The Philosopher Knows?

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.

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3 Responses to The Philosopher Knows?

  1. Just me says:

    Your ire regarding the President’s strategy reminds me of something I heard on a call in show on NPR yesterday. A disappointed liberal called in and said that Pres. Obama is letting down his base by not being a more aggressive liberal and that his base wants him to be a more partisan political warrior (I paraphrased of course).

    This got me to thinking, why do partisan liberals believe that they are Pres. Obama’s base? Who determines who “the base” is? I would venture a different view of who Pres. Obama’s base is: centrist independents who are fed up with government partisanship. Specifically, social liberals who don’t necessarily vote in every election principally because they are turned off by political BS. If I remember right, Obama owned the center during the 2008 election. Yes, he also owned the left, but its not like those people were going to vote for McCain. Heck, candidate Obama’s slogans were all about change, not trading one partisan for another.

    If Pres. Obama makes a sharp left turn and becomes the liberal partisan warrior that some would like him to be, he will alienate what I believe to be his base. I would certainly think twice about voting for an aggressively partisan Obama if the Republicans put up a moderate candidate (and if it seemed a safe bet that the Senate would remain in Democratic hands).

    I heard Obama make some remarks earlier this week that lead me to believe that he gets this. I will have to paraphrase again, but Obama was responding to the 10:1 cuts to tax increase question during the recent republican primary debate. In a nut shell, he said that the republicans lack common sense and that he would do what is right before doing what is politically expedient.

    Btw…I think all of this jives well Mr. Wolff’s theory. It is, I think, right on the money with his “Shouter v. Debater” concept where the republicans are the shouters and Obama is the debater. The Shouter’s followers become more loud and extreme, the Debater’s followers become frustrated and demand that the Debater step up his arguments, but the neutral observers (the group I believe to be Obama’s true base) become increasing comfortable with the Debater.

    The trick now is to get Obama’s base – people who are almost by definition not reliable on voting day – to the polls.

    • Altoid says:

      The difficulty with Just me’s point is that while the bulk of BHO’s votes probably did come from moderates and centrists, the energy and ground-level organization that got out the vote for him in 2008 didn’t come from centrists but from the more leftish side of the spectrum. They’re who made the phone calls, set out the signs, went door-to-door with the fliers and handouts, persuading moderates to go Obama’s way. Hippie-punching, passivity, and the pattern of negotiating with himself to give up strong positions fill them with despair and in some cases disgust.

      Anecdote: daughter of friends, a high-school student in ’08, led the county in calls and other get-out-the-vote work, all voluntary. This time she’s not going to lift a finger. Her parents are on the fence about voting for spoilers.

      In some respects this was foreshadowed by the transformation of OFA into a White House operation that really hasn’t done anything since January 2009, so far as I know (they have me on their email list). It could have remained a strong and extensive organization with a little watering and a little policy attention. Instead, the campaign will either have to try rebuilding OFA on the base of disappointed and punched-out hippies, or else try blanketing the airwaves with tv ads paid for by hundreds of millions, or billions, of bankster dollars.

  2. David says:

    I don’t know that I’d agree that it’s a worthwhile strategy. Given how alienated the majority of “red-state” folks feel from politics in general and liberal/left/democratic policies specifically, I think it’d take a serious and concerted effort to be frothing-at-the-mouth crazy to get a large amount of “wow, those guys are nuts, let’s vote for Obama because he’s not that“. I think Matt Taibbi’s recent article on Michelle Bachmann hits the nail on the head when he says folks who are religious (or on the right/tea party, whatever,) often feel mocked by the left and Bachmann’s rise is indicative not of their support for her but of their response to how they feel treated by the “left”.

    All of those people out there aren’t voting for Michele Bachmann. They’re voting against us. And to them, it turns out, we suck enough to make anyone a contender.

    On paper, it’s hard to see how you could do worse than Bachmann, but she’s getting support hand over fist, and it’s not all because she’s photogenic. If this really is Obama’s strategy, I think it’s poorly conceived.

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