16 December 2010

Who does Obama represent?

Ever since I read an op-ed by Ishmael Reed in the New York Times I've had mixed feelings about it. Reed criticizes progressives who criticize the President for being insufficiently combative in his comments on the Republican opposition. He writes that white progressives fail to understand that an angry Obama will inevitably be perceived as just another angry black man, and presumes that Obama would lose popularity if he used the same kind of anti-Republican rhetoric that boosted Harry Truman's popularity back in 1948.

Reed also takes a passing ad hominem swipe at white progressives. Their quickness to anger when their will is thwarted to any extent, he suggests, is proof that they're spoiled. "Unlike white progressives," he writes, "blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all." To this he adds cryptically, "They know when not to shout."

In the context of this article, Reed seems to mean that, like poor people of color, Obama knows better than to shout when it will only get him into deeper trouble. In the same article, he chides white progressives for making things more difficult for the President and possibly alienating minorities from the progressive movement. This raises a question: is Reed saying that white progressives should learn "when not to shout?" If so, why? What's the risk to them? Should they fear reprisal from the same people who usually take reprisals against "angry" or "militant" minorities? Or should they fear reprisal from the minorities themselves, who seem likely, Reed insinuates, to take offense if white progressives continue to criticize the President? He assumes that white progressives think that Obama is answerable to them only. "When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves," he writes, "They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos." Does that mean that white progressives should show deference, if not to the President himself, then to his minority loyalists, whether or not they're the majority of the President's party? Does Reed mean that the President is less answerable to white progressives than to other Democratic constituencies? The thing to bear in mind while asking this question is that Reed isn't even attempting to defend the President's record, as many Obama loyalists of all colors have tried to do. Instead, he's writing against criticisms of the President's "deportment," as Reed puts it. His moral is that the President is under no obligation to give voice to the anger of his self-styled progressive supporters, and is better off not doing so for reasons white progressives are too tone-deaf or color-blind to understand.

Reed wrote his piece a few days before Jonah Goldberg's latest column appeared, but the latter article is an interesting counterpoint to Reed's defense of Obamian cool. Goldberg does comment in a somewhat patronizing way on a display of presidential anger, but in context his criticisms prove to be a kind of backhanded compliment. Ironically enough, the object of Obama's anger in Goldberg's account is the "purist" (i.e. progressive?) wing of the Democratic party that opposes the compromise between the President and GOP leaders that extended unemployment benefits in return for a continuation of Bush-lowered tax rates for the rich. While Obama's "undisciplined diatribe" against the "purists" reminded Goldberg of "Charlie Sheen without his Ritalin," he also sees it as a "part of growing up" that is admittedly "painful" for a President who has had to admit, the columnist believes, that he was wrong in his approach to governing. As Goldberg sees it, Obama contrasted himself to Sen. Clinton during the 2008 primaries by portraying the presidency as a bully pulpit from which he could lead primarily with inspirational rhetoric, while Clinton argued for the pragmatic necessity of old-school deal-making and arm-twisting. In Goldberg's account, Obama was compelled to resort to Clintonian tactics to get his healthcare bill passed because he'd failed to persuade the public with rhetoric alone.

Whether Goldberg gets his history right or not, he brings us back to the question of presidential "deportment" and whom he speaks for when he speaks from behind the presidential seal. A faction of Democrats are angry at Obama because he doesn't appear to be articulating their anger at Republican obstructionism, while Reed hints that a silent minority-majority of Democrats wants the President to keep his cool. Obama was criticized for appearing too cool during the 2008 campaign, but appeared to be vindicated by his victory. Leaving the strategic wisdom of his deportment aside -- as well as the question, raised by Goldberg, of whether he's keeping his cool at all -- the question of whom he represents when he speaks really ought to be irrelevant. Historically, the President of the United States has often identified himself as the only person in government who represents the entire American people, but the Founders didn't envision his office as representative. That was the point of having the President chosen indirectly through the agency of the Electoral College. When a President stresses his role as a representative, it's usually in an effort to expand his power or override the usual checks and balances. But if a President represents anything, it's not the people but the nation. The people have Congress to represent them in all their diversity. The President's business, arguably, isn't to echo the mood of any faction or section but to act, more than speak, in the nation's interest as he can best construe it, within his constitutional bounds. If any group feels that the President isn't speaking for them, their responsibility is to speak for themselves. If they think the President isn't acting on their behalf -- that's another story, and on that point neither Reed nor Goldberg nor anyone can tell anyone else not to criticize him. If progressives are criticizing Obama's deportment rather than his record, they might prove foolish. But if neither he nor the opposition are serving the national interest, no American is obliged to keep cool about it. To the contrary, we should know when to shout.


Anonymous said...

My question, in that case, is will mere shouting really have any effect?

Samuel Wilson said...

Feel free to interpret "shouting" metaphorically if you like.