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Stephen Ducat Headshot

Understanding Obama's Recent Right Turn

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OK, we all knew, deep down, that our wondrous golden boy of change would one day reveal his feet of clay. What most of us did not anticipate was just how easily they would fit into jackboots.

There has emerged a conventional wisdom among progressives that is not entirely wrong about why Obama has so readily embraced police state surveillance, and why he felt compelled to express his solidarity with Scalia, et al, on the death penalty. As the thinking goes, these moves are simply the expectable, if disheartening, political positioning typical of Democratic presidential candidates, once they enter the general election campaign.

He surely did not want to rebut Republican ads like this:
Low, rumbling, ominous music gradually increases in volume as a solemn voice that oozes manly gravitas announces, "Barack Obama voted against a bill to that would help our intelligence agencies detect terrorist plots against our nation before they can be carried out. Why does he want to protect the privacy of Al-Qaeda's phone calls more than he wants to protect Americans from Al-Qaeda? [Cut to an image of a World Trade Tower falling.] Barack Obama doesn't want the death penalty applied to criminals who sexually assault and brutalize little children. Why does he care more about child rapists [cut to image of a swarthy unshaven convict doing the perp walk] than he does about their victims? [Cut to an image of doe-eyed little blond girl with tears rolling down her apple cheeks, as she lies in an oversized hospital bed holding tightly to her teddy bear.] Barack Obama and his friends at the ACLU care about terrorists and rapists. Vote for John McCain. He cares about us." [As reassuring music swells, cut to an image of a younger looking, photo-shopped McCain in his crisp Naval officer's uniform. One arm is around a child, the other rising in a determined salute to the flag.]

It is certainly reasonable for Democratic candidates to fear they might face attack ads such as this, and we might have seen something like this one air had Obama opposed the new FISA bill. Facing the possibility of this kind of right wing assault, it is not surprising to see so many erstwhile liberal politicians preemptively surrender their principles. That Obama, too, would adopt this strategy has been particularly demoralizing for his progressive supporters. After all, he has a mostly excellent and morally consistent voting record. But more importantly, he has very vocally eschewed the Machiavellian political calculations that we have come to expect from other members of his party. To see Barack Obama behave like any other invertebrate Democrat is an especially painful blow.

However, this conventional wisdom on his political cowardice doesn't plumb the problem deeply enough. Obama's resort to the triangulation of the old politics is an admission of a much more serious limitation. It tells us that he does not believe in his own ability to reframe certain key issues in a way that makes a progressive stance the one that is obviously the most moral. It shows that he does not feel up to the task of rendering some liberal principles intellectually clear and emotionally compelling.

His limited ability to exercise moral leadership leaves him with no choice other than to accept Republican frames on issues. So, on the FISA bill, for example, loss of privacy and immunity for criminal telecom companies become a trivial price to pay for protection from unfathomable and pervasive Evil.

But this raises the question of what a progressive reframe on an issue like this might look like. Here is one idea. But I'd love for commenters to offer theirs. Someone from Obama's staff is probably monitoring the Huffington Post in order to take the temperature of the progressive blogosphere, which has grown increasingly feverish over the Democratic candidate's recent unprincipled retreats. If they are reading this, perhaps together we may be able to revivify the Obama campaign's moribund moral imagination.

The 30-second ad opens on a scene in a middle class suburban kitchen. A mother is speaking on the phone. Her voice is muffled and is drowned out by an intermittent electronic beep, along with the sounds of someone frenetically striking a computer keyboard. The screen quickly splits in half to reveal the woman's nine-year-old daughter speaking by cell phone to inform her mother that she is ready to be picked up from the school bus stop. The screen is then split in thirds to reveal a man wearing headphones sitting in front of a computer typing notes, obviously monitoring the mother-daughter conversation. Behind him is a massive warehouse filled with computers and scurrying NSA technicians. This image then takes up the entire screen. The voiceover says, "Republicans, like George Bush and John McCain, have taken away our freedoms, invaded our private lives, and made us less safe." We then quickly see a succession of images -- a scene from Iraq that features a burning American tank, a scene of grenade launchers being placed into a packing crate, a scene of an unguarded American port where uninspected shipping containers are being off loaded, and finally a scene of a car with blacked out windows slowing down in front of an unsecured nuclear power plant. A window rolls down. A hand holding a camera reaches out to snap photos. Then the car speeds away. The voice over then concludes, "Protecting America means preserving our rights [cut to an image of the Constitution in which the camera scrolls down the Bill of Rights section], along with defeating terrorists." The last image is a scene of Barack Obama standing up and pointing toward a large map of some unidentifiable part of the world. Below him is a large conference table of twenty or so advisors who are listening with rapt attention.

In spite of his limitations, there is too much at stake to not work hard to make sure Barack Obama moves into the White House. And, once there, we must hold his clay feet to the fire.