Like so many liberals, I am deeply disappointed by Barack Obama’s tepid leadership over the past three-plus years. Nevertheless, I will reluctantly support his reelection and vote for him in this election cycle – but only out of lesser-of-evils desperation.
Recently I reread the columns I wrote for TPJmagazine shortly after Obama was elected. I was very happy at the time but also deeply concerned about the unrelenting threat from the right.
It is now very clear that the fears I expressed then have come to pass, enabled in part by the inaction and foolish bipartisan efforts of Obama and his administration. And the tears? Well they have a different cause these days – profound disappointment.
Here follows the column I wrote immediately after the election, wherein the last four paragraphs are about as close as I’ll ever come to political prescience.
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Like millions of others here and abroad, I choked up when the TV pundits finally proclaimed that Barack Hussein Obama would be the 44th President of the United States. Certainty came to me when they announced that Ohio had gone for Obama. At 11 p.m., when MSNBC declared him the winner, tears began to flow and I woke my wife, who had gone to bed an hour earlier, already confident of the outcome. After eight years of mutual political foreboding, I wanted to share the wonderful news as well as the joy and relief we both felt. In that moment all the nagging doubts I was unable to shake leading up to the election were swept away. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Of course I wanted to savor the moment, and I did; but in the back of my mind was the awareness that this was just one moment, just a beginning, as Obama put it in his marvelous victory speech.
There seems to be a near consensus that the President-Elect and his team deserve the highest praise for conducting one of the most effective presidential campaigns of all time, the details of which are now being fleshed out by experts. There were many times during the campaign that I became frustrated with the Obama campaign because they weren't striking back forcefully enough, weren't attacking a vulnerable opposition beset with pronounced and potentially damaging weaknesses. Why, for example, weren't they bringing up McCain's many opportunistic flip-flops, his cynical selection of an ignoramus for a running mate, his shameless sucking up to the religious right whom he previously labeled “agents of intolerance,” the Palins' association with the Alaskan Secessionist Party, McCain and Palin's stonewalling the release of their medical records, the Keating Five, Palin's embarrassing and outrageous avoidance of the press following the Kouric disaster, and much more? Predictably, the broadcast media pretty much ignored McCain and Palin's glaring liabilities, although they did sort of come through on the flashy issue of Palin's $150,000 coast-to-coast spending spree. Typical mainstream media ratings-based superficial infotainment. I feared the Obama campaign was letting McCain-Palin off the hook and the election might end up like Bush-Kerry.
As the relentless, incendiary slander from the Republican campaign reached a crescendo in the final weeks, Obama stayed on message and emphasized the issues, especially the economy, and most of all middle-class economic plight. One area where he didn't let McCain off the hook was the Republican candidate's support of Bush. Obama wasn't going to let McCain co-opt his signature message of “change.”
Well, it turned out Obama knew what he was doing: He projected a serious, dignified, competent presidential image that inspired confidence in contrast to the desperate ravings and mudslinging coming from McCain and Palin. He didn't exactly ignore the attacks as much as he deflected them, sometimes with appropriate, contemptuous humor: “I don’t know what’s next,” he said in response to their attempt to brand him as a socialist. “By end of the week, he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” Obama appeared to trust the American people, with just a little help, to recognize the obvious – the scattershot smear tactics being employed by an erratic opposition that couldn't compete on the issues that Americans were most concerned about. He beat the Rovian character assassins without sinking to their despicable level.
Two weeks later I am still savoring my happy feelings, and I'm prouder to be an American than I have been in many years. I feel as if a great emotional burden has been lifted; and for the first time in years I am experiencing cautious optimism as well as cautious relief from Republican-inspired dread. I am optimistic because Americans have elected rational leaders who show every sign of addressing the nation's many problems in a responsible manner and actually putting good governance ahead of gaining political advantage at every turn. And I'm relieved because we have somehow dodged the right-wing bullet aimed right at the heart of our constitutional democracy, so that for now, at least, the country's remorseless drift toward fascism has been curtailed.
But it has been two weeks, plenty of time for reality to reassert itself. As a confirmed skeptical realist, I can't help looking for the dark cloud behind every silver lining. And looking out across today's political landscape, I would have to be blind or in denial on the scale of a Phil (it's a mental recession) Graham not to see many dark clouds gathering on the horizon. In fact, everywhere I look there is a huge mess to clean up, the result of eight years of calculated treachery, criminal neglect, squandered opportunities, and monumental incompetence. So my skeptical-realistic take on the situation is this: Despite the bipartisan, inclusive intentions of the new president, the fragmented opposition may soon reconstitute itself into a purer and even more virulent form of right-wing extremism – not just lipstick on a pig. We will still be assailed by the daily din of a dogmatic, hate-mongering, dishonest, and frighteningly determined opposition. At their most menacing, they will be a kind of political Borg requiring our utmost vigilance. Other times their simpleminded, faith-based assertions will evoke images of the comical, ultra-capitalist Ferengi. But however they come across to us, the army of political, religious, and media demagogues will continue to exploit the ignorance, fears, prejudices, and superstitions of their sizable and angry, “dittohead” constituency. And they will continue to fan the flames of the culture war in increasingly ugly ways and to obstruct progressive change with their familiar lock-step tactics. One of their highest priorities will be to protect the gains they made in the Federal judiciary during eight years of Bush appointments with little opposition from a timid Democratic Congress.
Let's not forget that a small, well-disciplined army of like-minded fanatics with a well-defined long-term strategy can be more than a match for a larger, poorly coordinated force of well-intentioned individuals. Democrats by nature are a diverse, often fractious group. In principle that is what healthy democracy is all about, assuming that the large majority of citizens are well-informed, loyal to the ideals of Constitutional democracy, and participating in good faith. I leave it to you to decide if that's where we're at in the United States at the present time.
In the next several columns I will discuss the dangers of complacency and the kinds of actions I feel progressives need to take to keep the right-wing social and political cancer in remission. We have won a major battle, but the fruits of victory remain elusive.
One more thing: It remains a matter of great uncertainty how the elephant in the room – I'm talking about the very real possibility of an economic depression – will affect everything all of us have been talking about.