The title of this post is intentionally hyperbolic and provocative — I couldn’t think of any other way to express my shock at the things President Obama said to Steve Kroft.
First, some context: I’ve been insistent that the fundamental problem for President Obama and Democratic leaders is a lack of moral authority, a pervasive sense among the electorate that they don’t have the courage of their convictions:
Over the course of two years, President Obama and the Democratic Party achieved a remarkable feat: they passed significant, in some cases historic, legislation, yet managed not to tell the America public what they stood for and why they stood for it.
What’s worse, elected to be the anti-Bush, Barack Obama took page after page from the Bush playbook, on war, civil liberties, gay rights, executive power and women’s reproductive rights, among several other things. A perfect example is the shameful spiking of the BP spill, a craven political ploy that backfired terribly: as Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, BP was reporting a return to profitability.
No one can deny that the Obama White House and Democratic leadership racked up important accomplishments during the past two years, but voters don’t care what you do if they think you don’t stand for anything.
I keep hearing the retort that it’s all about jobs, that if the unemployment rate were 6%, Obama would be riding high and none of this would be an issue. I don’t buy it. All things being equal, when you cede your moral authority, when you telegraph to the public that you won’t stand your ground in defense of your principles, when you allow your opponent to step into the vacuum and frame your actions for you, you lose the connection to the people, you squander the ability to explain your actions, to buy time when things are going poorly, to earn trust during hard times.
In this case, Democrats collapsed in the face of an obstructionist Republican Party and the Tea Party, an overhyped, media-magnified phenomenon fueled by misinformation from think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests.
Had the White House laid out a set of core beliefs and values that they vowed to adhere to and that they framed their policies with, Democrats could have kept the American public on board with them through a tough economy. Instead, they flailed from inane attack to inane attack, never telling America what they stood for and why they stood for it, never demonstrating the strength of character and resoluteness essential to viable leadership.
The aftermath of the GOP’s midterm triumph perfectly illustrates this problem: Obama is falling over himself seeking compromise with Republicans, ceding to their frames, while Republican leaders say they will stick to their principles and try to destroy his presidency and legacy. Here’s how I put it a couple of days ago: If one side offers “compromise” and the other claims to stand firmly on principle, which one appears more principled to voters?
Astonishingly, in a 60 Minutes piece that just aired, Obama goes one step further. During the course of the entire interview he only once mentions having the courage of one’s convictions. And he attributes it not to himself or Democrats, but to Tom Coburn, a staunch conservative!
“There are some sincere Republicans in the Senate like Tom Coburn, Oklahoma, who is about as conservative as they come, but a real friend of mine and somebody who has always had the courage of his convictions and not, you know, bringing pork projects back to Oklahoma. And it may be that that’s an example of where, on a bipartisan basis, we can work together to change practices in Washington that generate a lot of the distrust of government.”
Read the rest of these excerpts and tell me how you feel about the White House’s post-midterm strategy. From my perspective, this interview is a near-complete capitulation to rightwing framing and basically an apology for being a Democrat:
“What [people have] seen over the last two years is a lot of partisan bickering. A lot of the same chronic problems that we’ve seen in Washington over the last several decades now. And that frustrated them. And I think they rightly said, “Okay, President Obama, you said you were gonna do something about this. We haven’t seen enough change in Washington.”
“I think that what happened over the course of two years was that we had to take a series of big, emergency steps quickly. And most of them in the first six months of my administration. Each of them had a big price tag. You got intervention in the banks. You’ve got the auto bailout. You’ve got a stimulus package. Each one with a lot of zeroes behind it. And people looked at that and they said, “Boy, this feels as if there’s a huge expansion of government.”
“But necessity created circumstances in which I think the Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that’s not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country.”
“Now, I campaigned saying we should stop doing earmarks. You know, even though it’s small as a part of our overall federal budget, you know, what people consider to be pork projects, no matter how worthy, make people feel that government’s not accountable. And there should be a better way of doing it. But I had to make a decision, “Do I sign this omnibus bill to finish last year’s business? And, you know, make sure that I can keep on working with Congress to get all these things done? Or do I veto that bill and have a big fight right away in the middle of an economic crisis?” Well, I decided to sign the bill. Now, that’s an example of where I was so concerned about getting things done that, you know, I lost track of part of the reason I got elected.”
“It’s not just a matter of how many bills I’m passing, no matter how worthy they are. Part of it’s also setting a tone in Washington and for the rest of the country that says, “We’re responsible. We’re transparent. We’re open. We’re talking to each other. We’re civil.” You know?”
“I think it’s fair to say that, you know, we made the right decisions in making sure that we stabilize the economy. But in terms of setting the tone and how this town operates, we just didn’t pay enough attention to some of the things that we had talked about.”
“And my hope is that we may be in a position now where the two sides meet and agree on some things that need to be changed. I noticed that [Virginia Congressman] Eric Cantor, one of the leaders in the House, said, you know, we really need to put an end to earmarks.”
“We thought that if we shaped a [health care] bill that wasn’t that different from bills that had previously been introduced by Republicans — including a Republican governor in Massachusetts who’s now running for President — that, you know, we would be able to find some common ground there. And we just couldn’t.”
“So, for us to figure out in a bipartisan way how to start rebuilding our roads. How to make sure we got the best airports in the world. How do we make sure that we’ve got a rail system that works in this country?”
“Well, you know, again, historically, rebuilding our infrastructure is something that has garnered Democratic and Republican support. I want to have a conversation with them and see if that’s still the case. What I just mentioned in terms of providing tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States. That’s not a traditional liberal position. That’s a traditional Republican position. That’s a Chamber of Commerce position.”
“What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna reach out to Republicans and I’m gonna say, “What can we work on together?” There are gonna be some things that we can’t agree on. You know? Philosophically. And so, we will have those battles. And we’ll save those decisions till after the next election. But in the meantime, there must be some things we can agree on.” KROFT: Haven’t you tried that? PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well I have, but I’m gonna keep on trying. And I’ll give you an example that I mentioned yesterday at the press conference in energy. I think that you know the Republicans don’t want to see some big comprehensive climate change bill.”
“Well, it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves. We have a long tradition in this country of a desire for limited government, the suspicion of the federal government, of a concern that government spends too much money. You know? I mean, that’s as American as apple pie. And although, you know, there’s a new label to this, I mean those sentiments are ones that a lot of people support and give voice to. Including a lot of Democrats.”
“Sometimes I think this debate gets framed as if I think rich people, folks who are doing well, should be punished. Part of what America’s all about is going out there and getting rich. And, you know, if you make a good product, you provide a good service, God bless you. I want you to do well. Then you can plow that money back into creating jobs. And building your businesses. That’s terrific.”
“I understand the Republicans have a different view. And so, we are going to have to have a negotiation. And I am open to you know, finding a way in which, you know, they can meet their, you know, principles and I can meet mine. But in order to do that, I think we do have to answer the question of how we pay for it. If in fact we’re gonna extend these tax cuts, then we’ve got to figure out what does that mean for our debt and our deficit.”
“And hopefully, we can agree on a set of facts that leads to a compromise.”
“You know, I think that both John [Boehner] and Mitch [McConnell] are very smart. They’re capable. They have been able to, I think, organize the Republican caucus very effectively in opposition to a lot of the things that we tried to do over the last two years. And that takes real political skill. And I believe that they want the best for the country just like I do. Just like Democrats do. So you know, my assumption is that we’re gonna be able to work together. And whenever we’ve had conversations here at the White House or over on Capital Hill, they’ve always been cordial.”
“Okay, during election season, I think the rhetoric flies. And by the way, I’ve been guilty of that. It’s not just them. And you know again, this is an example, you asked me earlier, of what I reflect on. I reflect on the fact that part of my promise to the American people when I was elected was to maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think over the course of two years, there have been times where I’ve slipped on that commitment. And that’s something that I’ve got to make sure that I’m checking on an ongoing basis, making sure that my rhetoric matches up with my expectations for myself and the expectations of my supporters.”
“You know, now I will say that when it comes to some of my supporters, some of my Democratic supporters who express some frustration, part of it, I think, is the belief that if I just communicated things better, that I’d be able to persuade that half of the country that voted for John McCain that we were right and they were wrong. And, you know, one of the things that I think is important for people to remember is that, you know, this country doesn’t just agree with The New York Times editorial page. And, you know, I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position, and there are gonna be some people who just don’t agree with me. And that’s okay. And then we’ve got to figure out a way to compromise.”
“And so I think that we’ve got some repair work to do [with the business community]. And as I said in my press conference — you know, the key to the American economy has always been the dynamic private sector that creates jobs. I would love a situation in which the private sector is off and roaring and movin’ and, you know, the government is playing a much more limited role in the economy.”
“No you know, I do get discouraged, I mean, there are times where you think, “Dog-gone-it you know, the job numbers aren’t movin’ as fast as I want.” And you know, I thought that the economy would have gotten better by now. You know, one of the things I think you understand — as president you’re held responsible for everything. But you don’t always have control of everything. Right?”
“And you know, I think that it is entirely legitimate that in the banking sector, it’s very important for us to write these rules in collaboration with interested parties so that they can start knowin’ how things are gonna work. When it comes to healthcare, we need to be consulting with the insurance industry to make sure they know how things are gonna work.”
Liberal bloggers are bringing down Obama, part II: It’s NOT the economy, stupid, it’s Obama’s character
My post, How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency, provoked a range of responses and I’d like to address the dominant themes. Here’s an excerpt of the piece for context:
When Robert Gibbs attacked the professional left he didn’t specify anyone by name, but the assumption was that it was cable personalities, disaffected interest groups, bloggers and online commenters. With each passing day, I’m beginning to realize that the crux of the problem for Obama is a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, among them Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher. Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren’t complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.
The essence of their critique is that the White House lacks a moral compass. The instances where Obama displays a flash of moral authority – the mosque speech comes to mind – these bloggers cheer him with the same fervor as his most ardent fans.
Some will dismiss them as minor players in the wider national discourse, but two things make them a thorn in the administration’s side: a) they have a disproportionately large influence on the political debate, with numerous readers and followers — among them major media figures; and b) they develop the frames and narratives that other progressive Obama critics adopt and disseminate
I’ve argued for some time that the story of Barack Obama’s presidency is the story of how the left turned on him. And it eats him up. You know it from Robert Gibbs, you know it from Rahm Emanuel, you know it from Joe Biden and you know it from Obama himself. The constant refrain that liberals don’t appreciate the administration’s accomplishments betrays deep frustration. It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.
As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire adult life. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.
Point #1 (Does the White House really care about a handful of liberal bloggers?)
Although several readers disagreed that bloggers had the power I was attributing to them, there was general consensus that they were an annoyance to the White House.
Politico said that Bill Burton’s silence reveals how the White House feels:
Who, exactly, makes up this “professional left” that is so bothering President Barack Obama and his advisers? On Tuesday, Gibbs’ deputy, Bill Burton, made it clear that the occasionally critical cable personalities originally associated with this comment have the administration’s blessing. “If you’re on the left, if you’re somebody like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or one of the folks who helps to keep our government honest and pushes and prods to make sure that folks are true to progressive values, then [the president] thinks that those folks provide an invaluable service.” Burton told reporters. Noticeably absent from Burton’s embrace was anyone from the blogosphere once courted so avidly by the White House. Peter Daou thinks he knows why…”
Ezra Klein, as well-sourced as anyone I know, writes:
Peter Daou is right that liberal bloggers are getting under Obama’s skin.
Point #2 (Do liberal bloggers want to bring down Obama?)
The title of my post (“How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency“) was largely interpreted as a slam on the bloggers themselves. It certainly wasn’t meant as one, which I hope was clear from the body of the post. Rather, it was intended as a literal observation that a small group with disproportionate influence was contributing to President Obama’s depressed approval ratings by holding him accountable whenever he appeared to undermine core Democratic and progressive principles.
Which is why I said “bringing down” not “brought down.” The former is a question of degree, and reversible, the latter much less so. And nowhere did I argue that these bloggers wanted to bring down the administration. Quite the opposite. In a concurrent tweet, I said: “Critical difference between Obama’s liberal critics and his conservative ones is that the former want him to succeed, the latter to fail.”
Point #3 (Wouldn’t Obama be doing fine if people had jobs?)
Notwithstanding the opening sentence (“This post was originally written about the frightening case of Anwar al-Aulaqi”), a number of readers took issue with what they perceived as an inordinate focus on civil liberties and rights. They contended that Obama’s problems boil down to the bad economy, no more no less.
Alex Pareene at Salon:
I think the principled civil libertarian critique of Obama is completely correct — and I also think it has little to do with his, or the Democratic Party’s, unpopularity. I think if the economy was booming and unemployment was low, Glenn Greenwald would still be completely correct and the president would be much more popular.
Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler, two of the bloggers I referenced in the piece, echoed that refrain.
I think the reason why people are so angry at Democrats and disenchanted with Obama has very little – basically nothing – to do with what bloggers have been saying, and everything to do with the fact that there are no jobs and millions of people are having their homes foreclosed.
As much as I focus on torture & assassination, I’d buck up a lot faster if the Admin focused on helping people save their homes.
It’s always daunting to cross verbal swords with the likes of Glenn and Marcy, but even though it’s indisputable that a better economic environment would benefit Obama, I think pinning the president’s troubles on the economy is an incomplete reading of the social and political climate.
For one thing, most Americans still blame Bush:
Nearly two years into his presidency, 51% of Americans say President Barack Obama bears little to no blame for U.S. economic problems, while 48% assign him a great deal or moderate amount of blame. More Americans now blame Obama than did so a year ago, but a substantially higher percentage, 71%, blame former President George W. Bush. LINK
A majority of the country still believes that President Obama isn’t responsible for the state of the U.S. economy, but the number has steadily declined since his presidency began. According to the brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent think Obama inherited the economic situation, versus 32 percent who say his policies are responsible for it. LINK
For all their economic gripes, 52 percent of Americans say they’d rather have President Obama than his predecessor in control of economic policy, vs. 35 percent who’d prefer to have former President Bush in charge. LINK
For another thing, there’s actually a case to be made in favor of the administration’s economic policies, not least of which are avoiding a depression and saving the auto industry. Ezra elaborates:
A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would’ve been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.
The fact of financial reform is less impressive given the fact of the financial crisis, and readers know that I’m skeptical about the final design of the bill. But the consumer protection agency really is an important addition that might not have been included if the White House was occupied by a different team. There are the smaller items that, in any other administration, would be seen as achievements. Menu labeling in chain restaurants. The Independent Payment Advisory Board to bring down Medicare costs. Ted Kennedy’s SERVE America Act. And then there’s what didn’t happen: The financial system didn’t collapse. Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George W. Bush deserve some of the credit for that — though they also deserve some of the blame for not preventing the crisis in the first place. But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history — and it’s also one of the least popular.
(Steve Benen has made a similar case, as have others.)
The reality is that Obama’s problems have been brewing from the day he took office. They came to a head during the health insurance battle and they have been exacerbated by an ailing economy and a series of events, actions and decisions, many of which seem insignificant against the backdrop of a back-breaking recession, but taken together, reinforce doubts about Obama’s ideological and moral compass.
For nearly two years, I’ve written about the demise of “hope and change,” basing my arguments on two related theses:
1. The convergence of left-right opinion is a critical factor in the shaping of conventional wisdom against Obama.
2. A range of acts and omissions have resulted in a sense that Obama lacks moral authority, lacks the courage of his convictions, lacks convictions, all fatal impressions for a leader.
On the first, I’ve argued that the cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion and ultimately determining conventional wisdom. Typically, countervailing left-right narratives create enough tension to prevent the public from rapidly congealing around a single view. However, in some cases (Bush with Katrina, Obama on health care), left and right come to agree that a political leader is on the wrong track. It is this merging of left-right opinion that has damaged Obama. He can sustain relentless attacks from the right – it’s what everyone expects – but when the left joins in, the bottom drops out. That’s why opinion-shapers in the liberal blogosphere exert inordinate influence over Obama’s fortunes. And from the growing alarm at the White House, it’s clear they know it.
This is directly related to the second thesis, that Obama’s problem is not about policy but about character. Here’s how I framed it in a recent post:
Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies … Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.
It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process. From gay rights to executive power to war to the environment, the left increasingly believes the Obama White House lacks the moral courage to undo Bush’s radicalism.
This is not just a blogospheric theme. The NYT on Monday:
We are starting to wonder whether Congressional Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, or simply lack convictions.
Long before the American public rendered judgment on Obama’s economic policies, a core group of progressive bloggers and activists were expressing alarm at everything from gay rights to Gitmo to torture, women’s reproductive freedom to Afghanistan. They were essentially saying that Obama was betraying his implied and explicit promise to be the anti-Bush.
As far back as May, 2009, I wrote:
Over the past four months there have been a series of flare-ups between the Obama administration and the progressive activist community, centered mainly around the new administration’s willingness (or lack thereof) to reverse Bush-Cheney’s radical excesses in the realm of civil liberties, secrecy, detainee treatment, interrogation, and counter-terrorism.
Ever astute and incisive, Digby raises what I think is the critical point in this entire debate: “The argument against torture is slipping away from us. In fact, I’m getting the sinking feeling that it’s over. What was once taboo is now publicly acknowledged as completely acceptable by many people. Indeed, disapproval of torture is now being characterized as a strictly partisan issue, like welfare reform or taxes.”
Ari Melber, my former Kerry campaign colleague, takes a parallel tack, arguing that there should be no debate here; torture is illegal. Even Bush acknowledged that. Glenn Greenwald, an indispensible voice on this topic, says bluntly: “Ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has taken one extreme step after the next to keep concealed both the details and the evidence of Bush’s crimes, including rendition, torture and warrantless eavesdropping.”
As has been the case for years, Democratic leaders, operating within the Washington bubble, misconstrue the concerns of the netroots and often privately dismiss them as the rantings of immature outsiders and political neophytes. But as always, the progressive community, a far more efficient thinking machine than a handful of strategists and advisers, is looking ahead and raising a unified alarm. The message is this: anything less than absolute moral clarity from Democrats, who now control the levers of power, will enshrine Bush’s abuses and undermine the rule of law for generations to come.
Setting aside all the campaign slogans about hope and change, what Obama really signifies is a razor sharp break from Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Rice, Rumsfeld, Addington, Libby, Bybee et al. After eight years of damage to the fabric of our Constitution and our nation, the entire point of a new face, a smart, youthful, inspiring Democratic president is to completely and totally reject the Bush years, to reject the lawless behavior, the Orwellian rationales, the blatant disregard of the Constitution. Neglecting to do so, and leaving any doubt about where Democrats stand on these issues, is profoundly detrimental to the country.
This was about Obama’s character, not just his policies, about moral courage and conviction — and the lack of it. The right, led by radio blatherers and the still potent rightwing attack machine, had their sights on Obama’s character from the very beginning. They were bent on destroying him. It’s when the left began conveying doubts about his moral authority that the warnings signs should have started flashing in the West Wing.
The health care debate, with the left’s profound disappointment over the public option and the right’s overwhelming antipathy to a “government takeover” permanently defined and enshrined the previously inchoate impressions of Obama as a man whose obsession with conciliation rendered him incapable of taking an unshakable stand in defense of his principles.
This is how I see the steady unraveling that has led to Obama’s steep drop in the polls and the deflation of the hope bubble. So even though a better economy would improve his standing, to reduce his problems to a poor economy is a gross oversimplification.
P.S. Even though it’s self-explanatory, to avoid any misunderstanding, the word ‘stupid’ in the title is only there as part of the infamous “it’s the economy, stupid” phrase. And saying “it’s Obama’s character” is not a value judgment but a contention that his problems are about character more than policy.
Who are America’s preeminent living moral leaders? Name three. Name two. OK, name one.
There’s a reason Glenn Beck tried to steal Martin Luther King, Jr.’s glory, it’s because there was no one he could put on that podium who exemplified and possessed anywhere near the same moral authority:
The Fox News host was attempting to sieze a mantle of moral authority earned and ultimately paid for with his life by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And, sadly, I think in the eyes of some viewers, Beck might have succeeded.
If it sounds absurd that a mercurial cable TV host who regularly breaks down in tears and has called the president of the United States a racist should be able to get what appeared to be more than a hundred thousand Americans to listen and applaud as he laid claim to King’s mantle, it is. In fact, you might even say it is outrageous.
And for all the “warnings” and wakeup calls” that Beck issued from the steps of the Lincoln Monument Saturday, here’s another one: We need to think about the success of Beck’s rally Saturday and ask what it says about the lack of moral authority in this country today. We also need to wonder what it says about us as a culture that so many Americans on a Saturday in August and more than two million a day via Fox News come to Beck and apparently hear something in his hodge-podge of elementary-school history and mishmash of moral platitudes and bromides that they find meaningful.
Moral authority — that’s what the rally was really about. That’s what the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” at the end of the rally were all about. That’s what all the talk of standing on “hallowed ground” was all about. That’s what the repeated use of words like “honor,” “integrity” and “trust” were all about.
What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.
Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.
The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.
Pundits put forth myriad reasons to explain the GOP wave (jobs and the economy topping the list), but they invariably overlook the biggest one: that Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies:
[The Obama administration's] counterterrorism programs have in some ways departed from the expectations of change fostered by President Obama’s campaign rhetoric, which was often sharply critical of former President George W. Bush’s approach.
Among other policies, the Obama national security team has also authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.
Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values. Here’s how I explained it in a recent post:
With polls signaling peril for Democrats, identifying the cause of President Obama’s travails and the demise of ‘hope and change’ is a Washington sport. Some attribute it to the lifeless economy, others to Obama’s supposed (excessive) liberalism, and yet others to the prioritization of health insurance reform in the administration’s first year.
It’s really much more basic. Set aside policy and focus on sheer perception, who do you associate with strength, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Republicans or Democrats? I’d bet good money that on both questions, many on the left would pick the former.
Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.
This has been the essence of the progressive critique from day one, on gay rights, civil liberties, secrecy, the environment, the economy, health care, executive power, war.
It’s baffling that pundits still don’t get it. We hear endless tea leaf (and Tea Party) reading, endless poll analysis, endless pontification about Obama’s ideology or lack thereof. He’s too liberal, he’s not liberal enough, he’s overly pragmatic, he’s a conservative, a socialist, a corporatist, he’s achieved more than any president in history, he’s presided over the biggest government takeover in history. Who cares? In the end, you either project strength or weakness. You have moral courage or you don’t.
Cheney and Bush knew one thing: from a strictly political – and cynical – perspective, pretend moral conviction is better than none at all. At the very least, it telegraphs to voters that you care deeply about something, anything. Enough to take a stand for it, to portray your opponent as unethical for opposing it.
In the best of worlds, Democrats would believe in something good and fight tooth and nail for it. Their moral compass would be true, pointing in the direction of justice, fairness, equality. Progressive ideals would guide them and they’d present America with a consistent, cohesive, powerful and inspiring worldview. Candidate Obama tapped into the force of that combination. President Obama can’t seem to do it.
Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.
…It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.The only way to break the cycle and to project strength is to go back to basics, to look inside, to find the core principles that power a life of public service and to be relentless in pursuit of those principles. Moral authority is a prerequisite to genuine, enlightened leadership.
To borrow a phrase: it’s the moral authority, stupid.
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