Barack Obama remains a sympathetic figure despite a program of assassination by drone that is indefensible from any and every angle; despite half-hearted, misguided, inept efforts to rein in corporate oligarchs, investment buccaneers, and the general run of greedheads, swindlers, and scoundrels who do fabulously well for themselves at the expense of the commonweal; despite the degradation of national infrastructure and the environment; despite the dismal state of American education. The list could go on.
For all this Barack Obama strikes me as a decent, intelligent person, a man of good will who in other circumstances, faced with a more or less conventional loyal opposition, would likely have found common ground with them on any number of issues, no doubt at times infuriating your oft humbled scribe in the process, while remaining true to his conviction that government has a positive role that goes beyond building a fence on our southern border and throwing money at the military-industrial complex. From the get-go Obama faced a howling mob bent on delegitimizing a presidency it refused to accept, ever at the ready to hurl epithets—socialist, Muslim, Nixonian—and bandy about the prospect of impeachment with furious glee. We can speculate as to the source of these caricatures of a man who is pretty mainstream in his thinking, devoted husband and father, basketball guy, someone with whom I might well enjoy drinking some beer and shooting the shit, as an old college buddy puts it. To be sure, this is scant recommendation for high office, or any office for that matter. There are any number of people with whom I have enjoyed a beer and conversation through the years whose occupation of any position of authority, much less the highest office in the land, is a prospect not exactly conducive to peace of mind.
With the possible exception of the drone program, the whole load of the country’s mess can hardly be dumped on Obama alone. The makeup of the Congress and the Republican Party put effective control of the government, veto power at the least, in the hands of people who do not believe in government. We are fortunate that their numbers are not sufficient for them to realize their program for freewheeling laissez-faire in every phase of life, a grotesque parody of Darwinian survival of the fittest, war of all against all, nature red in tooth and claw, an armed camp, each individual dependent on her or his own devices and fortune, the devil take the hindmost. Yes, I exaggerate somewhat. Nonetheless, this is the direction the Ayn Randists, tea partiers, libertarians, and their comrades would take us.
It is fashionable in certain circles to blame Obama for Republican muleheadedness.
“[I]t is his [Obama's] job to get them [members of Congress] to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.” (Maureen Dowd, Bottoms Up, Lame Duck, The New York Times, 30 April 2013 )
“It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary…” (Dana Milbank, Obama’s second-term blues set in, Washington Post, 13 May 2013)
One need not be possessed of Solomonic wisdom to observe that the House leadership cannot get its own members to toe the party line, not even when it would redound to their political advantage, as happened last month when Republicans pulled a bill designed to undermine a progressive piece of the Affordable Care Act under the guise of concern for the protection of individuals with preexisting conditions. The legislation, sponsored by Eric Cantor, was shot down by fire-breathing purists who objected that it merely tinkered with the dread ACA instead of going for outright repeal. We should expect Obama to lead or somehow compel this bunch to act responsibly? Leadership is not the issue.
The duty to safeguard minority and individual rights is a fundamental and near sacred principle of the American experiment in government.
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority—that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable…. The second method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. (James Madison, The Federalist, No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments)
The tension between commitment to minority and individual rights and the fundamental maxim of republican government that the sense of the majority should prevail has thus been with the country from the beginning. At some point the minority must accede to the will of the majority if the system is to function. By way of example, as a citizen I pay taxes due federal, state, and local governments even though they are not allocated as I might wish and in some cases fund programs and policies to which I stand in firm opposition. I might, and as a citizen I am obligated, to petition my elected representatives, engage in public debate and demonstration, generally work through the electoral process, and in extreme cases engage in civil disobedience to rectify unjust, bad, or outright immoral practice.
What we witness today, what confronts Obama, is a wild pack of libertarians, tea partiers, gun fetishists, and sophomoric nihilists dedicated to overthrow, overturn, subvert, and thwart the sense of the majority. When the attempt to impose their will is frustrated, too many appeal not to principles of civil disobedience and nonviolence preached and practiced by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King but rather stand in the camp of Mao, holding to the maxim that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
Government is in principle that “we the people” thing, all of us working together, more like muddling through most of the time, to promote the general welfare and common good. This is not some Marxist, socialist, leftist principle; rather, it is embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It all but goes without saying that what constitutes the general welfare and common good is never beyond dispute. The fierce debate to define these things makes up a considerable part of what we call politics, and people of good will may disagree even on matters of fundamental principle. What becomes of the possibility of politics when a conglomeration of parties allies around rejection of the idea that promotion of the general welfare and common good is feasible or even desirable? Is there any hope of fashioning a functioning society under principles of justice and rule of law?
I set out to examine the sources of my sympathy for Barack Obama, and perhaps justify it for myself, despite profound misgivings about certain policies and aspects of his presidency. This sympathy is not altogether rational, as nothing human is altogether rational. To a considerable degree it derives from a sense that I could sit down with this man, maybe over a beer, or elitists that we are, a glass of red wine, and talk seriously about policies and principle, each acknowledging the uncertainties, complexities, and doubts at the heart of our positions, able to attain a kind of harmony even in disagreement, in a way that I cannot conceive with, say, Paul Ryan or Rand Paul or from the far other end of the spectrum Noam Chomsky. I take the liberty of including Chomsky with others of diametrically opposed viewpoint and indisputably lesser intellect because all are strident foes of Obama and I think that Chomsky, like Ryan and Paul, has not a doubt in his military mind that he is right and anyone who sees things differently is wrong, and in this respect they all differ in disposition from Obama, who has capacity to accept the legitimacy of other viewpoints and willingness to accommodate them to a degree, some would argue far too great a degree. For this he is routinely battered from all directions. For in the 21st century humility is not a virtue but a sign of weakness. It has been banished from the American landscape together with the qualities of Keats’ negative capability, uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, which are today certifiable mental disorders, susceptible to treatment by therapy and drugs.
Maybe I do Chomsky an injustice. Maybe, too, I am wrong about Barack Obama. Maybe I give him too much credit. Perhaps I judge him too much by the caliber of those who stand against him, a comparison altogether to his favor.
Moshin Hamid, Pakistan: Why Drones Don’t Help, The New York Review of Books, 23 May 2013 (alas, only a brief excerpt is available online)
Stephanie Mencimer, Actually, Tea Party Groups Gave the IRS Lots of Good Reasons to Be Interested, Mother Jones, 17 May 2013