Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Politics and Reality

On occasion I feel the need to do a follow up piece to a post. Generally it's because someone makes a comment that makes me go, "That's not what I meant at all." I received such a comment on my last post on another blog for where I also publish, The Swash Zone. An anonymous comment dismissed my  post, Pragmatism, the Presidency, and Activism as being another piece comparing Obama to Lincoln, a topic which he or she is tired of hearing.

Thanks for the comments from others who have pointed out that I didn't write a piece comparing Obama to Lincoln. I still find anonymous' comment way off target and bearing no logical relationship to my actual post.

My focus was on the mythologizing that time tends to bring to our remembrances of the past. The Obama and Lincoln comparison, as well as the FDR and Obama comparisons have been unfavorably made for some time. Primarily the comparisons are used to depict Obama as weak and ineffective when compared to Lincoln and FDR. My analysis of Lincoln was to contrast the factual reality with the mythology that we've built around Lincoln. The abolitionists criticized Lincoln as weak and ineffective. They questioned his commitment to ending slavery. Lincoln's primary goal was not to end slavery it was to do whatever was necessary to preserve the Union. He compromised a great deal as did Roosevelt. I'll save that stroll down history lane another day. Interestingly, the group sold out the most significantly by FDR was African-Americans. (African-Americans and the New Deal)

Compromise is the cornerstone of legislation. No one ever gets all that he or she wants in a bill. Republican and Democrat doesn't really mean a great deal behind closed doors when bills are in their infancy; everyone compromises to give birth to a bill and curries favor so that when their side is presenting a bill they can call in those favors. The horror of this new crowd of inexperienced legislators is that they don't understand how the system works and they draw lines in the sand. All that they create are impasses. 

Obama's efforts at transparency have resulted in more public disclosure of the process and everyone believes that this is a significant change when this game is as old as politics themselves. Those same politicians in Congress who make great speeches condemning the opposition's position on an issue, go out afterwards and share a bottle of scotch. A great many politicians are lawyers. One of the first things that you learn as a litigator is that nothing in the courtroom is personal. To zealously represent your client, you're perfectly willing to suggest that opposing counsel is hiding some dirty secret, dishonest, and robs babies and the elderly for sport. During recess, it's possible that you will have lunch with the opposing counsel. Ex parte communications apply to lawyer/judge exchanges outside the presence of the other counsel but there are no rules that prohibit opposing counsel from sharing a drink or a meal. My point is that the moment the adversarial stuff is over, most everyone reverts to being just folks. Democrats and Republicans for the most part keep government functioning through the art of compromise.

The Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010 are for the most part a very inexperienced lot. Some of them have never held any public  office until they landed in the U.S. Congress. They are a different breed as demonstrated in the recent debt ceiling crisis. From 1981 to 2010, presidents from Reagan to Obama had no difficulties getting Congress to pass legislation increasing the debt ceiling regardless of the party in power in Congress. It was rational and logical that the President, nor most of Congress would anticipate the ridiculous holding hostage of the debt ceiling that took place in 2011.
The graph indicates which president and which political party controlled Congress each year.
My point is that all of the dramatic declarations that Obama has sold out the American people are hyperbole. That the role models to which he is unfavorably compared were not the darlings of their time either and were subject to the same criticisms regarding being week, unfocused, ineffective, a sellout etc. I also want to clarify that it is not criticism to accuse the President of the United States of being a traitor the the people and his country. A great many people appear to be unable to distinguish between criticism and character assassination. If you understand that distinction, then we don't have an issue.

It makes a lot of difference. If you state that the President should have held out for a public option in the health care bill, that's criticism. If you assert that the reason that he didn't push for a public option was because he was in cahoots with big pharma and offer as evidence of the conspiracy that there were meetings at the White House with big pharma, that provides fodder for those who are desperately looking for grounds to impeach the president. It's also naive. Of course pharmaceutical companies and hospitals and physician's groups were interested in exactly what affordable health care would mean to their business interests. They were provided opportunities for input. This is not a new thing. 

The critique of the President's actions is legitimate criticism. I don't support that point of view but it's certainly anyone's right to object to the actions of any elected official. However, the attribution of motives to the President involving a conspiracy with big pharma is character assassination. You can't then turn around as election day approaches and state with any credibility that you were just holding the president accountable but now plan to campaign to encourage people to vote to re-elect him. What kind of fool would vote for a dishonest scalawag who has betrayed the public intentionally?

All of these dramatic positions attacking the President's character from some progressives will affect his ability to run a successful re-election campaign. Protestations that Obama is a good guy and I'm just critiquing his flaws is bull. Recovering from criticism is a standard part of being a public official; recovering from character assassination seldom happens. Remember John Kerry?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pragmatism, the Presidency, and Activism

I have repeatedly read posts by others who argue with great passion that President Obama should follow in the examples of Abraham Lincoln in addressing slavery and FDR in addressing the Great Depression. I appreciate the beacons that both former presidents are in the history of this country; however, what we believe to be true and what is fact often are vastly different.

A recent article, Frederick Douglass, the activist who would not 'grow up' offers a frame for evaluating the repeated criticism of President Obama from many members of the left. This article deals with President Lincoln as assessed by Frederick Douglass, not as a historian many years after the facts but as a witness to those events.

One of the most common misrepresentations of history is the oft repeated mantra that Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn't. The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves that lived within the borders of states that were in rebellion against the Union; it did not apply to any slaves in the border states that were still loyal to the Union nor Confederate states which had already come under Union control; President Lincoln did not wish to lose the support of those slave owning states. The goal was to preserve the Union. As the Confederacy was not under the President's control, it did not accept Lincoln's offer to agree to the emancipation of slaves in exchange for compensation. The reality is that the Emancipation Proclamation was a grand gesture and of great symbolic value but it didn't free any slaves. [see for ex., thinkquest, national archives] In the year prior to the EP, 1862, Congress had passed a law that freed any Confederate slaves who escaped to the Union states and added those slaves to the Union's military ranks. Slavery did not officially end in this country until 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment. [Id.] 

The factual details don't lessen what Lincoln accomplished. I offer this history lesson because I think that the adherence to mythology is interfering with the ability of progressives to get on the same page and work at the business of re-electing Barack Obama. Lincoln was no cowboy riding in on a white horse. He compromised on  what Frederick Douglass and  the abolitionists saw as the most significant cause of the Civil War, ending slavery. He did so because the Union could not afford to lose the slave owning border states to the Confederacy.

In 1862, Horace Greely, editor of The New York Tribune addressed an editorial to Lincoln in which he suggested that Lincoln's administration lacked direction and resolve in its war efforts. Lincoln responded with a letter to Greely that few seem to accurately recall:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. [Lincoln letter]
Frederick Douglass took issue with Lincoln's willingness to abide slavery if that was necessary to preserve the Union. However, Douglass was also pragmatic and eventually came to respect Lincoln's seemingly measured tread.  

In April 1876, in a speech delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,  Douglass said of Lincoln: 
...I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. [emphasis added] [Douglass' Oration]
Frederick Douglass was an activist and activists do not have to answer to a constituency, nor do they have to play well with others. There are those who no doubt will dismiss my evaluations of activism vs. politics as narrow and cynical. I intend it as neither, but simply pragmatic. 

Activism is an essential part of political and societal change but the demand that such activism be regularly and blatantly engaged in by this President is to ask him to go beyond the bounds of his office. I chose to focus on Lincoln because of sheer laziness. Lincoln has been a hobby of mine for years and I didn't have to do a lot of research. However, similar issues can be raised with FDR's presidency.

Douglass' evaluation of Lincoln doesn't diminish the man at all but it does make it clear that no man walks on water and offers a prism that reflects how I believe history will also view Obama. Just as was Lincoln, Obama is the President, not an activist. His responsibilities are vastly different than those of an activist. I believe that far too many are demanding that Obama take on a mythical role that no president has ever exercised. 

Bachmann just won the straw vote election out of a field of Republicans, any of whom is saner than she. I find that frightening. Rather than contributing to the constant criticism of President Obama and the continual refusal to acknowledge all that has been accomplished (an extensive list) our common goal should be to ensure that the President has a second term to work towards our goals. Douglass voted for Lincoln in 1864 in spite of his concerns and supported Lincoln's campaign. We have a president who understands the system and who is working that system with every tool at his disposal. What we need are activists; the campaign slogan has always been, "Yes we can." What have you done lately?