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Wit and Wisdom

Obama

Active Thought

Surprise many commentators expressed at the forceful decision-making President Obama demonstrated in the killing of Osama bin Laden reveals how low our expectations for presidents have sunk.  Apparently, Obama’s thoughtful and thorough approach to policy-making had convinced some that he was incapable of quick and decisive action.  But in a good leader, far from being mutually exclusive, the two skills--careful analysis and effective action--are mutually reinforcing.

This would seem a commonplace observation, but eight years of George Bush’s swagger has evidently obscured the point.  By referring vital questions of policy to his “gut” and conducting international relations like schoolyard confrontation, Bush devalued intellectual inquiry and promoted ill-considered aggression as a form of statecraft.  Most Americans were not pleased with the result, but sadly came to conclude they had to choose between thought and activity.

We don’t.  President Obama is demonstrating the simple proposition that thinking things through leads to better outcomes.  Sometimes that analysis is long, sometimes short, depending on what the situation calls for and allows. We may not agree with the resulting action, but at least we can have confidence in the process that underlies it.

Political Pull

Deciding whether to back or buck the president shouldn’t cause progressives too much angst.  Supporters and critics are both needed to keep a movement going that Barack Obama himself has always rightly said was bigger than him.

Oppositional politics tends to coalesce forces; propositional to splinter them.  When the only object was to replace Republican rule, it was easy to hang together.  Once the process of governing began, it became easy to fall apart.  

Liberal gripes about Obama are understandable.  There certainly has been the appearance of negotiating with himself, giving in too early, trying to work with a nonexistent partner.  The public option in the health care bill, stronger consumer protections in the finance bill, fairness in the tax cut extension—all appeared sacrificed in the name of a chimerical bipartisanship.

But even his staunchest critics would never claim Obama was a stupid man; few people would call him naive.  As long as the Senate is hamstrung by archaic rules that make a mockery of democracy, determined minorities will dictate the outlines of a lot of policy.  The President’s press conference claim in December that he was keeping his eye on a “north star” of ultimate outcomes, and allowing himself to tack left or right to get there, was supported by the progressive accomplishments that ended the last Congress: abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; START treaty ratification; even the unexpectedly long extension of unemployment benefits in the tax-cut bill.

Everyone has a role to play in progressive politics: just pick your spot along the rope line.  If you’re standing next to the President, you can cheer him on while you pull together;  if you’re too far to the left to cheer, at least you’re keeping him from drifting too far right. The important this is to keep on pulling.
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