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Jim Sleeper Headshot

Why Obama Defaulted in the First Debate

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When President Obama was deep into debt-ceiling negotiations two summers ago, sparing no effort at old-fashioned deal-making as well as honest dialogue across a newly gaping ideological abyss that showed how weak mutual respect and trust have become in our public (and private) discourse -- The New York Times published an essay, "What Happened to Obama's Passion?," by the political psychologist Drew Westen, that fired up liberal Democrats but infuriated Obama's neoliberal apologists among pundits captive to the Washington Beltanschauung, or Beltway worldview that I characterized right here.

Westen rebuked Obama for not telling Americans the frightening truth about what's been done to them -- often with Democrats' complicity -- for at least four decades. What's been done is even more stomach-turning than Westen allows or than Obama can say if he wants to remain President, but I'll try to say at least some of it here and to explain why I think it has gotten him down. It involves not just the old military-industrial complex that keeps driving us into one failed war after another but, more fundamentally, the ways we construe our publicly traded business corporations and the relationship between money and speech, which has paralyzed truth-telling and, with it, Obama himself.

I don't expect Obama to say what I've said in the previous sentence and then to go on and explain it. But why hasn't he told Americans more clearly and compellingly that in his first term he's confronted not only a mess -- nearly a shipwreck -- generated by Ayn Randians like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan but also that, since 2010, he's faced an unprecedentedly Ayn Randian House dedicated solely to preventing him from doing anything and then claiming that it's he who has got us off course?

Why hasn't he said it more compellingly after deciding, late last year, that Drew Westen was right and that his own Beltway apologists were wrong? Obama admitted recently that the biggest mistake of his first term is that he's concentrated on policy making and deal-making at the expense of public truth-telling. But even as he began to change course this year, I couldn't help noticing something dry and unconvincing in his effort.

And last night, as he looked downward and glum, with circles under his eyes, Obama dutifully reminded us that unnamed predecessors had created the mess, but he shifted quickly to reciting the usual politician's laundry list of accomplishments and proposals, seemingly reinforcing the other side's charge that he thinks government can solve everything. Obama even joked lamely that the one promise Romney must admit that he (Obama) had kept was that he wouldn't be a perfect president.

This default was so stunning that it drove MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews almost literally into hysterical lamentations, with his colleagues not far behind. And no wonder: Romney had been so incredible, in the literal meaning of that term, that he had been ripe for the demolition that never came.

My favorite was Romney's claim that as governor of Massachusetts he'd worked well with a legislature 87% Democrat, but that Obama hadn't even tried to do the same with Washington's Republican House. It was the sort of pious, choirboy lie that turns my stomach because Obama, from his first, lengthy visit to the congressional Republican caucus, pleaded and even begged for bipartisan cooperation -- in his first State of the Union, in those health-care summits at the White House, and in private meetings with John Boehner in 2010.

I happen to know a thing about the Massachusetts legislature that Romney claims he dealt with so well. Although its formal name is the magisterial old Puritan one -- "The Great and General Court" --- its members aren't nearly as principled or pious as the obdurately ideological Republican "true believers" in the U.S. House.

When the casino industry that's destroying American governance and morale approached Massachusetts with its lavish come-ons, the Great and General Court drew itself up to its full and awesome majesty and declared that it would not be bought for so paltry a sum. As soon as it got what it thought it was truly worth, it passed the casino legislation.

These are nothing if not pliable if occasionally pompous deal-makers. Although there was nothing pompous about Tip O'Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who became speaker of the U.S. House and whom Romney invoked during the debate as the perfect bipartisan player because he'd worked with Reagan on Social Security and the tax code, O'Neill bears about as much resemblance to Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell as Warren Buffett does to Donald Trump.

So why didn't Obama make short work of this outrage, at least rhetorically? Partly because, as the Massachusetts example suggests, some of what's being done to the American republic owes a lot to the complicitous misjudgments of members of Obama's own Democratic Party: Massachusetts' Barney Frank and New York's Chuck Schumer bear more than a little responsibility for the near meltdown of 2008, and not only because they were constrained to play on the Rayndians' terms.

They accepted those terms for same reasons that Obama accepts them and therefore doesn't tell us the truth. The reasons are the ones I sketched above: Public discourse and republic are being irreversibly transformed from what a free people can sustain or endure.

It's happening in ways that are eviscerating integrity in speech and in work, even among polite, conscientious, caring Ivy Leaguers -- like Obama, and even Romney -- who hope to do well by doing good but are finding that they've been tailoring themselves to serve as velvet gloves on clients' iron fists. Their world and its prerogatives and hopes to reconcile ordered, republican liberty with every whim and riptide of global finance capital are dissolving more quickly than they've let themselves acknowledge. That is one reason for Barack Obama's quiescence, his loss of passion.

If you really want to read about how this has happened and why, think not of Obama's default but of Mitt Romney's contention that "corporations are people, too" -- it makes him a formidable debater but a surreal, almost humanoid candidate -- and read Daniel Greenwood's long law review essay, essay, "Essential Speech: Why Corporate Speech Is Not Free."

Greenwood doesn't mention Romney or Bain Capital or this election. He assesses the legitimacy of business-corporate speech by examining the long-standing judicial presumption of the legal "personhood" of publicly traded, for-profit corporations, the entities that dominate our patterns of consumption, news media, and, more than ever, thanks to Citizens United, our elections and through them, public policy making.

Greenwood questions the human reality of shareholders because no corporation they "own" can treat them as the full, flesh-and-blood investors that, say, Adam Smith or John Locke or envisioned. By corporate law and charter, shareholders must be seen as focused on only one thing -- increasing their returns -- and not as rounded citizens who might balance their investment priorities with other priorities, as good citizens will persuade one another to do at times.

This focus is the genius of a corporate engine like Romney's Bain Capital, but there isn't much political or public purpose in it unless you assume that what's good for Bain is good for America. In Greenwood's analysis, no one in a corporation, from its shareholders to its CEOs, managers, and minions, can assume anything else, ever, because they're bound by law to maximize shareholder returns.

That's why corporate "speech" is so unlike the human speech that the First Amendment was intended to protect to enhance political freedom. It's over-determined and insulated, no matter how clever and supple it is, as Romney's debating points are. It always boils down to the same thing, and, its pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding, it boils society down to it too, in ways that generate the distress, fear, and resentment that are boiling up into our politics now.

Not only won't Romney ever acknowledge this; Obama won't, either. And this, I think, explains why he's lost his passion: He does know better, yet he has to endure the onslaughts of those who don't, those who, like Romney, tell us pious lies; those who, like House Republicans, work only to subvert his efforts to coax us out of the delusions I've described; and those who, clueless and flailing, displace the consequent social fear and rage onto him in torrents.

Obama has stopped speaking the truth, I think, because what he has seen of America since 2009 has broken his heart.

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