President Obama's surrender to the Tea Party in the debt-ceiling negotiations brought back an old question about his ability to lead. What is the Tea Party? A right-wing populist movement, rooted in local discussion groups and instructed by Fox TV and Fox Radio, that has dominated the Republican Party since the late spring of 2009. There is no more consequential faction in the United States today. Yet many people have the impression that President Obama has never directly addressed its arguments and ideology. He has ignored the Tea Party, it is said, or else treated them as a temporary nuisance -- like a man swatting a fly, or staring into space as a fly buzzes, lands, and bites.
Now that Obama has signed the new debt ceiling into law and subscribed his party to an austerity program that assumes a state of permanent economic emergency (twin of the permanent security emergency begun by Bush and Cheney), the question what made him do it? becomes more pressing than ever. For Obama has torn up the social contract which was the heart of the Democratic Party. Those who want to confine the blame to Republicans say that the opposition party follows the dictates of a fanatical faction. True; but a president in these circumstances would seem all the more obligated to confront the opposition.
The past four weeks have witnessed an inquest concerning the proper fame of the Democratic Party as a refuge for those least able to bear the trouble of hard times. The Tea Party aimed to demolish that refuge; and they said so plainly. Yet try to remember President Obama uttering the words "Tea Party" and you come up with a blank. A perceptive White House reporter, asked if Obama had ever mentioned the Tea Party, replied that he had indeed done so, though rarely, and it usually came out like this:
Q: What do you make of the Tea Party?
Obama: There has always been a strand in American politics of people thinking that one person is benefiting from policies that disadvantage someone else. The Tea Party fits into that trend.
In its aversion from particulars, the composite quotation does sound a good deal like Obama.
Look into the archive at WhiteHouse.gov and the impression of evasiveness is confirmed. The president's official site lists two occasions where Obama has spoken the words "Tea Party." Twice, in the twenty-eight months since the faction became the self-declared nemesis of his presidency. And the tactic of avoidance has not worked. It is an abysmal failure like the larger strategy favored by Obama's handlers: the devising of ever more talking venues for him, on the assumption that if people disapprove of the way things are going, the reason must be that they don't see and hear enough of Obama.
How did his two encounters with the words "Tea Party" look in detail? Here is the first, from a CNBC Town Hall discussion of jobs, September 20, 2010; the questioner is a citizen perplexed about the economy who has asked about the Tea Party's no-tax remedy:
Well, let me say this about the Tea Party movement -- which your friend, Rick [Santelli], helped to name. I think that America has a noble tradition of being healthily skeptical about government. That's in our DNA, right? (Applause.) I mean, we came in because the folks over on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation. And so we've always had a healthy skepticism about government. And I think that's a good thing.
I think there's also a noble tradition in the Republican and Democratic parties of saying that government should pay its way, that it shouldn't get so big that we're leaving debt to the next generation. All those things, I think, are healthy.
The problem that I've seen in the debate that's been taking place and in some of these Tea Party events is I think they're misidentifying sort of who the culprits are here. As I said before, we had to take some emergency steps last year. But the majority of economists will tell you that the emergency steps we take are not the problem long term. The problems long term are the problems that I talked about earlier. We've got -- we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for, two wars that weren't paid for. We've got a population that's getting older. We're all demanding services, but our taxes have actually substantially gone down.
And so the challenge, I think, for the Tea Party movement is to identify specifically what would you do. It's not enough just to say, get control of spending. I think it's important for you to say, I'm willing to cut veterans' benefits, or I'm willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits, or I'm willing to see these taxes go up.
Obama opens with a cozy salute to a fire-eating opponent, also present at the town hall, Rick Santelli; and by doing so, he helps his questioner to feel that they are all in the same game (but the president and "Rick" play at a slightly higher level). There follows the baby-talk explanation of "No Taxation without Representation" as if his audience were barely sophisticated enough to remember the rudiments of fifth-grade history. Obama goes on to honor the anti-tax mania of 2010 by a flattering comparison to the Boston anti-tax protest of 1773 -- glossing over the difference between a colonial government whose legitimacy was under challenge and the free government of the United States whose legitimacy the president himself has a duty to defend.
What next? Ever pliable and parental, Obama pronounces "healthy" the desire shared by both parties to see the country pay its debts. By putting it that way, he seems to accept without correction the soundness of the Tea Party's association of paying debts with not raising taxes. There follows a retreat into a vacuous assertion of competence. The Tea Party have "misidentified the culprits." A "majority of economists" agree with Obama about this. Well then who are the real culprits? "Tax cuts that weren't paid for." "Two wars." "A population that's getting older." Those are causes, not culprits. What does he intend to do about these things? He does not say.
The citizen who asked about the Tea Party must have come away thinking that the president was a nice guy whose grasp of specifics was derived from unnamed authorities. A nice guy, however, whose thinking (to judge by his own presentation) hardly rated comparison with the sharp focus and simple solutions of the Tea Party. Rather than confront an opponent, Obama treated his listeners as barely educable children, while propping himself on formulas any clever child would recognize as mere caption-phrases, scattered and unconnected. One cannot help remarking that in the debt-ceiling negotiations, contrary to Obama's expectation, the Tea Party proved eminently willing to "identify specifically" what they wanted to do. The answer was cut Medicare and Social Security rather than raise taxes. And the president was willing to grant what they asked.
The second and last of President Obama's two officially recorded mentions of the Tea Party came in a Youth Town Hall on October 14, 2010:
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to talk to you for a moment about the Tea Party. We have the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who said "the Tea Party is Astroturf" -- a false grassroots movement -- "that is bankrolled by the wealthy conservatives." I want to know if you agree with that assertion or do you believe the young people here today should say that the Tea Party is legitimate and be looking to participate in the fall with them?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, this is a democracy, so political participation generally is legitimate. I want to encourage people to get involved. That's point number one.
Point number two is I think there are a lot of people who are involved in the Tea Party who have very real and sincere concerns about spending that's out of control or generally philosophically believe that the government should be less involved in certain aspects of American life rather than more involved. And they have every right and obligation as citizens to be involved and engaged in this process.
I do think that what has happened is layered on top of some of that general frustration that has expressed itself through the Tea Party, there is an awful lot of corporate money that's pouring into these elections right now. I mean, you've got tens of millions of dollars in what are called third-party expenditures that are being spent basically on negative ads. I mean, about 86, 90 percent of them are negative ads. And you guys have probably seen them more than I do, because I don't watch that much TV.
Obama's initial back-off-while-I-think -- "I want to encourage people to get involved" -- is perfunctory but harmless: any official might begin like that. The skeletal acknowledgment of the "very real and sincere concerns" that drive the Tea Party is still marking time, yet the avoidance has now grown noticeable: of course people have "every right" to express their views. By implying that someone might say they didn't have that right, the president oddly manages to suggest that he wishes they wouldn't use it. Not that he is thinking that; but the suggestion escapes because he is trying hard to get away with saying nothing: he wishes their exercise of the right had not created an obligation for him to answer the question. Obama soon deviates into a wised-up answer that is utterly unresponsive. The corporations did it, he says. They have bribed and hypnotized the rank and file of the Tea Party with ads engineered to overwhelm persons of feeble minds and susceptible passions. Here the unloading of blame by changing the subject occurs in full view. The lost opportunity ends with a stroke of counterfeit modesty and real self-importance: "You guys," says the president, have probably seen those ads but I have not "because I don't watch that much TV." So why is he talking about things he doesn't know? Worse than the lofty disclaimer is the debonair condescension.
We had thought the country was in disastrous condition in 2008, and that Obama was the man to pull us out of it. We were misinformed. Instead of turning from the Bush-Cheney policies and the Paulson-Geithner policies and treating them as an aberration, he ratified the former by opening a chapter of new wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and rewarded the latter by turning the infection-carriers into certified physicians. Who was Barack Obama after all? A young politician who excelled at giving sonorous utterance to prepared words (every mass address of the 2008 campaign was done with a teleprompter) and who could defend with ad-lib competence a law or program developed by a suitable conglomerate of others. But Obama lacks the ability to explain a policy or a predicament. He cannot argue. He cannot occupy a position and fight to hold it. He cannot mimic or humor or deflate, or detect those hidden points of leverage that may reshape a public discussion by the force of wit and invention. Not will not, but cannot. It is a kind of ability impossible to hide.
He does not use the authority he has; what hope from entrusting him with more authority? The coming social catastrophe, whose seeds are borne by the terms of a new austerity directed against the poor, the weak and the unlucky, was facilitated by a Democratic president and a Democratic senate with public opinion on their side. And yet, by the end of the discussions Obama had worked himself down to a position where only surrender was possible. We have had two and a half years of his presidency now, and if the strength was there, we would have seen it. That is why so many Democrats contemplate a vote for Obama in 2012 with a sense of appalled inevitability.
President Obama is a charming listener and a pleasing talker. All the evidence from Harvard, from Chicago, from his brief and uneventful career in the Senate tells the same story. The gift required of a leader in a time of crisis -- that is, to explain the reason of public matters honestly and answerably -- was what we looked for in 2008. Six presidents among the original founders had that gift; but they were the race of giants before the flood. Lincoln, too, had the gift in words he wrote himself; FDR had it in words written by others; Kennedy, at the end of his life, was beginning to show it. Obama likes to compare himself to Lincoln but the president he most nearly resembles is Clinton -- but it is Clinton without the knowledge of politics, without the passion for politics, without the sheer tenacity of devotion to the game of politics. Clinton beat his Tea Party and humbled their leader within a year of their midterm victory, and their only revenge was an impeachment which they also lost. Obama has awarded his opponents a hostage, the economy, which they won't release in a year, or two years, or ten.
We mistook Obama for a man of strong convictions. Why? Because he has an aesthetic admiration for people with strong convictions, people with names like Gandhi and King. Yet the emotion of conviction -- a feeling that will not let you go -- is foreign to him now and probably always was. The broad programs he thought he cared about, and talked as if he believed in, he has sold down the river. In his recent press briefings, he has seemed shaken and depressed. He has wondered aloud why he should go on being president. This may be the first time a sitting president who sought re-election has made such a confession in public. So the Democratic Party is leaderless. And the enthusiasts of the Tea Party, who did not deserve the debt-ceiling victory Obama handed them, do deserve the explanation that he has denied them. An explanation and an argument addressed to something more than people who cling to their guns and religion, people who are bought off by big money, people who swallow the ridiculous ads they see on TV. Who now will dare to tell them why anyone thinks differently?