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August 16th, 2010 5:41 pm
Liberals Turning on Obama

The New Republic’s John Judis is out today with a feature-length article titled, “The Unnecessary Fall,” a blow-by-blow recounting of how Barack Obama missed his opportunity to define his presidency in populist terms.  To Judis, the greatest betrayal of liberal America’s would-be Messiah is the latter’s failure to engage in confrontational politics.

Why has the White House failed to convince the public that it is fighting effectively on its behalf? The principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama. He has a strange aversion to confrontational politics. His aversion is strange because he was schooled in it, working as a community organizer in the 1980s, under the tutelage of activists who subscribed to teachings of the radical Saul Alinsky. But, when Obama departed for Harvard Law School in 1988, he left Alinsky and adversarial tactics behind.

The young lawyer who returned to Chicago and won a seat in the Illinois state Senate in 1996 practiced a very different style of politics. Obama’s principal accomplishments in Springfield were bills restricting lobbying and requiring videotaping of confessions in potential death penalty cases. He was not a typical blue-collar, bread-and-butter Chicago Democrat, but the kind of good government liberal that represents the upscale districts of the city, seeing in politics a higher calling and ill at ease with (although not in open opposition to) the city’s Democratic machine. He was also a post-racial politician who eschewed the hard-edged, angry rhetoric of Jesse Jackson. (That, too, is oddly reminiscent of Carter, who partly campaigned in 1976 as the white Southern antidote to George Wallace’s angry racial populism.)

Obama carried this outlook into the U.S. Senate, into his campaign for the presidency, and then, into the presidency itself. He is a cerebral, dispassionate, post-partisan; he wants to “end the political strategy that has been based on division,” to “turn the page” on the culture wars of the 1960s and the partisan battles of the 1990s. During the campaign, his aides jokingly referred to him as the “black Jesus.” While he can tolerate and even brush aside conflict, he is reluctant to actively foment it. “In a time of crisis, we can’t afford to govern out of anger,” he declared in February 2009. During his campaign and his first year in office, he held to a blind faith in bipartisanship, even as the Republicans voted as a bloc against his legislation. He is, perhaps, ill-suited in these respects for an era of bruising political warfare.

Ignoring Judis’ laughable attempt to paint Obama as a disappointed bipartisan, there’s nothing special about this era that makes politics any more or less “bruising.”  Leading is always tough.  As Judis indicates, maybe Obama isn’t.

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