jimsleeper.com » The Obama Chronicles, 2008 – 2012

The Obama Chronicles, 2008 – 2012

I began writing about Obama in 2007,  using a “civic-republican” pen, and I’ve traced the arc of his rise and travails in American political culture. As some of the following columns show, I suggested often during his 2008 campaign that he is more a “Harvard neo-liberal” than a progressive, let alone the wild-eyed socialist his opponents conjure up. But it wasn’t really until the debt-ceiling crisis of the spring and summer, 2011 that I became disillusioned enough to begin to regard him coldly.

In the summer and fall of 2011, I did battle with neo-liberal Obama apologists such as Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait, siding, against them, with Drew Westen and others who advocated not that he be more “leftist,” much less “radical,” but simply that he tell more of the truth about the inexorable pressures he faced — and their costs to the country — of  our casin0-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-bamboozling economy. Following “my” advice and that of others, Obama found what I do think is his truer civic-republican voice again in the fall of 2011, as the 2012 election approached. There  is no need to be either naive or cynical about this, but it’s important to understand clearly.

Whatever Obama’s future, I’ll always credit him with confirming and advancing a shift in American racial politics, a dimension of our national experience I’ve had  more than a little experience with and that  I address in many of these posts about him and in a late-2011 review of Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. But the bitter irony of Obama’s teuure, at least so far, is that even as his election reduced racism as an obstacle to economic reform, the economy changed for the worse in ways he’s failed to describe truthfully and that I try to sketch in some of these posts.

The enormous countervailing forces that a president must face place limits on how much truth-telling he can do. But there’s a difference between being prudent and abdicating the presidential responsibility to be a great communicator.  Obama has often lost his balance in handling that difference. The last thing he needs is apologetics by the Washington Beltway pundits who, fancying themselves the great realists of national power-brokering, have leaped to discredit substantial and constructive criticism of his leadership strategies.

“The Obama Chronicles” trace the arc of my skepticism, support, criticism, and disillusionment with Obama since 2007.  But first I begin with a few recent  posts on his  leadership in the recent debt-ceiling and jobs crises of the spring and summer of 2011. Then I go back to 2007 and present all of my posts chronologically through the campaign and inauguration and early months in the White House.

I. The Obama Chronicles, 2008 to the present

The more “classic” of these posts (the ones that have stood the test of time and ought to be used by historians) are titled in bold.

Why Rudy Giuliani Really Shouldn’t Be President, TPMCafe, March 8, 2007. To judge from the links and discussion this post provoked, it was a game-change among the pundits, and for a good reason: I knew him well.

If I Vote For Obama, It’ll Be Because…. TPMcafe, January 8, 2008, the morning after his second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary.

David Brooks Scurries to McCain…. via Ted Kennedy! TPMCafe, January 30, 2008

Obama’s Biggest Weakness, TPMCafe, February 6, 2008. Written as returns from SuperTuesday were still coming in.

Why it’ll be Obama vs.McCain, TPMcafe, February 2, 2008. Just before SuperTuesday. Here I was behaving as an
anthropologist more than a partisan. Some readers were not amused.

Obama, Crowds, and Power, TPMCafe, February 13, 2008. Just after Obama won the “Potomac Primaries, a cautionary note.

Obama in a Valley of Insinuations and Lies: TPMCafe, February 27, 2008. The historian Sean Wilentz’s  bizarre and desperate attack,

How to Really Put that Farrakhan Endorsement to Rest TPMCafe, March 4, 2008. Why no “furor” over Farrakhan is likely to fly, even though some people will keep trying to launch it.

In Philadelphia, Obama’s Historic Challenge, TPMCafe, March 18, 2008. And, in Brooklyn, a lit of history behind controversies like the one for Obama’s Pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Billary’s One-Two Punch Has Changed the Game, TPMCafe, March 26, 2008. How the Clintons became a part of American democracy’s problem, not the solution. A few unfortunate phrasings left this one open to both innocent and willful misreadings. Please read it with “Obama, Crowds, and Power,” here below, and with “The Campaign We Really Need,” above.

The Campaign We Really Need, TPMCafe, March 28, 2008. A clarification concerning the column just before this one.

Why Obama’s Leftist Critics Are Sputtering,TPMCafe April 3, 2008. Obama’s racial wisdom vs. holdouts left and right, TPMCafe, April 1, 2008. Both conservative black writers like Shelby Steele and many leftists academics are misjudging his campaign and his motives.

The Ur-Story Behind Obama’s ‘Cling’ Gaffe in PA, TPMCafe, April 16, 2008. His problem with working-class whites is deep, though not his fault.

How Republicans Gamed the Pennsylvania Primary, TPMCafe, April 22, 2008

Obama’s Way Out of the Race Trap, TPMCafe, April 23, 2008. After losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama had to re-connect with working-class whites. I suggested that calling for class-based affirmative action would turn a lot of heads and gain a lot of ground electorally and for social justice.

Obama in the Wilderness. TPMCafe, April 29, 2008. As Obama staggered under the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preening shortly before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, some historical and religious perspective.

Obama in the Straits, TPMCafe, June 5, 2008. As Obama claimed the Democratic nomination after the last primaries, a meditation from Istanbul at dawn on the racial dimension of the challenge and the opportunity his candidacy has put before the country and the world.

Obama: Neoliberal or Civic Republican? TPMCafe, June 13, 2008.  He’s really a bit of both, I argue, and he has the capacity to vindicate the Republic against the worst of global capitalism. Whether he will depends on whether our national economic and social crises deepen — and on what people seem ready to hear.

Has Obama the courage of black voters’ convictions? TPMCafe, August 8, 2008. A congressional election in Memphis was a win-win-win opportunity for Obama to endorse the white incumbent, against a black challenger — and in a majority-black district! But he didn’t do it. This is also a case study of where 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act went wrong.

It Won’t be Obama’s Veep Who Saves Him, TPMCafe, August 22, 2008. Written the day before Obama announced his choice of running mate, this piece went looking for what seemed the missing fire in his belly.

What Biden Brings, TPMCafe, August 23, 2008. This was written just before Obama’s introduction of Biden and the latter’s speech in Springfield, which fulfilled my anticipations here. Now the other shoe will drop, and Biden will put his foot in his mouth a few times this fall. But he’s a great choice, all things considered, even if he’s not the answer to the fundamental challenges I raised in the column before this one.

Another One Bites the Dust, TPMCafe, August 28, 2008. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, a Hillary Clinton dead-ender, had to be ushered off the stage the night that Bill Clinton made clear that Barack Obama is ready to lead.

“Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!” TPMCafe, September 6, 2008. The Republican tragedy in John McCain’s acceptance speech.

John Quixote, Sarah Panza, and the Windmills of 2008, TPMCafe, Sept. 9, 2008. How McCain and Palin are blaming the wrong elites in this election.

Thoughts on Casting a Vote in New York City at 6 am, TPMCafe, Nov. 4, 2008

A Pundit Fails the Republic, TPM Cafe, October 13, 14, 2008. As the presidential election approached, David Brooks, liberal editors’ favorite conservative, parried and then ducked the truth that John McCain had proven himself unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign. Serious conservatives such as Christopher Buckley told it like it is.

A Pundit’s Day of Reckoning — And Ours, TPMCafe, October 14, 2008. As McCain’s campaign became increasingly embarrassing, this column predicted well how NY Times columnist David Brooks, formerly a sinuous McCain supporter, would ride out the election.

The Neo-con Merry-Go-Round Runs Down…., TPMCafe, October 17, 2008. Tortured defections from McCain tell the tale.

A ‘Sad’ Reckoning That Isn’t, TPMCafe, October 26, 2008. How not to think of McCain nine days before the election.

My Hidden Stake in an Obama Win, TPMCafe, Oct. 27, 2008. Whether or not it succeeds on November 4, Obama’s candidacy has come to represent and confirm positions I’ve taken on racial politics for years.

Things We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Race, Dissent, Oct. 27, 2008. Eight days before election, everyone is talking about whether “the Bradley effect” will sink Obama’s apparent lead.

How to Gauge Racism in This Election, TPMCafe, Oct. 28, 2008. Don’t ask Jack Shafer, Slate’s blowhard press critic, who thinks that liberals, enraptured by Obama, are just getting jittery. A viral e-mail I got clears things up.

Burdens of History, Reconciliation, and Fatality.  TPMCafe, Nov. 5, 2008 A victory night reflection on what we and Obama face — and on why he seems so deeply well equipped to face it.

“I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear….” TPMCafe, Nov. 9, 2008. Why he should use his middle name at the inauguration, and how his full name vindicates what is still exceptional about America. (A similar version ran in the  Yale Daily News on November 14 and again in TPM on Inauguration Day, 2009.)

What I’m Learning (Slowly) From Obama, TPMCafe, Nov. 11, 2008. A columnist’s confessions.

II. Obama’s pre-2012 Election Leadership “Crisis”

The Republic After Obama, TPMCafe, Aug. 1, 2011. A major statement about the nature of Obama’s failure of leadership. This should be read along with Debt-Crisis Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the Rest of Us, TPMCafe, July 21, 2011, a taxonomy of Obama’s opposition at the 11th hour before the federal debt-default deadline.

How (and How Not) to Assess Obama’s Debt-Crisis Leadership,TPMCafe, July 29, 2011

Plus ca change…. In April of 2011 I wrote that Obama’s debt-crisis strategy was inadequate. Three months later, at the 11th hour (July 27),  I decided that I couldn’t change a word. So I didn’t: TPMCafe, July 27, 2011

Fareed Zakaria’s Problem– and Ours. The problem isn’t Drew Westen, whose essay criticizing Obama’s leadership took the liberal world by storm; he was only Zakaria’s most obvious target. This spat is over something much deeper. TPMCafe, August 18, 2011

Bluster in the Beltanschauung. Why Obama’s neoliberal apologists in the Washington Beltway are letting him and us down. August 30, 2011. HuffingtonPost, TPM, Alternet Siding with Drew Westen and others of Obama’s left-of-center critics against Fareed Zakaria and other neo-liberal apologists for Obama’s leadership failures, I argued apostles of Washington Beltway thinking have a world-view, or Weltanschauung, all their own — hence, Beltanschauung. The essay is as long (4300 words) as it is damning, so it should be copied onto a document and printed out. By the way, we critics of the Beltanschaunng won the debate, at least insofar as Obama changed course in the direction Westen urged: To be more forthright and feisty about what Republicans are doing to the economy and the country. Whether or not Obama will follow through is an open question, though, because it’s not clear that he doesn’t ultimately share his apologists’ neo-liberal premises and politics.

On Sept. 4, 2011,  in  Great Orations vs. Great Obfuscations, HuffingtonPost, and also in TPM, I managed to say in 499 words what it had taken me 4300 words to say in the longer posts just above: That Obama’s critics on the left aren’t urging him to give a magic speech, as his Beltway apologists self-servingly imagine, but to….  Well, it’s only 499 words, so click and read it yourself.

Obama’s neo-liberal Beltway apologists can’t stop defending his compromises. (Nov. 8). This was prompted by a review of Ron Suskind’s book about Obama by Ezra Klein in the New York Review of Books. Klein is another very astute observer of Capitol-corridor realities, but he spends too much time with those realities to recognize that a president must point us all toward broader horizons. Huffington Post, TPM. A few days later, fed up with Obama’s apologists, I tried to show what a 58-word presidential grand narrative should be.

Guess Who Obama Was Channeling in his Populist Kansas Speech? (Dec. 8, 2011) It was a terrific vindication of  the political psychologist Drew Westin, whose  criticisms of Obama I’d been defending since August (see below) against Obama’s Washington apologists. Obama’s Kansas speech showed he’d gotten Westen’s message (and OWS’ message). Huffington Post, Alternet, TPM

In  The Persistence of the Color Line, Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Harvard Law prof Randall Kennedy explains why a politics of racial grievance and paroxysm won’t hit the moving target of plutocracy. I was glad to review this book for The Nation (“False Comforts,” Dec. 19, 2011), where, years ago, I was assailed sometimes times for making arguments much like Kennedy’s in my own books, Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers. (Half a chapter of Liberal Racism is about Kennedy.)