Friday, December 16, 2011

To Obama or not to Obama?

As the Republican primary heats up, with Steve Forbes recently assuming pole position despite early setbacks in the 1996 primaries, I find myself thinking about my vote. Four years ago I got myself quite worked-up over supporting Obama. I bombarded Facebook with political posts and debates and wore slightly-subversive T-shirts with slogans like "Barack to the Future" on BYU campus. Family members suspected me of drinking the Hope and Change flavored Obama Kool-Aid, but it wasn't a new thing - the first sin against my conservative upbringing* occurred years before when I voted for John Kerry. Still, Kerry was just okay - certainly better than the alternative, I thought - but Obama was actually exciting. He seemed vibrant and passionate, genuinely committed to breaking the nasty gridlock and venom that had characterized the previous eight years...and the eight years before that.**

I told people then, as I do now, that I knew Obama was really a politician at heart. For all his grandiose rhetoric he was never going to fundamentally alter the vilifying, posturing, and horse-trading that characterizes democratic politics. You can't take the politics out of politics, the saying goes. Still, I allowed myself to hope things could be a little different, if for no other reason than that the Democrats controlled the Presidency and the entire Congress. Hell, I thought, the Republicans were able to slash taxes and invade all sorts of sovereign nations when they were in charge; now maybe the Dems can get some things done (first order of business: raise taxes to responsible levels and withdraw from sovereign nations. Can't build a foundation until you've cleaned out the mess first...)

That dichotomy, between what I hoped Obama would do and what he actually did, leaves me where I am. Candidate Obama portrayed himself as a principled reformer who would push to withdraw all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, roll back Bush-era infringements on civil liberties, and enact proactive policies to pull us from the deepening recession. His tax policies would forestall the upward distribution of wealth and block oligarchy, and he would work toward guaranteeing universal healthcare. Though Obama actively cultivated that image (unlike the dry, bureaucratic Kerry), much of it existed as a projection of my own and of the broader liberal mind. He was Superegobama. Despite my pragmatism I allowed myself to be swept up a little bit in the excitement and the possibilities of what Suberegobama could do.

Having duly set myself up for disappointment, I watched the president go to work. Superegobama quickly gave way to Egobama. The compromiser. The technocrat. The ambitious politician seeking reelection (this is not necessarily a criticism - an unambitious politician is like an overweight marathon runner; it doesn't happen). Egobama pushed through a stimulus plan over loud protests of opponents, but the it ended up in the no-man's land of being too small to be truly effective and too unfocused and pork-filled to avoid legitimate criticism. Thus the door was opened for critics who reject mainstream economics to claim that it was just wasteful government spending. Democrats were left defending the unprovable counter-factual that it probably would have been worse otherwise.

Egobama passed sweeping healthcare reform, but at the without the best liberal idea (the public option) and the best conservative one (separating plans from employment). He also left Congress to write most of the bill and declined to use what Teddy Roosevelt wonderfully termed the bully pulpit to push for the most liberal aspects of the plan, which were largely cut in the end. The result was probably better than we we had but has been subject to judicial challenges and the worst kind of vilification. As Mitt Romney discovered, despite the individual mandate for private insurance being literally rooted in conservative thought, it's different when the other team proposes it. Like many liberal-types, my thought was, "If you're going to get hammered anyway you might as well swing for the fences" but Egobama disagreed.

In foreign policy Egobama kept his bargain to withdraw from Iraq, albeit more slowly than I hoped, but military actions in Libya and elsewhere shows that he's not very serious about limiting US exploits abroad. Not much of a surprise there, but what really disappoints me is how eagerly he pushed to broaden and codify the expansive executive powers claimed by his predecessor in the name of fighting terrorism. This includes assuming authority to imprison and execute anyone, including US citizens, without trial for having alleged ties to terrorists. While I don't buy the black-helicopter warnings that we're a police state as a result, it's disheartening that the president placed military expediency over civil liberties. Even if these broad powers will be used to go after genuinely Bad People, as I suspect Obama truly believes, to me it's irrelevant. The rule of law exists for the guilty as well as the innocent, and even if no innocent people are harmed by these policies (which I doubt), that's no excuse for what Obama's done to undermine traditional liberal values in this area.

I could go on, but the tricky part ultimately is decoding who the real Obama is. Is my Superegobama fictional or aspirational? Is Egobama pragmatic or ineffectual? Is he frustrated by circumstances or proud of his accomplishments? While my views are still fluid, my Grand Unified Theory of Obama (such as it is) is that he's a high-minded professorial-type with charisma, a policy wonk with limited executive ability who is genuinely liberal in most areas but more hawkish than he'd like most of his supporters to believe, and who probably believes that risking violations of civil liberties is acceptable as long as leaders don't abuse it. He probably hoped that his election, in the wake of Bush-backlash, would create a rallying effect that would lead to most Americans celebrating his agenda, and has been surprised at the intensity of his opposition.

Speaking of the opposition.... Without going too much into how I feel about the Tea Party and all that, I've decided that the right-wing responses to Obama are not, as some liberal commentators believe, divorced from objective reality ("How can you say Obama is a socialist when he's compromised away almost every liberal stance he's taken?" is the refrain), but is a sort of mirror of the same dichotomy I've been describing. For the Right, Obama's calls for working together and ending partisan bickering was code for "let's all do things my way now". With the Democratic Congress, that seemed plausible and probably a little frightening. Conservatives developed their own Superegobama, one who represented government intrusion in their private lives, in bureaucratic meddling.

For many conservatives, I think the president's actions reinforced their Superegobama from the start (this is excluding factually challenged news outlets like Fox News and talk radio, which obviously played their own role in promoting Obama the Evil Socialist, but I'm trying to be charitable here!) The stimulus, which did not reverse the recession, must have proved Obama's commitment to huge government. Expanding healthcare, which never affected most likely Republican voters, was a handout to the lazy at the expense of the hard-working middle class. The compromising Egobama decried by liberals is less important because of basic psychology: it's easier to see nuance with people you generally agree with than with your opponents.***  To the Extent Egobama matters for the right, it is to portray Obama as a poor leader who can't get anything done (which tends to contradict the sinister Obama with a wicked master plan, but politics and consistency are often strangers). Perhaps years from now, when the emotion has subsided, conservatives will view Obama as many tend to see Clinton: a man they disagreed with who probably wasn't all that terrible. So liberals like me contrast our lofty Superegobama with Egobama and come away a little disappointed, where conservatives mostly just see their own terrifying Superegobama.

Not that I think all things are equal on both sides, and that the only differences are of perception. I believe that the liberal side is generally more correct and that the conservative one, although those labels represent such a broad spectrum of beliefs that they can often become meaningless (eg I'm grouping libertarianism with conservatives even though some libertarians would be outraged over that). Whoever emerges from the Republican field will probably not represent my perspective as well as I still think Obama does - the GOP Super-candidate-ego will likely annoy me. Yet Superegobama, tempered by Egobama, can't inspire the same devotion as before. Obama is a known quantity now. I might vote for him again, but maybe not. My biggest area of disagreement with him is civil liberties, and I have no confidence in any Republican to do better+. Should I judge Obama based on what what I hoped he would do (semi-fail), what I actually expected him to do (mostly pass), or what I expect his opponent would do differently? Perhaps Romney or Huntsman will wow me, but realistically, the choice will probably come down to "will I vote for Obama or not vote?" There are sound economic reasons for not voting, especially in Utah... we'll see.

When the presidential campaign eventually becomes the One on One slugfest we know and love, it's not going to be fought over specific policies and issues. Those are the ammunition, but the war, as always, will be over grandiose ideals, over all-encompassing Visions of America, over who will lead us to Peace and Prosperity and who will lead to Darkness and Depravity. Whether it's true is beside the point, but it's good theater. The important thing to remember is that this is a clash of superegos, and superegos don't govern. In a democracy, that's probably a good thing. Candidate superegos are born in campaigns, incubated and promoted by supporters and opponents, and they haunt elected officials afterword for better or worse. Some survive office (or not) with their superegos intact, but I suspect most have to wait a few years for the it to rise up again, hopefully as a beacon for future believers. Ask a Republican about FDR or a Democrat about Reagan to see how that goes.


*How conservative? The first political book I remember reading was Rush Limbaugh's "See, I Told you So", followed by "The Way Things Ought to Be".  Not to mention almost every issue of the National Review during my High School years. Nobody could say that my defection from conservatism wasn't based on incomplete information.

**And the two hundred years before that

***I saw the same thing with President Bush - some liberals practically labeled him the second coming of Hitler, with all sorts of dark and evil motives (Sadly, Superegobush is not nearly as catchy a name). I think it's telling that the liberal impression of his presidency that has reasserted itself is similar to the one that prevailed before 9/11 and the hyper-partisan atmosphere created by Iraq and all that: that he was a semi-incompetent but well-intentioned bumbler surrounded by some bad apples who made some terrible decisions. Fascist? Not so much.

+Except for Ron Paul. And let me be emphatically clear, in case you missed my last post, that I am not a fan. Though I really like some of his ideas, I believe his stated policy goals would hurt a lot of people, most of them poorer than me, and that (along with his monetary goals of unprecedented deflation and, well, let's not get into that) more than any other concern disqualifies him as a legitimate candidate.


  1. I hope to contribute something more substantive in a couple of days, but for now I'm just going to say this: every time I read either Superegobama or Egobama, my mind read it as Oberammergau--which I find somehow appropriate in its own surreal way.

  2. I'm just afraid for the day when Idbama rears its ugly head.