Thursday, July 12, 2012

David Bromwich looks again at Obama's words and speculates about his personality

David Bromwich has another post about President Obama in the London Review of Books, simply title Diary 07/05/2012, though the link to it is called "A Bad President".

I've learned a lot from Bromwich's close scrutiny of Obama's words and actions as a candidate and President. But the more recent pieces of his I've seen have made me wonder whether he's created a closed feedback loop, allowing his dislike for Obama to dull the edge of his analysis. In this piece, that problem appears in the form of hazy pop psychology suggestions and comments like, "Obama has a harder time than any sane politician I have ever heard in admitting that his words are only words."

Justin Frank makes a more plausible case in Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President (2011):

Despite his various blind spots, Obama maintains a generally high level of mental health. In light of the challenges he has faced, his mental health can be considered among his finest and most significant accomplishments - the ultimate achievement, perhaps, of a very driven and successful achiever. ... Most impressive to me as a psychoanalyst has been his capacity to bear psychic pain and to think in the face of anxiety.
Where Frank and Bromwich converge is in observing how Obama's fixation on being a compromiser and conciliator. Frank treats it as a basically strong and useful aspect of Obama's character and experience that sometimes serves him poorly.

Bromwich's more general dislike of the man gives his disapproval of this habit a gloomier twist:

He told a teacher once that words were the most dangerous power in the world; he seems to have meant they were the most powerful things. But to speak words that carry a distinct meaning on certain subjects, and then not to back them by deeds, is weaker than saying nothing. Obama, however, has seen himself all along not mainly as a politician but rather as a man of genius. His calling is to unite and reconcile opposites, as only genius can.

He has often echoed Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the canonical American speech of reconciliation. It has not occurred to him that our time may be more suited to the House Divided speech, in which Lincoln in 1858 showed why the slavery question was so important it might make the two sides irreconcilable. Obama's many House United speeches, by contrast, are always about unity for its own sake – a curious idea. Unity for its own sake will capture neither votes nor lasting loyalty among people who crave an explanation of the elements of political right and wrong. Obama likes to say that the truth always lies somewhere 'in between'. Fair enough at first glance. A tenable compromise between obdurate persons or opposite forces generally lies somewhere in between. But truth is different surely, truth occurs as it occurs, and often one finds it at the extremes.
It would be silly to expect a leading politician to have anything other than a high estimation of his own abilities, at least at some level of his mind. But Obama's confidence in the persuasiveness of his words is both well-founded in the persuasive communications skills he was developed for himself and in the high estimate with which even some of his sharpest critics themselves regard those skills. There's no need to invoke an unlikely difficulty "in admitting that his words are only words" to explain it.

Bromwich doesn't seem to fully appreciate the ideological element in Obama's approach. Not only Frank's book but Obama's consistent conduct suggest that he is basically a conservative, at least if we use that term in a more classical, general sense of wanting to "make haste slowly". I heard George McGovern use that description sometime around 1983 and it has stuck with me. McGovern was contrasting that attitude with the hardline Movement Conservatism that even today continues to tighten its dominance over the Republican Party.

Obama basically distrusts progressives because, well, he's not one. And he regards them with contempt, surely in major part because of his identification with the wealthy. Even in his tax speech two days ago, he made a point to refer to "the wealthiest Americans -- folks like myself". Pointing out telling verbal habits like this is one of Bromwich's strengths in looking at Obama. He has demonstrated repeatedly his distrust, even contempt of progressives, as Tom Tomorrow has captured in his Middle Man cartoons:


I think this lack of focus on Obama's own commitment to neoliberalism shows when he quotes John Maynard Keynes describing Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference, a passage in which he sees a clear parallel to Obama's general approach to governance: "But in fact the president had thought out nothing; when it came to practice his ideas were nebulous and incomplete. He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House." That's a fair description of Wilson in Paris. But Obama doesn't thunder commands from the White House, unless we include things like Rahm Emanuel shouting at progressive groups that they were "f******g retarded" for running ads to pressure Blue Dog Democratic Members of Congress to support what was supposedly the President's own position on health care reform. (Rahm subsequently apologized to the retarded, but not to the Democratic activists he cussed out.) As Bromwich documents even in this piece, Obama proposes compromises from the White House in a pleasant tone to Republicans to hate his guts and have no intention of making deals with him.

And on foreign and national policy, the Republicans have generally supported his specific policies, though they would obviously prefer to have a more warlike one. When it comes to government secrecy, prosecuting whistleblowers and using drones to commit acts of war and targeted assassination, we can't say that Obama has sought "the truth [that] always lies somewhere 'in between'." He adopted more extreme policies than the Cheney-Bush Administration.

Bromwich does describe the neoliberal drift of the Democratic Party which has been particularly marked under Obama. It's just that he tends to treat it as a personality quirk rather than a combination of Obama's personality and his ideology:

The Obama presidency has gone far to complete the destruction of New Deal politics which began when Bill Clinton brought Wall Street into the White House. The right won the political wars of the last two generations, the left won the culture wars, and we are now in a position to measure the gain and loss. On the one hand, greater tolerance of mixed marriages, the enforced habit of not showing race prejudice in public, gay rights. On the other hand, most Americans today with modest means and a modest chance in life are swayed by the gambling ethic: they speak in the commercial patois – which many of their grandparents would have scorned – of the 'entrepreneurial spirit' and the 'American dream'.
But he continues immediately by saying, "Obama did nothing to change this. He tried to wield the language of the dream more effectively than his opponents: a gambit that can now be seen to have failed." It was a bad gambit. But here it was only a failed tactic if one assumes that Obama was ideologically committed to the same general outlook.

Here I got back once again to Obama's iconic keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention which Justin Frank calls "the most important speech of his political career":

People don't expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
Obama's alternative to Cheney-Bush social policies was just a slight change in priorities, the expression of the conservative temperament of a man who generally accepts the neoliberal economic/social outlook. His subsequent career has demonstrated how strongly that acceptance guides his actions.

Bromwich concludes by talking about Obama's position on war with Iran. I'm not convinced that Obama intends to go to war with Iran even after his re-election, so I tend to agree with Bromwich's framing here:

On Iran, for now, Obama has not joined the sabre-rattling, but his policy appears to be regime change, and he has done little to calm the voices in the Israel lobby and Congress who clamour for stiffer sanctions and will soon cry for blockade and war. He has not found the time or the wit to offer an explanation that would indicate the good sense of peace – in case the prospects grow brighter in the current negotiations. He has pledged to do whatever it takes to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon, and has subscribed to the Netanyahu equation: too far on the road to a weapon is the same as having a weapon. Quite consistently, in his presidency, Obama’s method of stopping a measure, a tendency or a worldly development he opposes has not been to stand in its way but to try to slow it down. Indeed, this is almost his only tactic, as if he believed you could stop a train from arriving at the wrong terminus by padding the railcars with very good shock absorbers. His present strategy is to continue slowly towards war with Iran, but not be seen to have arrived there by November.
The biggest groaner in this article of Bromwich's is his comment that Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama "share an odd quirk of the national character". At another point, he writes, "So the stranger and outsider becomes in America the axial personality through whom all the cross-currents of national character must flow." National character? Really, dude? I mean, I'm fond of the occasional 1950s nostalgia, too. But this "national character" stuff is just jive talk. National traditions, cultural assumptions, okay, but this "national character" business is worse than useless. It's a mystification of politics, and in Bromwich's case a vague notion like "national character" is an extension of his excessive focus on Obama's personality to the neglect of politics and political ideology.

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