It is Sept. 14, 2011, and we are at war. I’m not talking about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan; the secret CIA-lead wars in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia (and who knows where else); or even the “War on Terror.” No, the United States is in the middle of a civil war — a political civil war, ironically fought along many of the same geographic, racial and ideological lines that still stem from the last. Although the consequences are perhaps not as clear-cut as the physical division of our nation, they are nonetheless grave.
We are faced with a rabid right wing that for two years has shown that it is willing to hurt this country to win politically. Even before Obama’s election it was clear that both the Republican Party and a large portion of this country — for reasons ranging from political strategy, to ideology to, yes, Barack Obama’s race — would never regard his presidency as legitimate. It’s not something they have ever been secret about; note the many examples, from Rush Limbaugh’s post-inaugural “I hope he fails,” to the political terrorism of the debt ceiling crisis and Senator Mitch McConnell’s expressed intentions to use hostage taking as a modus operandi for the future.
This isn’t a rant about the Tea Party. What I am concerned about is Obama’s lack of response to this small but determined foe that has neither the desire, nor in truth, the political self-interest in compromising and responsible cogovernance. Obama’s desire to be the president not of a blue nor red America, but a United States of America, where politicians from both parties put aside their differences and embrace rationality and compromise was and is a fantasy about being president of a nation that does not exist.
For two years thus far, Obama has been content to play George McClellan when we really need a full-fledged William Tecumseh Sherman. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 knew who his opponents were, and recognized the reality he faced. He said, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Obama has shirked from his enemy’s hatred, and thus from the duty that his historic moment called him to.
The list of caves, concessions, pre-concessions and one-sided compromises goes on and on — too numerous to chronicle in detail in this limited space. They paint the story of an administration that from the beginning was too timid to marshal its enormous electoral mandate in support of the bold changes it promised — an administration that was focused on process when what mattered was policy, that plays into bully dynamics yet refuses to play the bully pulpit — an administration that refuses to play ball on it’s own home turf, and instead cedes the ideological debate from the onset by adopting right-wing rhetoric where the government is analogous to a family tightening its belt.
The result has been an increasingly emboldened opposition that has learned to demand more concessions and move the goalposts because it knows that when push comes to shove, Obama folds. For example, when he extended the Bush tax cuts, he was asked by a reporter why he did not include a debt-ceiling raise in the agreement to prevent Republicans using it as leverage. Obama’s response? “I’ll take John Boehner at his word … once [he] is sworn in as speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern.” Will someone remind me how that one worked out again?
Obama may want to be the adult in the room, but what most Americans want are results. We want to see a president who stands for something, draws a line in the sand when the issue deserves it and fights for what he believes in. Don’t tell me its all about Congress either — the recent Congress-less cave on EPA regulations that once again plays into false conservative talking points says otherwise.
Had his administration spent half as much energy pushing an ideology and fighting the political opponents that see the President as an evil threat to America as Rahm Emmanuel did calling his supporters an unprintable obscenity for trying to keep alive a politically popular public option component in his Heritage Foundation-based health care bill, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. The real sadness is that, like McClellan, Obama is so afraid of fighting a real battle, that he (and we) will never have a chance to win the war.
Will progressives desert him en masse in 2012? Most are too scared of Rick Perry to consider sitting the next election out, or trying to mount a primary challenge. Indeed the most persuasive argument Obama has left to offer his trampled base is to point to the current field of Republican candidates, something that should make any reasonable person cower in fear. But as far as campaign slogans go, “It’s Either Me or Michelle Bachmann” is a far cry from “Yes We Can,” or “Yes We Did.”