The best argument I have seen for there being a method in what seems to me to be the madness of President Obama’s passivity in the face of his opponents’ political insanity is The Shadow by Robert Paul Wolff, a noted philosopher, long-time (white) professor of Afro-American Studies, and recent and enthusiastic convert to blogging.
Wolff argues eloquently that the Obama strategy is to entice his opponents into ever-greater extremism (as if that took effort?) until they reach the point that they turn off their followers. It is possible that this is a correct reading of the Obama playbook or of his instincts. And while it is possible that this is a good strategy for a community organizer, I still believe it is a crummy way to govern because of all the pain it allows while one waits for the tectonic plates to decide if they want to shift.
I wish I could buy Wolff’s argument, I’d be more cheerful. I don’t, because I think it understates the ability of the Presidency to change the political landscape, both by use of presidential power, and by moving the frame of what is considered first possible than normal. And it creates a false dichotomy in which the only alternative to passivity is anger; in fact the alternative to passivity is boldness.
Obama claims to admire Ronald Reagan. Reagan did not seek bipartisanship as an end in itself, although it’s clear that part of his strategy was geared to northern lunchpail Democrats, and Southern religious mostly-whites. Reagan made a point of looking bold and in doing things that would never command a consensus — like breaking the Air Traffic Control union. Reagan, though, had the advantage of a less disciplined opposition party than the one Obama faces, and this too is a part of Wolff’s argument as to why the Obama patience is a good strategy. It’s not a long essay and it’s worth a read.
As we used to say, and as Wolff seems to be saying, you don’t fight fire with fire — you fight it with water.
Update: I wonder if Wolff was reacting to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s remark (about Rick Perry’s first gaffe as a Presidential candidate) that,
It’s almost as if Obama has this mutant power to compel these guys into charging, full steam, into a wall of spikes.