Two-three years ago, I caught a lot of grief telling people that Barack Obama was not their boyfriend. He was a politician, kissing babies and giving speeches like the rest of them. Okay, better than the rest of them, but in the same manner as the rest of them. Not your boyfriend.
I didn't make a lot of headway. Like I said, he's better than the rest of them. But now the worm has turned, and increasingly folks are acting like Barack Obama's their boyfriend who jilted them. Take for, for example, this comment from TSlavin in glendenb's diary, "Let's Talk About Tomorrow: Moving Democrats Forward" that I front-paged yesterday. It begins:
Truly I don't believe it was incompetence that has put us in this position. Obama clearly has the rhetorical skills and his political team has the skill sufficient to get elected President, no small achievement. The fact Obama has not only refused to use his rhetorical skills to achieve progressive goals but also has actively sold out progressive goals (e.g. spiking the public option) strongly suggests the problem is NOT incompetence.
The problem is that Obama is most comfortable with Republican solutions to policy problems. He sees the government as having an extremely limited, only in emergencies, role in the free market. That's not progressive. Indeed, even looking back at Democratic party history, that's not even in the mainstream of Democratic policy since the Depression. The problem is that Obama is comfortable with the status quo of too big to fail banks, endless mergers, a police state (e.g. wiretapping without warrants), and state sponsored murder, as well as using state power to cover up illegal actions by the state.
Obama truly believes it is okay for the government to allow high unemployment indefinitely, for at least a decade, so that the free market will let banks heal themselves by fake outsized profits gained by borrowing from the Fed at a low rate (say 1%) and buying Treasury bonds at a higher rate (say 3%), among other tactics.
This is very different from the picture you paint of a hapless Obama and a hapless Democratic leadership. This is simply "Bush Done Right" by a politician who calls himself a Democrat. Based on his policies to date, Obama cares little or nothing for working people and the need for government to always balance the different (and often contradictory) interests in our society. Instead, Obama is quite happy for the government to be on the side of plutocracy at the expense of working people. If Obama cares at all for the middle class, he believes the free market eventually will help the little people by helping first the most advantaged.
Now, I'm not saying that TSlavin is totally off the mark here. I've said some of these same things myself--particularly comparing Obama to Tony Blair who openly staked out the position of Thatcherism done right, ergo Obama as Bush done right. So how do I differ? And why? The answer is that I don't explain complex political positioning in terms of personal relationships.
Politicians are actors in complex institutional settings, and the actions they take largely reflect the constraints and powers that come with those settings. They like to pretend to a high degree of autonomy, but that's just part of the standard politicians act. That act usually helps to impress or intimidate, which helps generate more political power for the politician who plays the part. But that doesn't mean it's real. There's actually a great deal of social science behind this. In fact, the mistaken belief that people are acting of their own conscious and unfettered volition, rather than as a result of situational factors, is known in social science as the fundamental attribution error, which Wikipedia describes thus:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior-where situational factors are often taken into consideration. This discrepancy is called the actor-observer bias.
As a simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).
The term was coined by Lee Ross some years after a now-classic experiment by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris (1967). Ross argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology.
The Situationist blog, out of The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School is a place I've referred to on a number of occassions that's especially concerned with identifying, understanding, critiquing and correcting the generalized tendency to to explain social phenomena dispositionally rather than situationally, the fundamental attribution error is the quintessential example of this confusion. Does this mean that disposition plays no role at all in human affairs? Is that what I'm saying? No, of course not. In fact, I think that disposition plays a very significant role in human affairs. But in my view, that role is virtually always part of a complex mixture.
Dispositions often move us in directions where situational factors then kick in and have a much more powerful influence on us over time. But the situational factors may well lead us to do things that we would never have done purely as a matter of disposition. Broadly speaking, though, I think this is exactly what has happened with Barack Obama.
In fact, it's my view that (1) Obama is naturally predisposed to be more adaptive to situations than most people are, and (2) neo-liberalism, his de facto political philosophy is likewise a very fluid, adaptable ideology. Add to that his coming into office in a very stressful, crisis-driven time, and the power of situational forces at work in his presidency is quite overwhelming. None of this, of course, was intimated in his campaign.
But that's hardly surprising. The whole purpose of virtually all campaigns is to project a false image of politicians as entirely free from the sorts of situational influences that actually tend to predominate over all of us. The disconnect was particularly jolting and disconcerting with Obama, particularly given all the expectations that had been built up. But Obama himself was not really all that different from other politicians, he just did a particularly good job of creating the illusion that he was different. But they all try to do that. He was playing the same game that they all play. He was just really good at it.
But he never was your boyfriend. So wanting to punish him for a breakup that never happened is a serious misdirection of time, energy and emotion.
This doesn't mean I'm defending him. To the contrary. I'm trying to suggest that we need to understand and direct our attention toward the situational factors that are driving his actions. Clearly, the relative docility of the left has been one of those factors that's lead him to virtually ignore us. And his risk averse response to the mid-terms only makes this tendency worse. But as a consequence, left-liberal frustration and impatience with him has crossed a threshold. And that now holds the potential to begin changing everything.
But that potential will not be best realized if we have a mistaken approach to modeling and understanding his actions according to the fundamental attribution error. We need to get over him as a love/hate figure. We need to see him as coldly and clearly as possible. He's part of a system, and it's up to us to make that system work as well as possible. Of course, I strongly urge that we need to be working on transforming or replacing that system at the same time. But we don't have the luxury of not doing both at once.
I've got some pretty serious criticisms coming. But I'm trying to critically understand systems, not isolated individuals.