward, albeit with mild trepidation, to the education of Barack Obama. It has become painful to watch. He is more reluctant to engage on behalf of the country than any president I have witnessed in my lifetime.

I have said this previously but I do not fault President Obama for believing he could transform Washington politics while ushering in a new era of civility in our political discourse. He is a product of his generation, the post Civil-Rights period, as well as a beneficiary of the more enlightened and tolerant society that emerged briefly during the late 60s. He did get his the old-fashioned way: he earned it, contrary to a more uncharitable view from one of his former Republican Senate colleagues.

Following eight years of Bush-Cheney, Obama’s purpose was authentically refreshing. But how realistic was it? The president had artfully created – we now know – an artificial profile that meshed neatly with the profile of presidential leadership he helped shape in the public consciousness.

So, what happened? Here is where his inexperience became his Achilles Heel: his advisors. With the possible exception of Valerie Jarrett, they were men and women of his generation, especially his senior campaign advisors. They were bright, ambitious, shared his world view, were students of domestic political history, especially the past several decades, but had not lived the turbulent days of the sixties. His senior White House staff, in particular his economic braintrust, were retreads of the Clinton Administration and wards of Wall Street.

Did anyone of them stop to tell him that as the first African-American president, the rules would be different for him – just him; that he was the accident of history, that he was not supposed to happen in the lifetime of the old barons of the Republic Party and conservatives of all stripes?

Enter the real Obama, the one still admired universally for his personal qualities but now the object of constant derision – the weak leader unable to inspire confidence when and where it matters. Obama’s campaign team now bristles at Democrats and those who lament publicly that the president tactically fails to lead, is rolled easily and constantly by the Republicans in negotiations; and, the worst epithet of all – that he might be a moderate Republican for advocating a Grand Bargain and retaining many of the policies of the former Bush administration.

Democrats and the coalitions that swept Obama to victory over the curmudgeonly John McCain expected that he would make an effort, at least an effort, to live up to their outsized expectations. Why not? Did not Bush and Cheney adhere to the conservative agenda of their corporate and wealthy benefactors?

We well understand that a McCain-Palin administration would likely have continued the policy agenda of Bush-Cheney but, with a Democrat at the helm, the Republicans’ plan of attack, their policy and legislative agenda in any dialogue with the White House had to change.

Executing a brilliant 180 degree turn, Congressional Republicans became instant stewards of the economy they had pillaged in an orgy of rapine under Bush: the national debt is suddenly too large; unemployment levels can not be sustained; corporate taxes are too high; regulations stifle ingenuity and job creation; unions are a drag on local economies; we need more domestic energy exploration, not less; regulatory agencies should be defunded or abolished; and men should again exercise their prerogatives over women’s health and reproductive rights. Guantanamo, they insisted, should not be closed and its most loathsome inhabitants, or high-value prisoners, should be judged by military tribunal, not in civil court as recommended by the Attorney General.

Moreover, revisions in our war-fighting strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan should be subject to “conditions on the ground” best determined by the senior commanders in consultation with the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense. The Bush record was not subject to scrutiny; it was not useful to engage in “finger-pointing”, it was time to look ahead. On this last point, the White House and House Speaker at that time, Nancy Pelosi, fully concurred.

Obama, on the other hand, was going to be held accountable for the mess he inherited. Senate Republicans insisted upon the right to filibuster any legislation that fell outside their ideological parameters. Their goal, even with a Democrat in the White house, was to consolidate the power they had wielded during the first six years of G.W. Bush. Then and now, the Republicans were determined to replace social and personal responsibility with one of personal responsibility alone.

Someone recently said, “Power without responsibility requires a high degree of self-restraint, something lacking in the contemporary Republican Party.” To the conservatives, Obama, on one level embodied that accident of history I spoke of earlier. His presidency therefore was the emotional result of a verdict on his predecessor’s excesses. A President Obama was now a real threat to the serious political order that is contemporary Washington; a political order carefully constructed since 1981 in which conservative ideals predominate over their liberal counterparts. Who was Obama listening to among his kitchen cabinet? Who was advocating process over politics?

Who was advising him that racial animus required that he tread delicately so as not to project the image of the “angry Black man”? Who suggested that cool, aloof, detached, professorial was the correct image when he had entered a special hell being created for him by a Republican Party infatuated by “recklessness, extremism, and revolution”? A hell in which the rules were, we want instant solutions, full accountability for problems you may not fully understand, while enduring an endless barrage of lies, distortions, and personal assaults. There are Americans who survived this hell under conservative Democrats during the 60s but were they welcomed into the presidents inner sanctum?

It is also equally plausible that Obama and his team chose to ignore any counsel proffered by those more seasoned in the ways of Republican politics. This was not the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan so I allow the ground may have shifted under the president’s feet early in his tenure.

Since the president and his team, not excluding the Congressional Democrats, failed to do so, the Republicans seized the narrative on all major policy issues at the state, local, and national levels, thwarted any attempt to pass legislation that would have bolstered a new Democrat in the White House, and masterfully framed the image of a young and inexperienced president in over his head and out of touch with “the American people.”

As Hillary used to claim, “Obama has not been fully vetted!” Did not the Republicans, enabled by a reluctant president, lend credence to this assertion?

The president’s personality and political instincts only served to perpetuate the image served up daily by his critics. The missing link in our early profile of Obama was an understanding of his real personality. We easily missed it during the campaign of 2008 because that was not the accountability phase of our relationship with him. Maureen Dowd of the NYT characterizes Obama as more interested in mastering “his own narrative in print” while conceding the political narrative to the Republicans.”

This may be unwelcome truth to hard-core Obama loyalists. We know this has also unnerved his base – those who know that in the battleground that is the nation’s capital, you never willingly cede the political narrative. This is “spendable currency”, to be husbanded and used strategically. On this latter point, I am reminded of two presidents in Obama’s lifetime that did not understand this well: Carter and Bush senior. Both became one-term presidents.

Is the president “absent, quiet, ambivalent, impenetrable and inscrutable”? I don’t know, but he is whatever he is perceived to be by the voters – some of whom don’t care about him any longer; they just want to know what is going to happen. Did Obama not know that if the white middle and working class turned to him to lead, they already knew what they expected him to deliver? It is within this segment of the electorate the Republicans have stoked fear and resentment toward Obama.

Here is where I think we are. Obama and his advisors seriously misread the historical impact of his presidency on those for whom race trumps all considerations, Republicans determined to recover from the stinging political defeat of McCain-Palin, and a corporate-defense-financial oligarchy that feared a reordering of national priorities. Obama’s team saw their victory as an opportunity to bring positive change with the cooperation of Republicans they felt shared their desire to govern – not rule. To conservatives, there was no positive side to Obama’s presidency – to put it mildly. Moreover, I think the Obama team misread their base. The president’s margin for error, even among them, was less than he might have been willing to admit. This is what I call the “book” on Obama – the view from the growing number of cheap seats.

The Republicans are so fearful of what Obama could represent were he to succeed himself, they just may succeed in their current efforts to disenfranchise millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants and the elderly from casting ballots in 2012. “Thirty-eight states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.” This is about leverage at the polls. Someone within earshot of the president must have seen this old Republican chestnut lying around and began to raise alarm bells. Democrats in the Senate, notably Dick Durbin, waited almost a year to hold hearings on the GOPs war on voting. If there was a speech the president should have made this was it. He did not live through that era in our history but his supporters still do.

Raising a billion dollars to finance your campaign around a message of “I am the better devil” is moot if your supporters cannot vote. This is a fight the Republicans just might win. When are these people going to wake up and realize the rules were different for them?

President Obama’s approach to the presidency is uniquely Obama – we know that now. An intriguing, but frightening, possibility is that the country may not allow him the luxury of a second term while he appears detached from the fear and confusion that tugs at their elbow daily. The gap between their expectations of him is vast and widening.

Although Obama may have elevated himself beyond partisanship – dangerous and rarified air – he enabled his critics while ceding the political narrative. He may have misread the transformation of the Republican Party but a reasonable expectation is that he would prove nimble enough to stay in the game. We expected a player, not a spectator.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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