Saturday, August 22, 2009

Shock and Awe in Obama's America

I have mentioned before how much I admire Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman. He is intelligent and he provides great insight in his columns for the New York Times.

Today's column is a good example. Here is how it begins:
"According to news reports, the Obama administration — which seemed, over the weekend, to be backing away from the 'public option' for health insurance — is shocked and surprised at the furious reaction from progressives.

"Well, I'm shocked and surprised at their shock and surprise.

"A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months. The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it's also a proxy for broader questions about the president's priorities and overall approach."

Krugman writes in the context of the health care reform debate, but that pretty well describes the last seven months in general.

In all candor, Krugman does a better job than I have of explaining what was at the heart of my own misgivings over Obama last year and why, in the end, even though I am a Democrat, I chose to vote for Ralph Nader. People asked me why, and all I could say was that I wasn't comfortable with Obama.

I wanted to be comfortable with him. I really did. I knew I wasn't comfortable with the McCain–Palin ticket, but, try as I might, I just couldn't trust Obama enough to give him my vote.

At the time, I think I was bothered by the fact that I didn't feel he had been adequately tested by the nominating process.

In modern times, the presidential primary season has served as a trial by fire for wannabe leaders. Most of them — even the eventual nominees — get bloodied along the way, but the ones who prevail are the ones who pass the test. I guess it isn't desirable for politicians who want to be universally loved, but it tends to be reassuring for the rest of us. It tells us that the candidate in question can — in the words of the old Timex commercials — take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

In spite of what some people seem to think, that is more important than knowing that a president is savvy when it comes to the latest technology.

But Obama has never really been tested that way. He was practically handed his Senate seat in 2004. Obama won the 2008 nomination over Hillary Clinton, who was promptly slapped down by progressive Democrats when she tried to challenge the myths that progressives perpetuated about him. When President Clinton tried to do the same thing, he was practically booed off the national stage.

Then, in the general election campaign, John McCain's rebukes were so mild one had to wonder if he harbored some irrational belief that he might yet win some black votes if he wasn't too critical of "The One." He was just critical enough to avoid charges of pandering to black voters — perhaps because he was sensitive to such charges after choosing a woman running mate in what was widely seen as a move to appeal to disenchanted Hillary Clinton supporters.

So an inexperienced and untested Barack Obama was elected president. And, right away, he began seeking bipartisan consensus with bitter and ideologically rigid Republicans, making concession after concession while the minority party made none — and gave his stimulus package almost no congressional support.

Obama didn't learn from that experience. He continues to yield ground to foes who have shown no willingness to work with him.

"It's hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can't be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled," Krugman writes.

Another problem, which Krugman doesn't really address in his column, is the fact that, for all the praise he has received for his oratorical skills and political instincts, Obama has frequently seemed to be tone deaf — making almost casual statements that bring down public wrath unnecessarily and force the White House to backpedal at times when it needs to be leading the charge.

"So progressives are now in revolt," Krugman concludes. "Mr. Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it. And now he needs to win it back."

Is there enough time?

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