78 Obama: Against Indolence

If I have any following as a writer at all, it’s because of what I have written about politics in the past. With the exception of some essays that focused on events in the Middle East, this project has for the most part steered clear of politics. But today, I’m going to dive into the riddle of Barack Obama.

The left is getting uneasy. President Obama has proven to be an unreliable supporter of liberal causes. But I think any fair observer would say that the President isn’t so much reliable as he is complicated … and maybe that complication goes with the job.

Montaigne’s argument is that a king should have the courage to lead and fight in every battle they command. President Bush’s codpiece wearing flight suit “Mission Accomplished” gear aside, our Presidents keep a safe distance from putting on the military garb, otherwise they look ridiculous like the fatigue wearing Fidel Castro or end up with an absurd  title like Colonel Qaddafi. I mean, seriously, what kind of dictator can’t promote himself above the rank of Colonel?

A more apt version today would concern political warfare – that a President should be out there fighting for the base that stands with him through thick and thin:

We ought often to remind kings of it to make them realize that the great charge entrusted to them is no idle one and that there is nothing which can make a subject more rightly lose his taste for exposing himself to trouble and danger in the service of his prince than to see him meanwhile indolently engaged in occupations base and frivolous, nor lose his concern for his protection than to see him indifferent to ours.

It’s a fair concern – liberals who stuck their neck out for a public option in the health care bill, for a second job-creating economic stimulus bill, for repealing the Bush tax cuts and for staying out of a third war in the Middle East have all been marginalized by the President’s acts. For all the slings and arrows the President has taken from birthers and red baiters, his strongest supporters have been left even more exposed, to the point that Democrats were annihilated at the polls last November while Obama himself seems to stand a decent shot at his own re-election.

But following Montaigne’s lead, perhaps the problem isn’t with the President, but with us. Why do liberals expect that this President or any President has the power to “shift the narrative” and make liberalism more appealing to the masses? Isn’t that the job of liberal activists – to make the ideology more relevant and appealing, so that politicians feel empowered by it, not frightened away?

What Seneca said would not fit badly here:

the Ancient Romans kept their youth on their toes, teaching their boys nothing which had to be learned sitting down.

A job of a President, like the king on a chessboard, is to stay alive. A President must do everything in his or her power to remain relevant and capable of moving public opinion. Any President who sees the job as an opportunity for a crusade is asking for a quick demise:

It is no use stubborning it out and taking risks: it seems that blows avoid those who gaily expose themselves to them and never willingly land on those who too willingly face them and thus spoil their intention.

A good sign of when a President is in trouble is when he starts to boast that he will “risk his Presidency” on a certain action. Making such a statement – in the case of Vietnam with LBJ, Iraq with GWB and perhaps health care with Obama – seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy:

Many a man, unable to manage to get killed by the might of the enemy, despite assaying every way to keep his vow to return with victory or not at all, has been constrained to kill himself in the very heat of battle.

The best Presidents are those who understand public opinion so well that they can slip and slide with ease, never having to risk it all on a single action:

The ultimate degree of treating death courageously, and the most natural one, is to face it not only without amazement but without worry, extending the ordinary course of your life right into death. As Cato did, who spent his time in sleep and study while keeping present in his head and heart that violent bloody death and holding it in his palm.

To close, I thought in 2006 before he announced his candidacy that Barack Obama might be the rare individual who could have more impact on American culture in the Senate than as President. Because of his oratorical gifts, Obama had the opportunity to shape discourse alone without having to be embroiled in the day to day policy muck.

I think my instincts are being borne out. That isn’t to say that President Obama is ineffective, just that he’s pretty typical of any President in current conditions, left or right. He’s adapting to the moment, not shaping it. That will probably help him stay alive on the chess board long enough to win a second term.

But to those who thought he might lead a progressive realignment in American politics, he may have surrendered the power to do that the day he announced his candidacy for President.

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