Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rich on Obama

Frank Rich sets  forth the non-crazy (that would be me) critique of Obama, remarkably fair-minded in that, as he undertakes to explain, he doesn't really buy it:
To many, he is not and never really was a progressive, only a cautious pragmatist who pandered to primary voters in 2008 .... . Many see him as far too wedded to a naive and platonic ideal of bipartisanship that amounts to unilateral political disarmament when confronting an opposition party as nihilistic and cynical as the current GOP.  He lacks a fierceness in battle ... . 
--Frank Rich, "Why Has He Fallen Short?" New York Review of Books 10 (August 19, 2010)

Rich thereupon attempts to identify a rather different shortcoming: Obama's "elitism," in the sense that he figured a system that churned him to the top must be able to generate the best and the brightest.  Rich also sketches a case that the Rasputin of the piece is Larry Summers, the comforter of the comfortable and (if you credit Rich) the sharp-elbowed political infighter who can keep the noisome clangor of competing voices from penetrating the office.

Rich's account of Obama's elitism sounds like a shrewd call.  As to Summers, I don't suppose I (or you) know enough to judge, although it would be a good joke if we found unsuspected Richelieu qualities in a guy hitherto notorious for his legendary inability to tie his political shoelaces together.  In any event, you know who it is who works for the tsar.

Rich actually adds one more item to the catalog of conventional complaints outlined above.  I omitted it until now because it requires special attention.  Rich:
Obama is also faulted by disappointed fans for his surprisingly subpar political skills.  The master orator who left millions of Americans fired up and ready to go during election season has often come off as aloof once in office, and has proven a surprisingly prolix and lackluster salesman for his own policies.
 That's probably a pretty accurate account  of the conventional wisdom but I'm going to count myself as one who was not surprised.  I liked and like a lot of things about Obama, and I don't for a moment regret voting for him.  But the kumbaya campaign speeches made my skin crawl.  I recognized that they might be necessary to get him elected.  But for the long slog of office, I didn't see how they could do him anything but harm--building expectations he couldn't satisfy, seeming to make promises that he couldn't or wouldn't keep.  And they certainly showed none of the skill at the kind of rhetorical blood sports he was bound to need to sell is program.

I once called Obama an empty suit.  Except in a highly attenuated sense, this was wrong; he's certainly a person of substance, and he has more poise and staying power than I saw.    But reading Rich, I think I can hew to another earlier judgment of mine: I'm not that disappointed in him because I never really expected that much of him in the first place.

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