The Times Magazine had a good story by Matt Bai (who's always annoyed us and we don't even really know why) about how Obama's philosophy of government is all about, in Rahm Emanuel's phrase, "the art of the possible."
You will read it, and feel better about how Obama is not doing this or that quickly enough or even at all. Or, if you don't want to read it, because it is long or because something about Matt Bai bugs you, try Ezra Klein's summary. See? Don't you feel better about things now?
Ok. Now. You probably don't want to read Kevin Baker's essay in the upcoming Harper's, "Barack Hoover Obama," which is more or less the exact same observation, only presented less optimistically. And, specifically, it addresses the inkling of dissatisfaction we have each time we hear that Emanuel phrase repeated: don't you have, right now, a rather historic opportunity to redefine what the "possible" means?
No doubt, President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, would claim that by practicing "the art of the possible," they are ensuring that "the perfect does not become the enemy of the good." But by not even proposing the relevant legislation, Obama has ceded a key part of the process-so much so that his retreat seems not so much tactical as a reversion to his core political beliefs.
A major theme of Obama's 2006 book The Audacity of Hope is impatience with "the smallness of our politics" and its "partisanship and acrimony." He expresses frustration at how "the tumult of the sixties and the subsequent backlash continues to drive our political discourse," and voices a professional appreciation for Ronald Reagan's ability to exploit such divisions. The politician he admires the most-ironically enough, considering the campaign that was to come-is Bill Clinton. For all his faults, Clinton, in Obama's eyes, "instinctively understood the falseness of the choices being presented to the American people" and came up with his "Third Way," which "tapped into the pragmatic, non-ideological attitude of the majority of Americans."
Just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the "business progressivism" of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton's "business liberalism" as an alternative to useless battles from another time-battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose.
Clinton's business liberalism, however, is a chimera, every bit as much a capitulation to powerful and selfish interests as was Hoover's 1920s progressivism. We are back in Evan Bayh territory here, espousing a "pragmatism" that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests. The common thread running through all of Obama's major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict. The bank bailout, cap-and-trade on carbon emissions, health-care pools-all of these ideas are, like Hillary Clinton's ill-fated 1993 health plan, simultaneously too complicated to draw a constituency and too threatening for Congress to shape and pass as Obama would like. They bear the seeds of their own defeat.
So yeah, this is just more typical liberal whining about how the guy who never really pretended to be anything more than a mainstream liberalish Democrat has turned out to be a mainstream liberalish Democrat, but still: WE WERE PROMISED A STEALTH SOCIALIST!
[Photo: Pete Souza/The White House]