Now, don't get me wrong: I actually kind of like Fareed Zakaria's take most of the time. I like that he offers up a global perspective, because I think there's little to be gained by closing our eyes to our place within the community of nations. He's looked at issues at a deeper level than most Sunday shows and brought in dissenting voices.
But boy, do I think he's off on this one. On a Charlie Rose show earlier in the week, author and psychologist Drew Westen (based on his NYTimes Op-Ed) gave a fairly common and impassioned argument within the progressive community of President Obama's performance so far:
Drew Westen: I guess I’ll start by saying just from that clip that you just played, which I hadn’t heard before but I think it’s a prime example is that the President blamed the problem on Congress. He didn’t say - and he blamed the problem on the lack of quote/unquote "Congress" to - to be able to - to negotiate in good faith and to compromise.
The problem is actually isn’t the problem in Congress, it’s the problem that one side of Congress is actually not willing to negotiate and the other side was willing to negotiate away most of its core principles.
So that kind of rhetoric may help the President in his re-election efforts, looking like he is the grown-up who’s above the fray. But in fact what he’s just done is actually to take one more shot at his own party, which is trying to be incredibly conciliatory along with him and they’re getting pretty tired of what a lot of them feel is one capitulation after another on core principles.
Charlie Rose: And you want him to do what?
Drew Westen: I want him to act like a Democrat. No, I take - I take that back. I’d like to him to act like a Republican, which is to have some convictions and stick with it. Stick with them....
And while it's inarguable that Obama has managed to get some big ticket Democratic items, like health care reform, it's always come at the cost of giving away the most progressive plank before negotiations even begin. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic argued on the same show that Westen is ahistoric and full of nonsense. Zakaria, coming distinctly on the same side as Chait, posits it is that success Obama has realized--compromised though it may be--that means that liberals are being entirely too unreasonable in their expectations.
I think that liberals need to grow up. As "The New Republic's" Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is a recurring liberal fantasy that if only the president of the United States would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry and enact his agenda.
In this view, write Chait, every known impediment to the legislative process - special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macro economic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public policy - are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. This does happen if you're watching the movie "The American President," but not if you're actually watching what goes on in Washington.
Strawman, party of two? Westen's Op-Ed did not place that much significance on soaring rhetoric, only to note that the speeches that stirred a nation to get out to vote for Obama has not as yet seemed to match his actual actions. No, liberals aren't upset that he doesn't make more heartwarming speeches. Liberals are upset that Obama's tactics to negotiate in the conditions Zakaria describes is to start out giving the other side more than 50% of what they want and move further to the right from there. But that's a much harder position to defend, so Chait and Zakaria create a strawman to make liberals look unreasonable. Further, there is no indication--as Zakaria asserts--that Americans are concerned with jobs AND deficit spending. Americans care about their jobs and the economy vis a vis whether they'll have a job in the foreseeable future. The deficit is a concern of Beltway Villager academics, not average Americans.
To be fair, I have my own issues with some of the left's criticism of Obama too, because it appears to completely ignore the political environment we're in and how close the votes have been. I also think it's important to remember what the President can legally do and what is the provenance of Congress.
But it's the dismissive, condescending attitude of Zakaria towards liberal concerns that grates. I don't think that liberals hoping to see a little more strength and leadership from Obama is childish. I think taking the country to the brink of default is childish. I think intransigence against making the very top income earners pay their fair share is childish. I think feeding into racism by questioning whether the President was born in this country is childish.
But wanting the President to not ape and accept right wing memes that have driven the country into the economic wasteland we're in? There's nothing childish about it.
About Nicole Belle
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