Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I read three articles today by people for whom I have very little respect -- Mark Halperin, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen -- but, much as I wanted to sneer at what they said, I couldn't thoroughly disagree with any of them.

In the left blogosphere, the most mocked of the three is Halperin, who (in "A Report Card on Obama's First Year") declared that one of the "five things Obama is doing worse than you think" is "wooing official Washington"; Halperin chides Obama because,

politically and personally, the First Couple and their top aides have shown no hankering for the Establishment seal of approval, nor have they accepted the glut of invitations to embassy parties and other tribal rituals of the political class. In the sphere of Washington glitter, the Clintons were clumsy and the Bush team indifferent, but the Obama Administration has turned a cold shoulder, disappointing Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the uber-cool newbies would play.

I have contempt for this horrible Beltway world; I have contempt for Halperin because it's clear that he thinks it's good that the Beltway demands this idiocy of a president....

And yet: I have a job in which I often have to do ridiculous, pointless things to placate powerful people who should know better. Chances are you have a similar job. Obama shouldn't have to kiss these people's rings, but couldn't it be argued that he should do it anyway, or find some other way to either mollify or intimidate these bastards, just because it will smooth his path and make it easier for him to do what he wants and needs to do?

Halperin also blames Obama for failing to change the tone in Washington. It's an appalling bit of victim-blaming -- it's clear the Republicans and their allies settled early in Obama's term on a strategy of total war -- and yet ... what was Obama's Plan B? It's idiotic to say he could have changed the tone in Washington, but why isn't the public angrier at tea party crazies and name-calling conspiratorialists and other mad dogs? Why hasn't Obama managed to make them look like the menace to the Republic that they are?

Brooks says the tea party movement has the passion that the Obama campaign had in 2008; he writes,

In almost every sphere of public opinion, Americans are moving away from the administration, not toward it. The Ipsos/McClatchy organizations have been asking voters which party can do the best job of handling a range of 13 different issues. During the first year of the Obama administration, the Republicans gained ground on all 13.

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

Given America's relentless know-nothingism, it's a wonder any idea associated with the educated classes ever had even temporary popularity -- but why didn't Obama seize the moment? Why didn't he recognize that it was a moment, not a generational shift (at least not unless he could sustain it)? He lost a year by failing to demonstrate that knowledgeable people can be the ones who truly have ordinary Americans' interests at heart; America needed to see more done on the economy, and needed to see it done by smart guys. That was a missed opportunity.

Cohen grumbles that Obama doesn't seem to stand for anything concrete:

In Obama's case, his misfortune is to be a leader without a cause.

He wanted a health-care bill. Why? To cover the uncovered. Maybe. To rein in the insurance companies. Maybe. To lower costs. Maybe. What mattered most was getting a bill, any bill. This is not a cause. It's a notch on a belt.

I don't think that's it -- I think he really thinks changes have to come as partial, incremental advances, made in an ugly way like sausage; if so, he has a point -- but couldn't he be a bit more inspiring, a bit more populace-rallying, in any case, even if the end result isn't going to be revolutionary? He gives a great oration, but orations aren't everyday tools, and he needs an everyday way to inspire (if only to counter Fox). He needs day-to-day, fireside-chat eloquence. It's about job skills; it's just something he has to do to get his work done properly.

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