by: Eli Zaretsky on February 4th, 2010
From the beginning of his Presidency, Obama has been guided by one fixed principle: keep the right wing of the Republican Party at the center of the nation’s consciousness. The reason is obvious. Compared to Neanderthal Republicans, even the lamest, most conservative, most devoid of ideas Democrat will look good.
Let us examine how this works. Find a Republican who thinks we should not help people out of work; by comparison, a Democrat who wants to spend a thousand dollars on jobs looks like a latter-day Franklin Roosevelt. Find a Republican who wants to use small-scale nuclear weapons in Afghanistan; just one row over, a Democrat who only sends an army looks like Gandhi. One sees the method in Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann nightly: right wing idiocies are trotted out so that the liberals and Democrats can feel superior. Above all, never examine Obama’s policies. That would be “divisive.”
Obama may not have invented this idea, but he has pursued it more consistently than any other modern politician. His approach has had three dimensions to it. To begin with, he has acted as if nothing could be accomplished until he got the help of the Republican de jour, normally Olympia Snowe, sometimes rightwing Democrats like Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman. The important thing was to keep the potentially huge left of the Democratic Party (the people Rahm Emanuel calls retarded) off stage. Make the whole politics hinge on a discussion between a sage-like Obama and rightists. Act like “independents” are people who want to average out ideas out from the left and right wings of American politics, not people who want a new direction and leadership.
The second way that Obama made sure that there would be plenty of media coverage of the right, and as little as possible as the Left, was to channel right wing language. Thus, he almost never spoke of the government’s obligation to provide health care to all American citizens, a once-sacred Democratic principle, but instead claimed that we had to “bend the curve,” lower costs, the classic demand of the Right. Nor would he ever say, while handing trillions over to the banks, that we needed a new role for government; instead he insisted that we have to get back to markets as soon as possible.
The third way that Obama has kept the right at the center of his Presidency was prompted by the Massachusetts Election and enunciated during the State of the Union. This involves visiting the GOP, “confronting” them, calling for them to come up with good ideas, telling them that they are co-responsible for government, as if we elected a European style grand coalition, and not a supposed progressive. This development got predictable enthusiasm from the Obamophile liberals like Jane Walsh of Salon, who said it showed “spine,” and Hendrick Hertzberg of the New Yorker, who said that the President “looked and sounded like a trillion bucks.” Emboldened by such responses, the White House announced today that it would be a continuing policy, as if the United States had a Parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister answers to the Parliament, and not a Presidential system, in which the President answers to the people.
The real conversation the President needs to have is with the Left, but so long as he can take them for granted, the charade of a discussion between a conservative President and a far right faction in Congress will pass for government in our increasingly vacuous atmosphere. No good can come of this.