Obama's Mandela Moment
Anatomy of an Obama moment
In a news-obsessed culture, sometimes the media simply ignores profound stories, such as the cause of the almost inexplicable — and quite brilliantly constructed — recovery of Obama’s poll ratings.
Just a few weeks ago, the negative impressions of President Obama’s performance, in most of the polls, outranked the favorable, and by anywhere from 3-6 points. All the buzz was of Jimmy Carter redux, and the November historic sweep, with even more to come in 2012. Now? Suddenly, Obama is enjoying about a 3-6 point positive edge (5.6 in the aggregate RealClearPolitics latest posting). That’s a dramatic reversal of some 6-12 points in just a few weeks.
Why no in-depth exegesis of that astounding development?
Obama’s recovery was not merely a result of the media-created blitz of December about “momentum,” “recovery,” and “triangulation” after the acceptance of the Bush-era tax rates, the approval of the START treaty, and the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell." That bump was only about 1-2 points, and by mid-January Obama still suffered higher negatives than positives.
So are things getting that much better?
So was the upswing due to falling energy prices? Nope — gas and heating costs are skyrocketing, and in part due to new federal restrictions on leasing of oil and gas coupled with an anemic dollar.
Good news on the deficit? Hardly. We’re on schedule to pile up more trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits, as Obama’s own departing economic gurus like Summers, Romer, and Orszag are strangely now warning us of the long-term consequences of their own flawed policies.
Foreign affairs breakthroughs? No again: Putin is still roguish and gleeful about taking us to the cleaners. Ditto looming crises with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. The Middle East is a tinderbox. Mexico is a failed state. We have no China policy and are merely passive-aggressive. The world is far scarier than in January 2009.
Instead, the current rise is exclusively a direct result of three interrelated phenomena: 1) the tragic January 8, 2011, Tucson shootings; 2) the hysterical left-wing scapegoating of everyone from the Tea Party to Sarah Palin for the violence; and 3) the sudden emergence of a sober and judicious Mandela-like Obama, quite admirably calling for calm on all sides — while suggesting simultaneously that the horrific killings had no connection with the right wing, but also that the horrific killings offer an appropriate moment to reconsider all political zealotry in general.
In the ensuing ten days, Obama’s polls and approval have skyrocketed.
However politically brilliant all of this was, it remains in some sense quite morbid, in a creepy sort of never-waste-a-tragedy sense. The reaction to the killings almost instantly blotted out information about and concern for the dead and maimed. Yet in this entire confusing media circus, questions simply were not only not answered, but in fact never raised.
In logical terms, how are we to use a moment to reexamine political speech when the moment was explicitly declared not to be connected with political speech at all?
How can a president subtly distance himself from the macabre and revolting behavior of his left-wing base while simultaneously editorializing on unhinged invective in general (e.g., without an embarrassing extreme, there is no occasion to call for moderation from others)?
Why did five days of presidential silence follow the shootings (so unlike instant editorializing about the Mutallab and Hasan incidents), when the likes of Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Andrew Sullivan, Sheriff Dupnik, and the New York Times rushed in to scavenge political capital amid the carnage? All that might have been bridled with a brief word or two from the White House, a brief Sister Souljah moment admonition to the New York Times to cool it for a while. We know that would have worked, because the Times within hours after the successful Obama speech was calling to cool what it had helped arouse, apparently realizing that its demonization and its refutation of demonization hand-in-glove were politically useful.
And why not some therapeutic confessional of past (and in many cases quite recent) presidential culpability (e.g., the president’s own metaphorical use of knives, guns, enemies, punishing, kicking ass, relegation to backseat, get angry, getting in their face, hostage takers, trigger fingers, tearing up)?
OK, I think you readers are already way ahead of me in the answers to these questions.
In the present polarized climate, the most astute way to suggest that the right wing has created a climate of hate is to remind Americans, following a grotesquely violent event that has been milked by the left, that conventional efforts to capitalize on fears are inappropriate. That reminded me of Obama’s brilliant 2004 Democratic convention speech (e.g., “It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: 'E pluribus unum,' out of many, one. Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.”), in which he called for an end of blue/red-state hatred amid the general landscape of the entire Bush/Hitler frenzy which he never mentioned.
Whatever one thought of hate speech in those days, one must confess it was mostly directed at Bush from the left-wing base of the Democratic Party (cf. the Nazi/brownshirt slurs of a Glenn, Gore, Byrd, Soros, etc.). Yet nothing in Obama own past career (e.g., his Chicago organizing, his attendance at the hate-filled Trinity United Church, his suing to remove rivals from the Illinois state race, etc.) or his then current and subsequent behavior (e.g., the mysterious dirty-tricks leaking of sealed divorce records about his primary and general election Illinois senatorial rivals, the most partisan voting record in the entire Senate, the demagoguing of the entire Bush national security protocols as Constitution shredding that he was soon to embrace or expand as president) supported such eloquence. "No more red state/blue state polarity" did not presage a subsequent word of warning about novels and films dealing with an imagined assassination of George W. Bush.
And why the uncharacteristic wait to weigh in as polarization peaked? I think the answer is elementary. One, Obama had been burned by his tendency to go hard left in his past off-the-cuff sermonizing. In a nanosecond blaming the “stupidly” acting police for detaining Professor Gates, or immediately worrying more about reactions to the Islamist Hasan than the actual extremist violence of the Islamist Hasan, was politically disastrous and he learned from that.
Two, it was politically brilliant to let the left fully vent for five days. That way they would not be furious that they had been muzzled, and the interval would allow ample time for finger-in-the-wind testing of the national reaction to their deplorable rhetoric. When Obama did at last come forward, the left was both satiated and discredited. And in brilliant morally equivalent fashion, the stage was set to channel growing popular repulsion at the Krugmans of the world into popular repulsion at both the Krugmans and those that they libeled. A sacrificial Paul Krugman could not have wished for more — as, for example, Palin's favorables plummeted.
That was then, this is now
Obama did not cite his own prior polarizing speeches (not just the martial metaphors but the sleazy caricatures of limb-lopping doctors, fat-cat bankers, Vegas-jetting rich people, back seating Republicans, ice-cream parlor abducting Arizonans, and Republican enemies to be punished as veritable racists) because he knew that, in fact, on occasion such stiletto jabs drew blood. In this regard, contrary to popular opinion, I think Obama’s 11th-hour polarizing November blitz really did save some Democratic seats by galvanizing the base in the manner that, say, a Harry Reid was mysteriously reelected by “turnout.”
Edged rhetoric surely worked against Hillary Clinton when the wife of the first "black" president was reduced to a veritable racist. And it worked in 2007-8 against an incumbent Bush whose sober post-9/11 implementation of tribunals, renditions, Guantanamo, Predators, preventative detention, wiretaps, and intercepts was reduced by Obama to a near fascist takeover of the country — until they were all adapted by a President Obmaa himself. To this day, stung Bushites still offer up massive aid to Africa, prescription drug benefits, No Child Left Behind, and deficit spending on social programs to prove they were not the bloodthirsty Draculas who set up the gulag at Guantanamo and unleashed the children-destroying Predator drones.
The way ahead
We all know what is coming in 2012 -- the most well-financed, Wall Street-subsidized, vitriolic camping in modern memory, in which Obama’s rivals will be metaphorically reduced to caricatures of racist, selfish, and cruel nativists. The 2011 Tucson speech will have about as much resonance with Obama's impending campaign style as the 2004 oration affected his 2004-9 political behavior.
Rhetoric in the new age of tolerance
And finally, why not an iota of presidential follow-up when in nanoseconds Obama’s own progressive supporters returned to form and took up the old successful hate tropes? Rep. Cohen (D-TN) was soon comparing conservative opponents to Nazis in their Goebbels-like propaganda that likewise would, we were to believe, result in a Holocaust-like denial of basic human compassion. Columnists in Slate were back to the old Jonathan Chait-style (“I hate George Bush. There, I said it”) of declaring their unabashed loathing for political opponents (“Why I Loathe my Connecticut Senator"). All that was left was the reemergence from his Atlanta peace center of a smiling Jimmy Carter, quoting scripture as he might yet again remind us that the elder Bush was “effeminate,” Vice President Cheney was a “militant,” the younger Bush was the “worst” president, and Israel is an “apartheid” state.
Pit bulls from Mars
All these contortions reminded me of a neighbor next to our orchard who raised pit bulls. I have recalled the saga before (there were numerous and differing incidents throughout an entire year), but will so again. Without any supervision, the snappers ran in and out of the plum and nectarine orchard and had me terrified both of their teeth and their master who unleashed them. Finally I could hardly irrigate. But when, with loaded pump 12 gauge, I went over to complain of the danger (the proverbial final straw was my young son trapped in the truck bed by snapping dogs), I was met by the dog owner’s sudden impassioned speeches of how much he deplored the snarling, the snapping, and the biting of his prodigy and, indeed, how much he hated all such rogue dogs in general and the unfortunate reaction that they incurred such as my own need for defensive arms — without ever citing why I had gone over there in the first place or offering any assurance that the snarling, snapping, and biting would ever cease. (It was as if the dogs had landed from Mars to attack me but were nonetheless provident in reminding both of us of the need for calm.)
Can't we all just get along?
One could almost surmise that without a foaming hateful base both to draw blood from an opponent while offending the common decency, there can be no more Mandela moments of national healing — and no healing Mandelas to offer them.