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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama's "Bipartisanship"

I want to repeat something I often said in the early months of the Obama Administration, when so many were perplexed to the point of apoplexy by Obama's endless "bipartisan" gestures which were met by whomped-up Republican rage at high-handed Democratic "exclusion" anyway, and by the fact that the stimulus was filled with Republican pork that purchased next to nothing in Republican support, and by the endless outreach to Republicans that met with historically unprecedented obstructionism and recourse to filibuster threats and stonewalling on appointments at all levels, the long Senatorial detour through the bipartisan Gang of Six that yielded Teabagger August and derailed healthcare, and so on.

I don't actually believe that Obama has any illusions about real possibilities for bipartisanship with Republicans in this historical moment. He may not have counted on quite this level of insanity from the GOP, given that it really is unprecedented, though I daresay there was enough madness on the campaign trail to give him a preview. And I do not think he expected quite the level of incompetence and dysfunction that is on display in the Senate now (I am assuming the derailment of his timetable and the signs that he didn't expect a Public Option in the Senate package, but expected it to find its way in through conference with notional bipartisan votes in both Houses really did send the process out of Obama's preferred path).

But, again, I don't think Obama has any illusions about the possibility of real bipartisanship with the current crazytown form of the Republican Party. I certainly disagree with those who believe Obama's "bipartisanship" noises represent his naivete or, worse, are signals of a "stealth corporatism" that gives the lie to his hopeyness or exposes Democratic and GOPer "equivalence" and all sorts of comparable comic-book constructions of the scene folks spit out at me online from time to time in such discussions.

I believe that Obama's "bipartisanship" names something in which he really does believe in an aspirational way that actually doesn't connect up that much or that often to concrete policy decisions at all -- even the ones that look like giveaways to the GOP that purchase him nothing in the way of reasonableness or goodwill from the Teabagger Express and the GOP's lumberhead luminaries. (By the way, I don't think it takes a "mind-reader" to ascribe such beliefs to Obama -- I am inferring such beliefs from my study of many of his public speeches, of which I happened to read an unusual number while helming an independent study on Obama's rhetoric for a Berkeley Rhetoric undergrad and also while preparing for one of my courses this term in which I have assigned quite a few Presidential addresses alongside polemics on political economy since the New Deal.)

I do think Obama believes that America needs (at least) two functional political parties that invigorate policy debates and keep figures in authority relatively honest and yet can work together most of the time to solve shared problems within a shared sense of basic facts but in the service of importantly different values and regional emphases. I believe this myself, by the way. I think Obama models this in his speeches in the hope that he can mobilize it from its palpable non-existence into eventual existence. I also think he is providing Republicans an escape hatch from the present madness of this Teabag consummation of three decades of Movement Conservatism, declaring himself ever ready to work with more reasonable Eisenhower types who kinda sorta don't exist anymore in the hopes that such types might take form and then take him up on it and so form the kernel around which a comparatively non-insane future GOP might eventually spring. By the way, I don't think Obama necessarily holds out much hope for this, any more than anybody else should who takes a long look at the depths of madness and dishonesty to which the Republicans have now sunk, but I do think it is part of what is afoot when he conjures up his bipartisan vision of America and, after all, why the hell not?

But far more important than this aspirational bipartisan discourse, I believe that Obama grinds his way joylessly through the bipartisan motions, virtually without payoffs and in the face of fairly relentless exasperation and derision from both the right and the left for pragmatic political reasons above all else.

Although Republicans pretend that Obama isn't listening to them even as he turns to them over and over and over again (and, even more hilariously, even though Republicans -- with the indispensable assist of corporate media outlets that broadcast this narrative without calling the GOP on it -- pretend that Obama isn't "listening to the American people" when he tries imperfectly to do what overwhelming majorities of the American people want him to do and elected him to do, none of which looks very much at all like the things the GOP wants to say "the American People" want even though only a minority of scared ignorant white racist evangelicals actually want what they are selling), this isn't a narrative that can stand even the slightest scrutiny.

Obama seems to have calculated that by reaching out repeatedly and conspicuously to Republicans throughout his Presidency he can insulate himself from perfectly predictable Republican talking points to the contrary, and in a way that is likely to make at least some Republicans pay for their expected obstructionism. That is why the White House "bipartisanship" discourse has always gone hand in hand with the Pelosi House discourse deriding the Republicans as "The Party of NO." Taken together, this establishes and provides the context to pin responsibility on Republicans and stave off likely losses given the inevitable frustration of hope that was sure to follow upon the impossibly high expectations that freighted the Obama Presidency from the beginning, coupled with worries about historical challenges to incumbents in the party in power after its candidate wins the White House.

I believe that Obama's "bipartisanship" discourse was an investment the beginnings of the payoff of which was the State of the Union (in which he wasn't able to tout the Healthcare reform accomplishment he wanted, and yet he is widely perceived as giving Democrats their mojo back nonetheless) and then his impressive showing in his Q and A session in the lion's den later that week. This was the beginning of the 2010 campaign and it showed. Obama has established a credible position of "bipartisan" effort from which to pin obstruction on Republicans where it largely -- but not entirely, given the Conservadem menace -- belongs. Earlier Obama efforts to hang the GOP on the hat-hook of Limbaugh's unelectable but profitable hate-radio empire (for which he was widely and wrongly criticized across the blogosphere), were eagerly and very foolishly embraced by the GOP in its Teabag episode, and this exercise in avid self-marginalization may stave off a 2010 worst-case scenario (loss of the Senate) while setting the scene to bear real fruit in 2012 (Congressional majorities large enough to domesticate Conservdems at the margins of the Caucus).

By way of conclusion, I can't help but also point out that an enormous amount of race-discourse is getting smuggled through the filter of this business of Obama's "bipartisanship." I don't think one has to be playing 11th-dimensional chess to ascribe the sorts of pragmatic calculations I do to Obama's rhetoric -- since, among other things, Obama is absolutely aware of the rank racism that is bubbling up in the cauldron of GOP complaints about his "arrogance" and about getting "lectured to" and not "listened to" by Obama (as who in their right mind was not aware that Teabagger August was a scarcely stealthed freakout about race for which Healthcare was at best a prompt) as now he "pivots" into the necessarily more public antagonism of a campaign year with the old straight or closeted white guys of the Republican Party and the, er, "Real Americans" of the Southern swamplands and tornado-torn turflands they represent by proxy when they are not partying hardy in the sinful Cities they usually privately prefer when they aren't in front of microphones lying their lies.

Too many who accuse Obama of going too slow or even of stealth-obstruction as he takes pains to outflank and soft-sell the obstructionist GOP seem to forget that among all the other things he is trying to do, the "biracial" Obama is forever delicately navigating and pressuring America's abiding and ongoing racist legacies and insanities and violences. A lot of that work is getting disavowed by the left as much as by the right in these discussions of the motives and effectiveness of Obama's "bipartisan" efforts.


RadicalCoolDude said...

I agree with everything you said. However, when you briefly mentioned that "the stimulus was filled with Republican pork that purchased next to nothing in Republican support", one cannot emphasized enough how not only did Obama missed the opportunity to fashion a "Green New Deal" (in order to build the best public transit systems and smart grids in the world) but it's relative ineffectiveness in stimulating the economy and creating jobs will make it even harder for him to sell a huge second stimulus.

So, although it's important to defend Obama against right-wing hyteria and left-wing frustration, I think it is equally important to acknowledge how his low-balling the size of the first stimulus in the name of "bipartisanship" may have screwed the country in countless ways for generations to come...

In other words, there is nothing wrong in pointing out he made a big mistake.

Dale Carrico said...

there is nothing wrong in pointing out he made a big mistake

Who ever said otherwise?

Impertinent Weasel said...

You may well be right about all of this, I really don't know. But can you describe the kind of voter to whom 'bipartisanship' is appealing? It really seems like someone in the Administration means to engender a perception among voters that Obama is a sane, sensible, center-left doer working tirelessly on reforming our broken institutions. Since this is what Obama really is, it should be pretty easy for people to believe. Somewhere, the strategists have lost their way. Sane, sensible centrism and bipartisanship are not the same thing. The former appeals to majorities, the latter appeals to nobody. In my mind, the issue is not about whether this rhetoric of bipartisanship is part of a complicated political strategy. We can safely assume it is. Rather, the issue is whether it's effective at all when it comes to appealing to majorities. I have my doubts.

Dale Carrico said...

I have to say I mostly see it the other way around. I don't think it matters if literally nobody at all finds "bipartisanship" in the abstract appealing if what Obama is doing that gets corralled under that term by critics is functioning, however imperfectly, as part of a strategy that encourages wingnut self-marginalization and pins responsibility of GOP obstructionism on wingnuts, but also helps him navigate American racism effectively.

RadicalCoolDude said...

RadicalCoolDude: there is nothing wrong in pointing out he made a big mistake

Dale Carrico: Who ever said otherwise?

My point is that some of us would take your regular defense of Obama more seriously if you simultaneously acknowledged his major mistakes instead of always seeming as if you are bending over backwards to portray him as a master chess player always 3 steps ahead of us rubes...

Dale Carrico said...

What you just said is complete and utter horseshit.

What I "seem" to say according to "some" (that is to say you, pseudonymous online coward) has no connection to what I actually say.

I guess I don't doubt you honestly believe I am indulging in hero-worship and nth dimensional chess and blah blah blah when what I am actually doing by my own lights is trying to grasp how actually possible progressive policies might proceed and might be proceeding given actually-existing senatorial and other legislative procedures, and electoral and demographic limits, and movement republican insanity, and relentless media misinformation, and an actually intelligent but quite non-demonic quite non-superheroic straightforwardly center-left President.

Obama, as I've always said, is to my own right, but he is palpably more progressive nonetheless than any president since FDR. And you would be quite wrong to think that such a statement means I mistake Obama for a leftist, proper -- I leave such fantastic attributions to the Teabaggers.

I have also criticized plenty that Obama has done (say otherwise and you are lying, plain and simple, think otherwise and you are lying to yourself, plain and simple -- and it remains for you to do the soul searching necessary to grasp whatever it is that is fueling these deceptions) -- I simply refuse to truck in Dem-GOP equivalency theses, Obama as stealth-corporatist paranoia, or in forms of bashing by means of which the left divides and demoralizes itself to literally no practical purpose, out of childish impatience and narcissistic self-indulgence.

Again, I won't doubt you really believe you discern in my writing this naive hero-worship you attribute to me, and feel so weirdly personally slighted by, but I am here to tell you that I simply do not believe what you are attributing to me, these conclusions are not entailed in my analyses, they are coming from your own intellectual or emotional shortcomings.

Can't you move on to something more constructive? Why are you so hellbent on indulging in castigatory arias directed at the first President in generations who has any kind of chance to nudge the terrain for once in anything like a direction suited to the ends you presumably prefer?

I get it that I like Obama more than you, I don't think he's evil, I think he's smarter and better and more progressive than any President in my life time, and so on, and his obvious mistakes and failures and frustrations neither change my mind nor even particular surprise me.

What is it exactly that you want from me? What is it that upsets you about my refusal to condemn this President as relentlessly as you would prefer for whatever weird reasons drive you? It all seems, frankly, stupid, more stupid than you otherwise seem to be. It "seems" to "some" awfully pointless and depressing, and, if I may, it's surely terribly boring, given the alternatives?