Thursday, December 9, 2010
Is President Obama Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Is He a Battered Spouse in an Unhealthy Relationship with the Republican Party?
Two memes are circulating in the aftermath of Barack Obama's seeming surrender to the Tea Party GOP on a two year extension of Bush the Second's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and a deep cut in inheritance taxes in exchange for a one year continuation of the unemployment insurance needed by those Americans either on, or frighteningly close to being in, the bread line.
Some have suggested the Obama is a battered spouse in an unhealthy relationship, wherein the GOP emotionally abuses the President and holds his agenda hostage all the while playing a foul game of blame the victim. The second narrative suggests that Barack Obama is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Here, Obama is America's first Black President turned Patty Hearst, and is in a twisted relationship where he has come to identify with the hostage takers that are the Republican Party.
Both of these analogies seem a bit flat to me. True, the Republicans are obstructionists acting against the common good. But, President Obama has the greatest bully pulpit of all. He is President of the United States, the national cheerleader, champion of the national prosperity, and informal head of state. Obama also inherited a majority in Congress and a mandate for change. In total, the logger jam he finds himself in is 1) a function of a failure in communication where charismatic candidate Barack Obama has been replaced by a much too modest Adlai Stevensonesque persona and 2) he is dealing in a reasonable manner with clearly unreasonable people who are determined to see him--and the Democratic Party--fail at any cost.
Upon the beginning of his term, Obama (instead of slapping the Republican Party with a steel hand covered in silk) extended a naked hand of conciliation and friendship to mouth frothing ideologues. He was bitten because of his own willful and poor decision making. Consequently, President Obama is no battered spouse or hostage, as he is responsible for making his own bed and must now lie in it. In short, Barack Obama, the most powerful politician in the world, is a victim of his own doing.
The latter point is especially revealing as we try to make sense of President Obama's difficulties as of late.
Breaking kayfabe as I occasionally do: Several years ago a fellow traveler and colleague of mine studied under then Professor Obama. In the latter's constitutional law class there was a very outspoken, provocative, and often wrong student that was quite disruptive as he seemed to revel in contradicting a young professor--especially one (who was coincidentally) not White. Throughout the term, Professor Obama would handle him politely and delicately, in the best professorial sense finding merit in said student's comments and redirecting the course appropriately.
One day the seminar was discussing Reconstruction, the Emancipation of Black Americans, and the Equal Protection Clause. The arch-Conservative student in question suggested that African-Americans were not prepared for freedom, had not demonstrated a propensity for democracy, and would have been better off in a state of servitude until they could appreciate the fruits of liberty as taught by White people. Shocked, with students on the edge of their seats, Obama smiled, did not respond, and then once more salvaged this intentionally provocative, racially tinged, and disruptive set of assertions. Many students were stunned. The line of reasoning offered by our provocateur was both intellectually lazy and unfounded by the historical record. Obama could have destroyed this observation and the specious reasoning underlying it with little effort...what could and should have been a truly teachable moment. Instead, then Professor Obama chose to make lemonade by adding bar sugar to a noxious mix of rotten lemons.
In that moment President Obama signaled to a type of too good-natured naivete, and a belief in the generosity and reasonableness of people, that is to this day vexing his presidency. Because he is a preeminent compromiser, even when to his own detriment, Obama believes that you can deal reasonably with unreasonable people. Sadly you cannot. Just as bullies are encouraged by appeasement, Obama's version of realpolitik signals that he is trading territory for maneuver room. Unfortunately, the American people will be the losers in this gambit.
Question: Is President Obama playing a deep game of chess, the fruits of which we cannot see in the near term? Or, and it pains me to write this, is Obama in over his head, monsooned by the craziness that he faces by the lockstep, single-minded, "principled opposition?"