I've been fascinated by the psychological dynamics that seem to have been the driving factors behind our last three presidents. Until Bill Clinton, the last president who seemed to have been driven by something primal in his childhood was John F. Kennedy, with his arriviste
father's drive to "belong" through the attainment of political power, his aristocratic wife, and his parade of women. Today TV therapists would call him a sex addict, but would still stay away from the far more interesting theme of "belonging" in mainstream (then read as WASP) society. I've spilled enough keystrokes on this blog already about George W. Bush's father issues.
But if Barack Obama sometimes seems in many ways to be an echo of Bill Clinton (only without Clinton's innate charm which buffered him against the slings and arrows of outrageous Republicans), there's a good reason for it. Obama's economic team are all graduates of the School of Robert Rubin (only without the 1990's result). Obama engenders the same blind, baseless hatred on the right that Bill Clinton, another centrist president did. Some of the hatred with Obama is based on race instead of the sense I had with Clinton that he's the guy who got all the girls in high school and the Republicans are the masturbators in the boy's room who are still angry about that perceived injustice. The sense I have from the right with Obama is that he's the focused black kid in the mostly white school who seems to be able to focus on a goal instead of being trapped by his background, whereas they go home to the alcoholic father and it defines who they are. The down side to that focus is that it's left him aloof, sometimes isolated, and intent on avoiding any sort of conflict, lest it interfere with his goals.
Bill Clinton was a conflict avoider too, only he came to it from the background of going home to the alcoholic father. We had the sense that all Bill Clinton wanted was quiet. I understand this mindset, I have it myself, coming from a family that experienced a fair amount of shouting fights and uproar in my childhood. When you grow up as a conflict avoider, you tend towards twisting yourself into a pretzel and jumping through hoops in a vain effort to just have some peace and quiet. It's a terrible way to live and it doesn't teach you that sometimes people will disagree and you have to learn that capitulation is not always the best way to resolve a conflict. You have to learn that your viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else's, and that you have a right to defend it.
Because of Bill Clinton, the gutlessness of Capitol Hill Democrats, and the increasing intransigence of Republicans over the last twenty years, we've come to expect conflict avoidance in the form of capitulation from Democrats. This is the main reason many of us decided not to support Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama as the primary race ran down last year. Some of it was about the war, but we also knew about the Clintons and triangulation. Yes, Hillary wasn't Bill, but in a marriage like theirs, we also knew that a certain amount of capitulation in the name of keeping the peace was part of Hillary's makeup too.
It doesn't completely surprise me that Barack Obama has turned out the way he has. I still remember the way he sat on his hands in 2004, as a new Senator, while the late, great Stephanie Tubbs Jones tried to get a Senator to stand against certifying Ohio's tainted vote tally after thousands of black voters were barred from voting after waiting up to 10 hours in the rain. I never bought him as the Great Progressive Savior, and so I'm somewhat less disappointed than some of my peers (though no less disgusted) as his timid mode of "leadership." You can make the excuse for him not wanting to rock the boat right out of the gate as a new Senator, what with that house's "protocols" and such, but that doesn't seem to bother Al Franken much.
Drew Westen wrote about this earlier this week, in a much-discussed piece at HuffPo
Consider the president's leadership style, which has now become clear: deliver a moving speech, move on, and when push comes to shove, leave it to others to decide what to do if there's a conflict, because if there's a conflict, he doesn't want to be anywhere near it.
Health care is a paradigm case. When the president went to speak to the Democrats last week on Capitol Hill, he exhorted them to pass the bill. According to reports, though, he didn't mention the two issues in the way of doing that, the efforts of Senators like Ben Nelson to use this as an opportunity to turn back the clock on abortion by 25 years, and the efforts of conservative and industry-owned Democrats to eliminate any competition for the insurance companies that pay their campaign bills. He simply ignored both controversies and exhorted.
Leadership means heading into the eye of the storm and bringing the vessel of state home safely, not going as far inland as you can because it's uncomfortable on the high seas. This president has a particular aversion to battling back gusting winds from his starboard side (the right, for the nautically challenged) and tends to give in to them. He just can't tolerate conflict, and the result is that he refuses to lead.
Like most Americans I talk to, when I see the president on television, I now change the channel the same way I did with Bush. With Bush, I couldn't stand his speeches because I knew he meant what he said. I knew he was going to follow through with one ignorant, dangerous, or misguided policy after another. With Obama, I can't stand them because I realize he doesn't mean what he says -- or if he does, he just doesn't have the fire in his belly to follow through. He can't seem to muster the passion to fight for any of what he believes in, whatever that is. He'd make a great queen -- his ceremonial addresses are magnificent -- but he prefers to fly Air Force One at 60,000 feet and "stay above the fray."
It's the job of the president to be in the fray. It's his job to lead us out of it, not to run from it. It's his job to make the tough decisions and draw lines in the sand. But Obama really doesn't seem to want to get involved in the contentious decisions. They're so, you know, contentious. He wants us all to get along. Better to leave the fights to the Democrats in Congress since they're so good at them. He's like an amateur boxer who got a coupon for a half day of training with Angelo Dundee after being inspired by the tapes of Mohammed Ali. He got "float like a butterfly" in the morning but never made it to "sting like a bee."
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting everyone to get along. The problem is that everyone is not going to always get along, and capitulation is not the answer, not when millions of people voted for you to change the course from the Republican theocratic corporate agenda. And if your childhood baggage is just too strong to fight, then get help.
Labels: Barack Obama, capitulation, spinelessness