Monday, March 05, 2012

Review of Justin Frank's Obama on the Couch (2 of 2)

(Continued from Part 1) Obama, according to Frank, was especially impressed by the model represented by men who became father-figures for him: Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Frank describes them as "a series of narcissists who can fill his father's shoes and who offer an unconscious identification with his mother by mirroring her own attraction to men like this."

But Frank isn't looking for a simplistic portrayal here. He sees this as a particular source of strengths in Obama's character and coping mechanisms. This choice of models, he writes:

... is not to repeat tragedy but to find sources of strength. He so completely internalizes the characteristics of such strong men and incorporates them into his daily affairs, regardless of their race or age, that he unconsciously gains help by having a father figure nearby instead of one buried in an obscure Kenyan cemetery [as his biological father is].
A psychological view doesn't replace or override a political analysis; it should supplement it, instead. Otherwise, it can become reductionist and misleading. The fact that Democratic figures who were devoted primarily to the comfort of the One Percent became attractive to Obama does not diminish the importance of the financial interests and lobbying clout which reinforce their influence.

It does, unfortunately, suggest that such one-percenter figures as Geithner and Bernanke are particularly psychologically attractive to Obama. David Bromwich has noticed how often Obama refers to the wealthy as "people like me".


This strong class attraction also reinforces the image of the Obama we've seen in public, a man who is temperamentally conservative and inclined to depreciate the progressive viewpoint, which he associates with impracticality and ineffectiveness. Those traits produce the particular Obama form of divergence between professed goals and real ones. Frank quotes a fund-raising speech that Obama gave on September 16, 2010, at a point in the midterm election cycle when one would have thought the Democratic President would have been especially keen to rally the Party faithful to get out to vote and get others to do the same:

Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get - to see the glass as half empty. (Laughter.) If we get an historic health care bill passed - oh, well, the public option wasn't there. If you get the financial reform bill passed - then, well, I don't know about this particular derivative rule, I'm not sure that I'm satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven't yet brought about world peace and - (Laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker. (Laughter.) You know who you are. (Laughter.) (p. 175)
Frank also talks about Obama's particular attitude toward the effect of his speeches. He quotes this telling passage from Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Obama describes a speech he gave in college at a rally against South African apartheid. Frank describes it as Obama's "public speaking debut". And Obama's own description of it indicates that he himself was very impressed with the effect his words were having on the crowd. Later, a friend of his congratulates him on his performance. Obama recounts the following exchange with her:

"Listen Regina," I said, cutting her off, you are a very sweet lady. And I'm happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But that's the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me. I'm going to leave the preaching to you. And to Marcus. Me, I've decided I've got no business speaking for black folks."

"And why is that?"

I sipped on my beer, my eyes wandering over the dancers in front of us. "Because I've got nothing to say, Regina. I don't believe we made any difference by what we did today. I don't believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don't make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise? I'll tell you why. Because it makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill That's all." (p. 101)
Frank is not just making a banal point here about Obama's actions not always matching up with his speeches. What's important here is the way Obama's view of his impressive speaking abilities intersects with his suspicion of the kinds of changes envisioned by progressives.

One of Ronald Reagan's achievements as a conservative President was not just that he got conservative policies enacted. He also used his speeches in a thematic way to change what George Lakoff calls the "framing" of issues to favor the conservative outlook.

But Obama doesn't do this. His recent speech to the United Auto Workers (UAW) union is a good example of the contrast. In that speech, he praised the labor movement in general and defended his genuinely progressive, constructive and successful position on saving General Motors in 2009. But he hasn't promoted prolabor themes like that during his term in office, in either words or follow-up actions. Frank takes note of Obama's reserved stance toward Republican union-busting efforts at the state level. He also made no serious effort to pursue one of labor's top goals which he pledged to support in 2008, the Employee Free Choice Act to facilitate union organizing. And even though he contrasted his position on the GM rescue in the UAW speech with that of Republicans, he devoted much of the speech to praising the UAW for things that are entirely compatible with the neoliberal doctrine: making sacrifices and supporting the South Korea "free trade" agreement, which organized labor generally opposed.

Even worse, Frank argues that Obama likely has a strong emotional need to distance himself from "New Deal politics", i.e., the progressive cause, even as he knows he has to appeal to his base with liberal/progressive positions in campaigns. And, at the same time, he is internally driven to seek compromises with his bitterest Republican enemies, and that he is even unable to fully acknowledge their hostility and even hatred.

Frank's analysis offers some hope that Obama may eventually realize the extent of the Republicans' opposition and their hatred of him. Yet it doesn't change the general picture that his record as President presents and that Frank's biography reinforces: that Obama has an essentially conservative temperament and that he is generally attracted to neoliberal/Free Market ideology and the one-percenters who are its primary beneficiaries. That he is psychologically more well-balanced than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich appear to be, or that he is somewhat more conscious of the need for education and accessible health insurance than Willard Romney, doesn't mean that he is likely to embrace a genuinely progressive agenda in a second term. (See the "shrill" Paul Krugman in Austerity, American Style 03/02/2012, Reagan, Obama, Austerity 03/03/2012 and Austerity Recovery, Continued 03/03/2012 on how committed the Obama Administration has been to the Hooverish idea of government austerity in the middle of a depression.)

Ironically, Frank's analysis strongly suggests that Obama is more responsive to hostility than he is to encouragement or support. If he's more interested in conciliating his enemies (Republicans) than in pleasing his friends (Democrats and progressives), then progressives are likely to be more effective in an Obama second term in expressing active hostility to him on issues in which he proposes something bad.

For instance, Obama's record strongly suggests that a Grand Bargain to cut benefits for Social Security and Medicare is something to which he is committed. He almost surely will propose it again in a second term. This isn't a conservative idea, it's a reactionary notion. And even though Obama isn't likely to proposed their completely abolition as the Republicans have with Medicare, his Grand Bargain will be a huge step toward doing just that. And once the political firewall is down on Social Security and Medicare benefits, Republicans and corporate Democrats will push to abolish it. To protect our international "competitiveness," you know. Frank's analysis suggests that supporters of Social Security and Medicare shouldn't approach that issue with the tone of "Tell the President to Support Social Security", but rather will appeals more along the lines of "Stop Obama's war on old people!" and "Obama wants grandma to live on cat food!" Frank notes that "there are reports that he does occasionally get outraged at black men who criticize him from the left, who see him as a betrayer." (p. 83)

A couple of recent events suggest such a course. One is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which expressed opposition to the One Percent and the general corruption of government they produce. The Occupy movement did not present itself as Obama's friends, or make humble petitions for the President to act like a real Democrat of live up to its promises. They said that both parties' servitude to the One Percent has to stop. And they didn't show any concern about whether their protest might political inconvenience Obama and the Democrats. And Obama seemed to get the message more than it has in objections for what his Administration contemptuously calls the "professional Left". Not only did his rhetoric take on more popular tones on economic issues. But he at least is making more of a show than he has before of going after the criminal misdeeds of the financial industry. (But his desire to please Wall Street so far is still guiding his policies, as Phil Angelides points out in Will Wall Street Ever Face Justice? New York Times 03/01/2012)

The current debate over birth control - birth control! - illustrates the opposite. Obama took an entirely sensible position on requiring employers to provide insurance including birth control. Rightwingers started griping, helped by the reckless intervention of the Catholic bishops, raised a stink about it. It was a winning issue for the Democrats, with a solid majority of the public supporting Obama's position: Democrats' favor women's health, Republicans oppose. Obama's base was pleased. But Obama is driven to please his enemies more than his friends. So he came up with an entirely unnecessary compromise whose only real purpose was to complicate the pro-women's-health position, making it harder to explain. And the rightwingers doubled down, tripled down either and escalated their attacks on Obama's over "freedom of religion" (which to them means opposition to women's health and ladyparts). Obama's true believers admire the resulting public bruhaha as 10-dimensional chess on Obama's part, since it's hard for him not to look good in opposition to the Party of Rush "they're-all-sluts" Limbaugh. But still: Obama listened more to his enemies than to his supporters, and showed his "obsessive bipartisan disorder" by a completely unnecessary concession to the Republicans. And the result is that birth control is not in hot dispute in American politics, at both the federal and state levels, in a way that it has not been for decades.

This strongly suggests to me that progressives are more likely to get progressive achievements like the General Motors rehabilitation out of President Obama by expressing hostility than by cheering when he does something right. It's weird. But so is Obama's fixation on conciliating Republicans who hate him to the point of inciting violence against him and other Democrats. Obama is driven to accommodate his Republican enemies. Progressives have to drive him to fight the Republicans. Not just in political campaigns, but on substantive issues of policy.

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