Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Obama, bipartisanship, and patriotism

 Steven Johnston, University of South Florida

Barack Obama has a thing for bipartisanship. It might reflect a certain political timidity, more specifically, unwillingness, even inability to articulate a strong political vision or take principled stands on specific issues and defend them against inevitable assault. It might reflect political calculation, namely, the belief that the most effective way to bring promised change to the United States requires seeking and reaching a modus vivendi with adversaries, no matter how dogmatic, reckless, irresponsible, and indifferent to overture they might be. It might also reflect a patriotic reflex rooted in the conviction that we as Americans share a common life, common interests, and common values and that political crisis affords the country an opportunity to bridge any nominal differences, salve old wounds, come together, and forge affective bonds in the face of that crisis. No doubt Obama’s bipartisan instincts reflect all three (and more). Whatever its origins, Obama’s bipartisan imperative carries a serious price tag, one that affects not only policy and legislation but also the very character of the American democracy. Obama’s penchant for bipartisanism entails a rejection of a more critical, agonistic approach that might broaden political discourse, expand the range of viable possibilities, introduce a healthy enmity and accountability into the public domain, and energize the citizenry. That Obama is willing to pay these prices suggests that, in the end, patriotism shapes Obama’s political style. Patriots are too often ready, willing, and able to sacrifice the country for their vision of it and (what they take to be) its greater good. For they seek an ethereal end, unity, rather than the production of a new majority assemblage.
Let’s start with Obama’s economic stimulus plan, chock full of gratuitous tax cuts to solicit Republican support. Not only did he misread the realigned Republican Party following the 2008 elections, he sacrificed the short- and long-term well being of millions of Americans in an effort to pass a bill that was poorly designed, too small to succeed. Obama should have focused exclusively on stimulus spending, including on infrastructure and aid to states for education and unemployment benefits, and let Republicans propose tax cuts, which they deem the solution to everything. The people would have been presented with clear and distinct alternatives. Obama refused to play “politics” and it cost the county dearly—or at least part of it. Democrats may pay a high political price in 2010 midterm elections and beyond—and rightly so. Unemployment and foreclosure rates remain intolerably high and will remain high for years to come, according to the Administration’s own estimates. Obama’s malfeasance comes as no surprise, of course, since Obama’s economic team stars financial players who played key intellectual and policy roles in landing the country in near financial ruin in the first place. Thus the banking and financial sectors were protected, even rewarded, and predatory parasites like Goldman Sachs once again pay billions in bonuses for the very same behavior that initially led to near collapse. Obama made it a point of pride that he incorporated ideas from Republicans, as if to perform the bipartisanship he was refused. In his patriot mind, we were one, even if we were not.
 Obama likewise bungled health care reform and the question of medical justice. Any serious effort to guarantee reasonable access and reduce costs rested with a robust public option. Obama himself once challenged, even mocked, those who objected to it due to free-market fundamentalism, bemused by the idea that a business culture that celebrates its competitive greatness would fear a little competition from the federal government. Once well-positioned members of the Senate let it be known they would never support a public option, including health insurance lackeys like Joe Lieberman, Obama retreated as if on cue and assured opponents of reform that everything was negotiable and that a public option would not be a deal-breaker. Add a pre-cut arrangement with the pharmaceutical industry about drug prices and Senate refusal to consider raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans who have been enjoying revenue bonanzas going back to the Reagan tax cuts to pay for reform and it was effectively dead. A health care billed eventually passed, and the best that could be said of it by friendly critics was that it was better than nothing. Each effort to forge a bipartisan consensus on health care reform met with predictable results. Republicans have always been willing to sacrifice the good of the country for whatever they deem their latest sacred cause.
Obama’s bipartisan predilection finds its most disconcerting expression in foreign and national security policies. He continues the essential elements of the Bush-Cheney doctrine, which includes considering the Iraq War a retroactive success. Obama signaled his Constitutional betrayal in the campaign when he insisted that, regarding the Bush regime, he preferred to look forward rather back, as if the two were incompatible, as if the president actually had a choice. This patriotic gesture of munificence (we don’t punish our own who kill to protect the country) conveniently ignored the Constitutional duty to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute and imprison any and all who committed crimes both Constitutional and international. Wars of choice and torture, among other things, don’t pass moral, legal, or political muster.
Obama stained his own hands from the get-go. His well-publicized issuance of executive orders his first days in office allegedly correcting some of the worst abuses of the Bush gang amounted to a publicity stunt. The day he announced the closing of secret overseas C.I.A. prisons, a ban on torture, and the closure of Guantanamo, the practice of extraordinary rendition was not included, effectively gutting the other orders. Obama also claims the power of indefinite detention, the right arbitrarily to assassinate United States citizens abroad, and defends the state secrets privilege. The unitary executive lives.
 As if this weren’t enough, upon taking office Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan by deploying additional troops, signaling long-term American commitment. After a long delay, designed to give the appearance of deliberation and thoughtfulness, Obama decided to stay the course in Afghanistan. Republicans let it be known that no other option would be tolerated. It’s not just that the patriotic outcry (surrender, weakness, betrayal, etc.) from warmongers like John McCain would plague his administration and alienate an electorate that loves to alternate between support for displays of macho excess and expressions of abject fear (the two, of course, mutually support one another). Obama expressed veritable nostalgia for the oneness that America experienced when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Not surprisingly, Obama’s rationale for staying the course insults the intelligence. Most of Al Qaeda fled the country long ago, looking for safer and more productive havens, as National Security Adviser James Jones argues. Fighting the Taliban, moreover, cannot justify the United States presence, let alone ground war, in Afghanistan. Obama, of course, insists on tightly linking the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but his timetable for American withdrawal, given the corrupt, incompetent nature of Afghan political officials and security forces, cannot be met and he knows it. America’s commitment to Afghanistan is open-ended. It’s as if Obama learned nothing from LBJ and Vietnam, except perhaps that Johnson might have won a second full term if he had run. Promise peace, wage war: it’s an unbeatable combination. As Garry Wills argued, if Obama were to make the decision to end a war lost long ago by George Bush, it would likely render him a one-term president. That is the kind of sacrifice, saving rather than spending lives, patriots cannot make.
Deeming military service the greatest commitment a citizen can make, Obama’s patriotism wraps itself in death, which also means it revolves around the hostility to politics at which Republicans excel. Republicans know opposition and dissent exist and they cannot abide either one. Obama pretends opposition, in the end, isn’t real so he ignores it and crafts what he takes to be bipartisan positions and policies. We are one whether some know it or not. Having refused to pursue the Bush-Cheney gang for its crimes in Iraq, which led to failure in Afghanistan, Obama can’t reverse course in Afghanistan either. The refusal to expose high crimes and misdemeanors in the one, ironically, fosters refusal to concede the irreversible consequences of gross incompetence and dereliction in the other. Obama’s bipartisan fixation, a product of his patriotic imaginary of unity, precludes challenging the perverse idea that we prove our love of country through a willingness to kill and be killed. No doubt the problem extends well beyond Obama himself, who has not yet learned the truth about patriotism. Perhaps too many of his supporters continue to entertain a conception of patriotism that stifles and contains the pressures they are prepared to apply to him and his priorities.


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