Thursday, December 15, 2016

My Response To Ta-Nehisi Coates' "My President Was Black"

The title of this post is a lie.

This is not a "response" to Ta-Nehisi Coates' intimate, detailed and beautifully-written meditation on the end of the Age of Obama which locates Barack Obama's upbringing and political coming-of-age as both the source of the unique gifts that won him the presidency but also proved to be a fatal blind spot that may cost him -- and the rest of us -- much of his legacy at the hands of his enemies.

Instead it is a shameless reprint of my own much, much shorter and less eloquent post from six years ago after the Democrats got shellacked by the Fake Tea Party in which I locate Barack Obama's upbringing and political coming-of-age as both the source of the unique gifts that won him the presidency but also warned that if he did not overcome the limits of those very gifts it may prove to be a fatal flaw for which he -- and the rest of us -- could pay a terrible price at hands of his enemies.

From the estimable Mr. Coates:
Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him. In some sense an Obama presidency could never have succeeded along the normal presidential lines; he needed a partner, or partners, in Congress who could put governance above party. But he struggled to win over even some of his own allies. Ben Nelson, the Democratic senator from Nebraska whom Obama helped elect, became an obstacle to health-care reform. Joe Lieberman, whom Obama saved from retribution at the hands of Senate Democrats after Lieberman campaigned for Obama’s 2008 opponent, John McCain, similarly obstructed Obamacare. Among Republicans, senators who had seemed amenable to Obama’s agenda—Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins, Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe—rebuffed him repeatedly.

The obstruction grew out of narrow political incentives. “If Republicans didn’t cooperate,” Obama told me, “and there was not a portrait of bipartisan cooperation and a functional federal government, then the party in power would pay the price and they could win back the Senate and/or the House. That wasn’t an inaccurate political calculation.”

But personal animus is just one manifestation of racism; arguably the more profound animosity occurs at the level of interests. The most recent Congress boasted 138 members from the states that comprised the old Confederacy. Of the 101 Republicans in that group, 96 are white and one is black. Of the 37 Democrats, 18 are black and 15 are white. There are no white congressional Democrats in the Deep South. Exit polls in Mississippi in 2008 found that 96 percent of voters who described themselves as Republicans were white. The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness. The researchers Josh Pasek, Jon A. Krosnick, and Trevor Tompson found that in 2012, 32 percent of Democrats held antiblack views, while 79 percent of Republicans did. These attitudes could even spill over to white Democratic politicians, because they are seen as representing the party of blacks. Studying the 2016 election, the political scientist Philip Klinkner found that the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was “Is Barack Obama a Muslim?”
From me in 2010:
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Left 

For his entire adult life, Barack Obama has succeeded by offering himself as the perfect midpoint between others. As a mathematical function, not a leader. As an averaging equation, not a true believer.

Since he showed up on the political radar, he has marketed himself relentlessly as
Half black and half white...
Half American urbanite, half world-citizen...
Half wonk, half preacher...
Half Harvard Yard, half Back o' the Yards...
Half red and half blue...
And this bone-deep reflex -- plus his formidable intellect and ability to rise to the rhetorical occasion -- would have prepared him perfectly for the Presidency...if this were 1960.

But it is not 1960 -- nor is he dealing with Harvard Conservatives pals or Springfield Republican pols -- and being a results-agnostic "process guy" when the process is utterly broken no longer works.

Instead, the ideologically-lockstepping Right led by Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers have found in Obama their perfect patsy: the Democrat who seems constitutionally incapable of counter-punching, who can only feel comfortable while suspended between two opposing positions and who will, therefor, find a compromise between opposites even when he has to invent wholly fictional opposing views to which he can cede half the playing field.

Lacking All Conviction

Mark Thoma directs us to an appalling story — apparently Obama held a meeting after the midterm to debate whether our unemployment problem is cyclical or structural.

What I want to know is, who was arguing for structural? I find it hard to think of anyone I know in the administration’s economic team who would make that case, who would deny that the bulk of the rise in unemployment since 2007 is cyclical. And as I and others have been trying to point out, none of the signatures of structural unemployment are visible: there are no large groups of workers with rising wages, there are no large parts of the labor force at full employment, there are no full-employment states aside from Nebraska and the Dakotas, inflation is falling, not rising.

More generally, I can’t think of any Democratic-leaning economists who think the problem is largely structural.
In order to avoid wasting his presidency, squandering the opportunity we have given him, and letting the country spiral into a permanent corporate feudal pest-hole, Barack Obama must do the hardest thing of all: he must exceed his design specifications. This is not unprecedented, but like Franklin Roosevelt the capitalist-turned-social-Democrat or Abraham Lincoln the compromiser-turned-Emancipator, Obama must let go of a central pillar of his identity and embrace the brutal fact that our modern house divided against itself cannot stand.

That we cannot endure permanently half-Fox and half-free.

That we will become all one thing, or all the other.

And that this is your fight, President Obama.

This burden has fallen to you: it cannot be shirked and cannot be delegated.

If you take up this challenge, millions of us will have your back, Mr. President.

But if you cannot summon the inner strength to evolve past your reflexive need to compromise with people who want to destroy you, then we are all well and truly fucked.

Nothing further to add and no point to make.

Just trying to coat-tail my way into the footnotes of some future edition of the "History of the Crazy Years".


Neo Tuxedo said...

The Coates piece is heartbreaking and mandatory.

drbopperthp said...

Lost original looonnnggg post - TNC can bite me - you and a bunch of others were first - don't need to read his derivative stuff.

Lit3Bolt said...

Instead, Obama kept chasing the magic compromise pony.

Did he get any political capital or credit from Comey?


Did he help sabotage his own legacy by appointing Comey, who used his office for partisan ends?

Cirze said...

And proving once again why I said from the first time I read you that you are the best blogger in the known world.


trgahan said...

He is still the best elected head of the executive branch of our Federal Government in 20 years.

He had his faults, but as Peter Fonda said in Easy Rider: "We blew it."...and I'd add an emphasis on the WE.

Tim said...

Groucho Marx observed - political analysis repeats itself:

In this instance - the first time written by Driftglass and not distributed widely.

The second time written by someone else and feted.

Tragic and farce elements - together again.

jim said...

Yep, you called it.

One of the last major official POTUS initiatives is expanding Presidential powers over drone strike policy, because even as a lame duck it's all about being helpful ... & for once the "Neville Chamberlain" meme count in the pestilent catacombs of the Lowry/Malkin/Limbaugh Axis Of Weevils stands at a resounding nil.

Robt said...

There is something everyone but Obama is responsible for over any faults, failures or unrealized policy.

He barely had a congress for 14 months.

That is on votes who couldn't get off the couch (or whatever) to vote midterms.

There is much more that could have been accomplished if he has a congress to work with.

He told us,
"you have a drink with Mitch McConnell". and " play golf" with the sniveling teary eyed Boehner

duquesnepdx said...

I really don't have a lot to say. Coates' article is a must read, though I'm not sure why he didn't just go write the book that he's obviously going to write at some point. But, as always, you stole the march on the political points years before anyone else was really looking at the issue.

Gaming the system to allow 80k votes to eclipse 2.8M votes is an impressive little feat. It's not only Obama's legacy that is going to suffer as a result, but the Great Society and New Deal initiatives that we take for granted. Ryan is going to burn the house down after he strips out the copper piping and wires, and laugh at the flames.
McConnell will bring any bill to the floor that makes the Dems cry, and refuse to vote on any bill that Dems might like. And Derp Fuhrer will probably have Pence forge his signature on bills, while rage tweeting about all of the traitorous pigs who won't kiss his ass.

I don't have any hope of anything better. I have no hope that the Dems can successfully block legislation, because getting Dems to work as one unit is like herding cats. All we can look forward to is the destruction of the system to a degree that no one can ever rebuild it.

Thanks, Brother Driftglass. Please keep up the fight.

SamB said...

Regarding the Krugman article from 2010, Bill Clinton was a big advocate of the theory that much unemployment was structural. He would point to the want-ads.

Today, structural unemployment shows up in the statistics as part of the low men's labor-force participation rate.

drbopperthp said...

“I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.”

~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Brother Duq'pdx - you ain't never lied.

dinthebeast said...

duquesnepdx: "the destruction of the system to a degree that no one can ever rebuild it."

We've been rebuilding it since they got off on the wrong foot at the beginning and forgot to include the bill of rights, so this isn't a fundamental change of goal, it's just a worsening of working conditions and a bunch of new clean-up tasks to occupy the next Democratic administration's attention through as much of their eighteen months of a favorable congress as possible. Hopefully, most of us will survive it. And all of those who do are gonna have to fight like hell, and hopefully that fight will end up being the tales of glory they get to tell their grandchildren.

-Doug in Oakland

banker puppy said...

Begging the author's pardon, but Obama will choose which fights are his to take up and which aren't. He has faced more in the last eight years than any of us can imagine, and has earned that right.

He'll have my back regardless, even if it's just golf.

Jimbo said...

Doug, you're right that America has been an ongoing experiment. But the GOP is now totally committed to destroying the Federal Government except for national security/oppression functions. That means essentially they are committed to an authoritarian oligarchy. To be implemented under a senile psychopath President that they will have little nominal control over. If they can get him impeached within six months they get their preferred patsy Pence. Of course, once the total dismantling starts happening then all bets are truly off for what happens to this country. That's what the stupid GOP shits just don't get; massive repression results in massive reaction and unpredictable consequences. The next several years are going to be dangerously wild.

Herb_Sage said...

Yeah, actually, you do have a lot to say.