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Truth and Time

By Benj DeMott

A week is a long time in politics, as Tip O’Neil once said.

Obama’s first responses to Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts had even strong supporters wondering if the President was up to the job. (His vague line about the need for Congress to “coalesce” around the least controversial elements of healthcare reform was reminiscent of his first weak, CYA take on the Jeremiah Wright controversy.)

Obama had already begun to lose folks who’d once been over the moon about him. Uri Avnery zeroed in on one problem arising from Obama’s readiness to use the bully pulpit:

Obama’s numerous speeches are starting to tire people and are losing their appeal. When he turns his face from left to right and from right to left, from one teleprompter to the other, he starts to look like a mechanical doll. The millions viewing his speeches on TV see him turning to the left and turning to the right, but never really looking them in the eyes.

Obama’s comeback began when he looked and talked straight at G.O.P. House members in their now famous “question time” colloquy. That session, along with the day-long forum on healthcare reform he moderated two weeks later, made good on his campaign promise to cultivate real political debate. While commentators tended to damn the low level of discourse (on both sides of the argument), it’s not as if nothing was revealed. The G.O.P.’s rote talking points served to reiterate they had no plan to deal with the uninsured, insurance company abuses or escalating healthcare costs. One back and forth between Obama and McCain: “The campaign’s over, John.”/“’I’m reminded of that everyday.” – got lots of replays. But there was a richer exchange. After McCain objected to the deal done by Dems to get Florida Senator Nelson’s vote, Obama said plainly: “You’re right.” Obama’s affirmation brought McCain up short. He stammered – his eyes rolling up and then looking down as if ground was moving beneath him. It wasn’t just that he’d been off the “straight talk express” for too long. (In truth, he was never really on one since his once-vaunted frankness was largely a private thing between him and the press.) Here was Obama, not shooting from the hip, but calmly showing how one takes an opponent’s point crisply in public (while showing up McCain’s bad loser bluster). A display of fairness and intellectual command that punctuated Obama’s knack for hearing out G.O.P. hacks before taking apart their arguments.

Hype about Obama’s oratorical gifts tends to deflect attention from his skills as a listener. Andrew Sprung links Obama’s performance at the Healthcare Summit with a bit in David Remnick’s biography about Obama's participation from 1997-2000 in the Saguaro Seminars on civic engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School. Obama wasn’t well known then but he attracted attention quickly. According to the seminar’s leader:

The striking feature was his style in the discussion of hot topics with a lot of big egos. His style was to step back and listen. There were some important people who looked pretty bored; he was not, he was following. He carefully listened. Bill Clinton is also a power listener, but Obama, who has this capacity, is less forward than Clinton in letting you know what he thinks. But then he would say, "I hear Joe Smith saying X, and Nancy saying Y, but I think Joe and Nancy actually agree on Z" and it wouldn't be pabulum. It is not a trivial thing to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch. It's a personal skill or a personality trait. I don't think I have ever seen that same ability in anyone else.

Sprung explains how Obama exercised his "synthesizing technique" during the Healthcare Summit. Obama seized on any “little scrap of Republican input that he could dub a ‘good idea’” and “pointed out core elements of the bill - the insurance exchanges, the Medicare commission, the individual mandate - were ideas with Republican pedigrees.” But he was fully aware he was engaged in political combat. His nods to Republicans served to demonstrate his side’s sweet (and winning) reasonableness even as he “repeatedly exposed contradictions and transparent bad faith in Republican positions.”

Wannabe public intellectuals often imagine they're too pure for Obama's soft soap. They regularly trash his power listening, equatiing it wtih what Gary Wills contemptuously calls “omni-directional placation.” (While Wills objects to placating others, he’s inclined to kiss his own white ass as per this pale pearl from his 2009 goodbye-to-all-that blog post on Obama: “I was deeply invested in the success of our first African-American president.”) Obama's pure haters tend to miss the stones behind his style. Unlike garden variety pols, Obama’s career has been founded on ballsy clarity as well as cozy stories. He may flatter audiences but he has a habit of telling them things they don’t want to hear. (Just think on him making a case for Just Wars as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Obama’s candor (and ear) helped give Democrats the heart to pass healthcare reform.


A day before Democrats’ crucial legislative victory in the House, conservative Times columnist David Brooks published a piece bemoaning “The Broken Society.” He commended a case for a new communitarianism made by a British intellectual with ties to UK’s Conservative Party. The timing of Brooks’ Tory dreaming seemed odd. Instead of noting Democrats were on the verge of mounting a heavy challenge to anti-social, market-is-final morality that’s ruled American politics since Reagan, Brooks looked far away. Claiming to feel a “fresh political wind” from across the pond, he refused to recognize Obama and Democrats had just got their second wind here.

Healthcare reform had certain nego “progressives” in denial too. After the bill finally passed, Lawrence O’Donnell, a Huffington poster and MSNBC talking head, distanced himself (on Olbermann’s Countdown show) from “many” who’d given up on health care reform during the year-long struggle to enact it. But after Scott Brown’s election, O’Donnell – who was Democratic Senate Finance Committee staff director during the 92-93 health care debate – insisted there was no chance the Senate bill would pass the House. According to him, it was “juvenile” and “ridiculous” to suggest otherwise.

O’Donnell wasn’t simply wrong. He actively encouraged opposition to reform from the left by talking up Kucinich’s and Michael Moore’s contempt for Democrats’ healthcare compromises. His hope against hope attitude showed forth during the run-up to final passage. Seizing on an inarticulacy of Pelosi’s, he tried to raise doubts (on Countdown) about the Speaker’s confidence level going into the votes.

Reporter Ezra Klein was around to kill that noise, noting (tactfully but firmly) he’d been at Pelosi’s press conference and had detected no sign of jitters. Over the past year, Klein became mainline media’s most authoritative voice on the content of healthcare reform and its prospects. You knew where he stood, but he didn’t spin. Klein unwound a bit, though, once the House finally passed The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Still his Washington Post summary of its significance was careful as well as triumphal:

I don’t want to suggest this bill is all progressive victories. It isn’t. It isn’t single-payer and there’s no public option, and though I think the excise tax is a progressive tax, I grant that reasonable people disagree on this matter. But the fact of it is that this bill represents an enormous leftward shift for American social policy. It is not, in my view, a sufficient leftward shift, but it is unmatched by anything that has passed into law in recent decades. Progressives have lost some very hard battles but are on the cusp of winning an incredibly important war. For all its imperfections, health-care reform itself is deeply, deeply progressive. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the conservatives who have made opposing it their top priority.

You could start with the right-wing blogger who called my attention to this graph of Klein’s, claiming it revealed: “There’s another word for progressive in its present day meaning. And that word is fascist.”

Last words here come from an anonymous voice and then an echoing, notorious one. Forgive me for not recalling how I happened to read (and save) the following passage which I ran into somewhere on the internet. But perhaps my bad adds a certain homiletic quality to this commentary:

Nearly any of the great political advances in American history, viewed from ground level, looked like a pastiche of grubby compromises and half measures. At some point the imperative is to take the broader view. If they ever do that…the critics from the hysterical right, delusional left, and the sullen center will feel ashamed.

Non-believers who fancy they're beyond such political categories won't try to hear this voice. But - what the hey - maybe Johnny Rotten can get past their...unique defenses. Rotten went out of his way in a recent interview to propose he might write a song about healthcare reform since it was a "wonderful thing."

Change, don't be frightened of change. It can only be for the better. My God it's the first time I think ever in American history the government's actually trying to stop people from being ripped off.

From April, 2010

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