The left-liberal establishment is in crisis at the moment. They can’t make up their mind between desperately trying to prop up Obama, and giving up on him and increasing their distance. Maureen Dowd has given up, judging from her brutal column “The Golf Address.” Up at Princeton, Cornel West, always an Obama skeptic (around 2012 he called Obama “Nelson Rockefeller in blackface”), is calling Obama a “counterfeit” Progressive:
[T]he thing is he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.
Oh-kaaay. (Memo to Robbie George: Just how is it that you team-teach a class with this guy?) I love it: Obama just isn’t left enough. (Memo to Cornel: This is a good as it’s ever going to get for you. You can put away your fantasy of Lizzie Warren going all Lizzie Borden on capitalism. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.)
On the other hand, it is curious to take in Progressive historian Michael Kazin in The New Republic, who really wants to like and defend Obama. But he says that Obama suffers from a case of political ADD. He just can’t focus without his meds?
Why has Barack Obama—one of the most eloquent and thoughtful of recent presidents—become such a terrible politician?
Michael, I can think of some reasons. But please continue, I’m enjoying this.
Midway through his sixth year in office, his ineptitude is pretty clear. He frustrated and demobilized the huge base he built during his campaigns and, unless the polls turn around quickly, will be watching from the White House as the GOP takes full control of Congress this fall. . . the president has become a rather boring and insignificant figure.
The problem, Kazin thinks, is that Obama is just too darn pragmatic. But I’m confused here; I always thought being pragmatic was the highest form of praise from liberals. Maybe my mentor M. Stanton Evans was right when he said years ago that “The trouble with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.” According to Kazin, it isn’t working for Obama:
In 2011, the intellectual historian James Kloppenberg wrote a widely reviewed book in which he praised Obama for being, in the philosophical sense, a brilliant and authentic pragmatist—one whose mistrust of ideological certainties would make him an effective leader. But while every sane politician needs a dose of skepticism, he or she also needs a strong sense of mission—or else their only appeal will be as a somewhat lesser evil. Instead of helping him navigate the political rapids, Obama’s sober mistrust of ideology and partisanship has left him without the ability to change the course of the nation or the thinking of its citizens in any significant way. . . if he truly cares about his legacy, he ought to realize, right now, that pragmatism is never enough.
Behold, among Obama’s hidden talents is his ability to make liberals even more foolish and incoherent than usual. Actually what Kazin’s lament makes clear is that the usual liberal cant about pragmatism is utterly insincere. It is a way for liberals to deny they are being ideological. (Jonah Goldberg beats down on this trope masterfully in The Tyranny of Cliches.) So what Kazin is really saying is that Obama is incompetent at the liberal straddle: he’s no good as an ideologue, and he’s lousy at pragmatism. His golf handicap is his only handicap that is improving in office.
Together with the Amartya Sen article I noted here yesterday, The New Republic is 0 for 2 this week in its attempt to produce iconoclastic thinking like they used to that might make the left reflect seriously on its troubles.