Arianna Huffington and Drew Westen earlier this week posted persuasive arguments that Barack Obama, as president, should govern the way he campaigned for the job: Fired up, with an unswerving focus on changing the status quo and standing up for the people against the vested interests that thrive on politics as usual. Compared to Obama the campaigner, Obama the president has been remarkably timid and conciliatory.
One theory is that what we're seeing is Obama's background as a community organizer coming to the foreground. And as many critics have pointed out, with plenty of justification, the community organizer tendency to seek consensus can look pretty darn naïve and ineffective when one of the parties simply has no interest in compromise -- and indeed sees obstruction as its primary goal.
But there's another part of the community organizing analogy that's been widely overlooked.
Community organizers take strength from the community.
They are able to bring recalcitrant parties to the negotiating table by threatening community action. They can force the hands, say, of tight-fisted landlords, by threatening rent strikes. They can bring inflexible company executives to the table by threatening, say, a picket line or a boycott.
Obama is of course no longer a community organizer. As president, there are plenty of things he can and should achieve unilaterally. And he should mostly if not entirely abandon his attempts at compromise with those who have repeatedly shown that they have no taste for it.
But some of Obama's lack of boldness may stem from the fact that when he looks behind him, there's essentially nobody there.
His legion of supporters, after rising up and sweeping him into office a year ago, basically sat their butts back down. They stood up again to cheer and cry on Inauguration Day. But then it was back to the recumbent position.
Some change -- considerable change -- came simply by virtue of Obama holding the office. There's almost no way of understating the staggering impact of his simply not being George W. Bush. That alone entitles him the thanks of a grateful nation -- not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize. Reason and facts, although not always heeded, are at least taken into consideration in this White House. We now take for granted there's a black family living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And there are a fair number of genuine accomplishments Obama can point to.
But on some key issues such as jobs, the bank bailout, the war in Afghanistan and a whole slew of executive-power related issues, Obama has fallen way short of expectations. He surrounded himself with too many people who represent politics-as-usual, and he has buckled under to pressure from the national security establishment that Bush put on steroids.
How much of that would be different, however, if the people who voted for Obama had remained politically active? If they were visibly and energetically not just supporting him, but pushing him to be bolder?
But Obama's supporters aren't giving him even rudimentary political cover.
Almost forgotten these days is the fact that in Obama's first address to Congress. In February, the new president served up a pretty darn bold agenda, backed up by a respectably progressive budget proposal. So what was the reaction? Obama looked over his shoulder and saw -- no one.
The talking heads on TV and in the newspapers tut-tutted about what a big gamble he was taking. And without any palpable expression of public support to worry about, the moneyed interests and their congressional lackeys in both parties went about nibbling everything to death.
Imagine if today Obama announced a bold and expensive new jobs program, to put America to work, build a green infrastructure, and rebuild our cities and highways. What would the reaction be? Journalists would call it radical and risky, the brayers of conventional wisdom inside the Beltway would express horror at the effects on the deficit, and the Glenn Becks of the world would work themselves into froth ranting about how Obama was building a private army of socialist storm troopers or something.
Needless to say, the overriding message wouldn't be that this was a move that had great popular support. Which it would have.
In the absence of any legitimate expression of the public will, Obama would be forced to slink back to the Oval Office, defeated and demoralized.
This is supposed to be a participatory democracy, but we've all gotten used to non-participation. And the cost is enormous.
So is there any chance of a public uprising of sorts? Any chance that the next time Obama does something bold, someone will have his back? Practically speaking, very little. For a variety of reasons, the American people have gotten out of the habit of taking public political action. And of course now we've lost nine months, during which many of Obama's most ardent supporters have become genuinely disillusioned, and many of those caught up in the enthusiasm of his campaign have simply drifted back to their traditional comfort zones.
I'll have more on this topic in the coming weeks, including what Obama could do to encourage a progressive populist movement, what areas of policy are the most likely to inspire public action, and the role of the media in narcotizing the citizenry. Stay tuned.
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