Saturday, January 19, 2008

Obama and Reagan...

We might be able to hear a message if it was coming from a transcendent leader--a true "uniter", if you will. Barack Obama could be that kind of leader. He could be the kind of person that builds bridges of thought and helps to end the partisan bickering that does nothing but prevent progress.

He can't, however, do that when his personality and positions have been reduced to a motto. Symbols motivate; they don't convince.


Bobby Fischer is dead.

Bobby Fischer is regarded as one of history's greatest chess players. His strategic skills and chessboard inventiveness spurred increased participation in the game, inspired countless players and became a lasting part of history.

Bobby Fischer was also a complete ass. He was a paranoid jerk who embraced apocolyptic religion and denied the existence of the Holocaust as part of his rabid anti-Semitism. He applauded the death and destruction of 9/11.

Both of the last two paragraphs are true. One does not negate the other. Bobby Fischer was a genius and a misanthrope. He was glorious and disgusting.

I'm not a big chess fan, but I think I'd probably have a great deal of respect for Fischer as a player if I was into the game. I'd also think he was a twisted figure with few known redeeming qualities outside of what he did for and in the game.

So it is with people. You take the good with the bad. Often they're both wrapped up in the same imperfect figure. It would be nice if everything and everyone could be easily sorted into Good and Bad categories, but it doesn't really work that way. Nonetheless, many of us pretend as if it does.

We run hot or cold. We hate or we love. We embrace or reject. There seems to be a hardwired desire to simplify all things. It's intellectually lazy, but it's easier than admitting our hero's flaws or recognizing our enemy's virtues.

It seems as if the compulsion to create those phony separations is greater in the realm of politics than it is when we discuss other matters. Politics are, in many ways, an extension of the individual. The subjects gathered under the political tent are important and intensely personal. There are matters of outright power in play. There's an oft-expressed Need to cast opponents as devils and allies as saints.


Often vilified by those on the left and consistently placed upon a pedestal from those on the right, Ronald Reagan and his legacy are the perfect political representation of our lazy desire to create bright-line distinctions between good and bad.

The right has many members who wear their Saint Ronald medals close to their hearts. The left, meanwhile, expresses their disgust at a false Republican idol. Reagan is no longer a President, he is a Symbol that evokes visceral reaction from both "sides" of the mainstream American political spectrum.

Barack Obama spoke about Reagan. That isn't always a political sin. If you wear the D, you can begrudgingly admit a respect for Reagan's communication skills and move along unscathed. You are certainly allowed to criticize Reagan without inviting the wrath of your allies. If you wear the R, you can laud Reagan and credit every good thing that happened since 1979 to his conservative principles. Doing so garners applause from your base.

Many will say that Obama committed a cardinal political sin, however, because he violated partisan categorization. He defied the "Good or Bad" rule. He spoke in favorable terms of the false idol. He didn't vilify Reagan. He mentioned some of the former President's strengths. He did so without even bothering with the usually-requisite "but he was the devil because of x, y, and z" addendum.

Obama spoke kindly of Reagan and, predictably, all hell is breaking loose.

Candidate Obama talked with the editorial staff of the Reno Gazette in anticipation of the Nevada caucuses. He started hammering his primary message of change. He talked about recent periods of American history in which individual leaders were able, in his estimation, to effectuate tremendous change. He mentioned John F. Kennedy, which is a very safe thing for a Democrat to do:

"I think Kennedy, twenty years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction," Obama said, "So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times. I think we’re in one of those times right now. Where people feel like things as they are going aren't working. We're bogged down in the same arguments that we've been having, and they're not useful."

He talked about Reagan, too:

"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way Richard Nixon did not and a way that Bill Clinton did not."

In a world where candidates must Love or Hate Reagan, a statement like that is prima facie proof that you a traitor to the Democratic cause. Obama, who may or may not have thought he was discussing his perspective on history, change and the role of the leadership, had to know he was (in the eyes of the party faithful) playing turncoat.

Obama didn't stop there. He discussed the way people perceived the Republican party as being the leader in bringing new ideas to the table.

The current hullabaloo stems from the Reno comments, but it is interesting to note that Obama has made similar observations in the past. Marathon Pundit reminds us of an excerpt in Obama's Audacity of Hope:

"That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureacracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and values over duties and responsibilities."

Barack Obama defected. He not only failed to villify Reagan, he conceded that the Republican party could, at times, be innovative. He recognized the limitations of his own party's perspective and actions.

Obama broke the rule of bifurcation. He allowed idealogical black and white to bleed together. That's a dangerous experiment.


Before we make the mistake of painting Obama as a GOP tool, it makes sense to put his "pro-Reagan" comments into context, something other candidates, their surrogates and other commentators haven't consistently done.

The Bilerico Project, for instance, argued:

"It's disappointing that Senator Obama chose to memorialize Reagan without giving pause to consider how much damage his presidency did to a great majority of Americans . . . the very same Americans who now want a change from that very political ideology."

That is much like saying you can't acknowledge Fischer beating Spassky without mentioning Fischer's comments about 9/11 on a Phillipines radio station. It just isn't true and it certainly isn't fair.

That's because statements are made in context. Not every line out of every mouth is a comprehensive explanation of where the speaker stands on all issues. To claim that Obama "didn't consider" less attractive elements of the Reagan presidency is horribly inaccurate.

Amor Mundi takes a slightly more nuanced perspective--one that criticizes Obama's appropriation of Reagan (more on that later) while recognizing that Obama is anything but a Reagan acolyte. Obama's comments and history prove otherwise:

"Given the fact that Obama has criticized the gulf between Reagan's tone and his actual policies, and given the fact that Obama was organizing on the streets of Chicago to ameliorate the impact of Reagan's policies on the most vulnerable people, I think it is wrong to suggest that Obama agrees with Reagan's rhetoric, but it is profoundly disturbing that he would opportunistically appropriate that rhetoric despite his experience and disagreement."

The Blog from Another Dimension does a nice job of summarizing the intent underlying Obama's Reagan references:

"What Obama is saying is that he senses that the public has reached the same cusp now that we saw when Reagan came on to the scene; that after seven years of Bush and Cheney, the Republican tax-cuts-will-fix-everything freight train has run out of fuel; that again, the American people are tired of the way things were, and are ready to change in a significant way. The pendulum has risen as far as it can to one side, and it is heavy and primed to swing back, and swing back big. Obama makes a point about how he addresses values and issues in a different manner, with a different voice, and that is what resonates with this hope and expectation of revolution. But that’s not how Clinton and Edwards are spinning Obama’s comments."

There may be a little more to it than that, but that's certainly what Obama was trying to do on some level.

Now, let's look at the spin applied to Obama's...


When you cross the line, someone is there to smack you. In this case, Hillary, John and other reliable Democrats had their baseball bats ready.

Clinton criticized Obama's remarks, arguing that she didn't think the Republican policies of the past decade-plus were "good ideas". John Edwards reminded the base that Ronald Reagan was devilish, mentioning a series of Reagan policies unfriendly to organized labor and the "middle class".

The surrogates echoed those statements. Bill Clinton claimed to go limp with shock. Barney Frank was "stupefied".

Bloggers like the author at Medley were quick to wag the finger of shame in Obama's face:

"Reagan was a bad guy with a genial tone and pretty smile who deliberately appealed to racists and bigots. Obama is either incredibly naive, or as cynical a manipulator as certain other candidates are accused of being."

I consider myself a somewhat hesitant Obama supporter. As such, I'm tempted to echo the sentiments expressed in a post from the Say Anything Blog:

"Anyone else wondering why the Clintons are getting away with such blatant mischaracterizations of what Obama actually said? He didn’t say that Republicans have had “all good ideas” since 1992. He didn’t say that Republicans had “better ideas” than Democrats. And he’s certainly not advocating for Republicans to vote in Democrat primaries. The Clintons’ misquoting of Obama here is all about the politics of hate and division. They’re trying to do-in Obama by invoking the hate the far-left feels for Ronald Reagan. They’re trying to keep this country divided by pillorying an opponent who chose to praise a past leader from the opposition party instead of insult him. It’s disgusting, and it’s exactly the reason why the Democrats would do well to nominate Obama instead of Clinton."

It's easy to paint the Clinton, Edwards, et al response as a furious ripping that intentionally ignored the context of Obama's comments. That's politics. Clinton and Edwards are in a fight for power and they are more than happy to fall back on the simple Good and Bad caricatures in which most people choose to believe.

To dismiss all criticism of Obama's statements that way, though, would be no better than arguing Barrack was possessed by the Gipper's spirit. There are good questions...


The more interesting critique of Obama's "morning in America" involves the sincerity and accuracy of the comparisons he really was trying to make.

Erica Jong thinks Obama's moves were calculated to give him a chunk of Reaganesque mojo as the campaign season continues:

"So Mr. Obama is not such a new style politician after all. He's just a politician -- invoking Ronnie Reagan as if he were God Almighty, using his name as code as the Repugnicans do, trying to pump himself up as a man of the people by mentioning this total fraud as a hero. I don't mind. Politicians are politicians and they do their thing -- praising the popular, putting down the unpopular -- invoking Reagan for his geniality -- which was probably just dementia. But Americans don't remember the past -- so we are doomed to repeat it."

She interprets the rhetorical crossover as pure political theater. Subsequent comments from the Obama campaign certainly makes it look that way, too. Joseph Cannon also thinks Obama is merely attempting to co-opt the Reagan mystique:

"Here's the problem: If rhetoric and resumes mean anything, Obama is a classic co-opter. Perhaps that's not a bad thing. But he casts himself as an agent of profound change, as a Reagan for the Dems. You can pitch bipartisanship and you can pitch radical transformation -- but you can't pitch both."

I think Cannon's perspective on the mutual exclusivity of radical transformation and bipartisanship is incorrectly mired in a kind of limited perspective, but that isn't the point of this post. This is about Obama and Reagan. Both Jong and Cannon (as well as many others) see the "pro-Reagan" commentary as nothing more than a vote-garnering ploy divorced from Obama's actual perspective on issues and the Presidency.

Those are more left-leaning critiques. As you can guess, the right is up in arms over the remarks, too. Some give a haughty laugh, believing that the Democrats are left with an arsenal so devoid of power than they must try to glom onto Reagan's enduring popularity. Others take offense that a Democratic upstart would ever invoke the Reagan name. Someone, if they haven't already, will write a Lloyd Bentsen-like, "I worked with Reagan, I served with Reagan. You sir, are no Ronald Reagan" thing.

Fred Barnes took time away from his busy schedule as a television talking head to pen:

"Barack Obama made quite a splash with his comment last week likening himself to Ronald Reagan. Who'd have guessed such a thought had crossed his mind? "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way Richard Nixon did not and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said. Then he suggested he leads an optimistic, dynamic political movement just as Reagan did. Obama was right about Reagan as a leader who changed America but wrong about the way in which he's like the former president. He flatters himself to think he heads a movement. In truth, he's an extraordinarily self-disciplined insurgent candidate who's like Reagan in personality."

I don't really think Obama is the spearhead of a massive social movement either. I doubt I think quite as highly as Reagan as he does, though. Barnes is certainly right about one thing: Both Reagan and Obama are really personable characters. As Jules from Pulp Fiction would say, "personality goes a long way".

Obama's charisma has been a concern for me. I think that his motivational ability and that likeability have allowed him (nearly forced him) to run a slogan campaign that seems to have a cult of personality at its core. I earlier discussed my discomfort with the "candidate as myth" situation and I think that stirring the ghost of Reagan has merely intensified that aspect of the campaign.

Behind the likability and the persuasiveness there is a guy named Obama who is running for President. Lately, though, we see him through a mist of legend that's more than a wee bit problematic.

That's especially true when he does something like compliment the devil. You see, if you actually read what Obama has written--if you actually listen to the statements he made prior to falling into the "I am Change Personified" rut of the campaign--you'll find a politician who does have a message in terms of the usual bipartisan bickering.

Party faithful want to believe that they're choosing between three standard-issue Liberal Democrats. They're car buyers who know the make and model they want--it's just down to choosing the paint color. That's not really the case, though. There are differences between Obama, Clinton and Edwards. Chief among them is Obama's very real belief in mobilizing the nation as a whole and transcending bipartisanship.

It isn't out of character for Obama to see something valuable in the Republican approach. It isn't strange to think that he'd find interesting similarities between the dawn of the Reagan Revolution and the sunset of the Bush Bungle.

It all comes off as a calculated political ploy (whether you think it effective or not is another matter), though, now that Obama has ceased to be Obama and has become Rockstar/Legend/Myth.

That's bad news for Obama.

It's bad news for us, too. It makes better sense to understand Bobby Fischer's greatness AND to despise his reprehensible tendencies. It makes more sense to appreciate what "the other guy" has and can do while SIMULTANEOUSLY recognizing his limitations and errors. When we can engage in that level of critical thinking, everyone benefits.

Instead, we fall into the Saint Ronnie vs. Reagan is Lucifer crap. We can't accept the notion that the outlying positions are nonsense and that the truth lies elsewhere.

We might be able to hear a message if it was coming from a transcendent leader--a true "uniter", if you will. Barack Obama could be that kind of leader. He could be the kind of person that builds bridges of thought and helps to end the partisan bickering that does nothing but prevent progress.

He can't, however, do that when his personality and positions have been reduced to a motto. Symbols motivate; they don't convince. I don't know how you find the happy middle that turns out votes while turning up intellect. Hopefully someone will find it.

Rest in peace, Bobby Fischer.


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  1. Nice argument, John.

    I guess my issue, today, is that an awful lot of political rhetoric that gets inherited by political groups and ideologies gets treated like it is more "true" than it really is and the passion with which people concur with it begins to overwhelm a more honest discussion of both empirical consequences and options.

    Much of the time, there really isn't much consequence to a lot of policies that is worth losing our heads over. But often there is more consequence, very often unintended consequences that are too serious to ignore.

    The major consequences that have absorbed my attention in the most recent years is that self-righteous notions of ideology are what drive the more murderous motivations of terrorists and other pressure groups. Luckily, we haven't seen the same issues this era that we saw with, say, the Weathermen or the SDS, in the 60's, in America. We have, however seen it in the murder of abortion doctors and the Oklahoma City Bombings, and from outside our borders by groups like Al Queda.

    One could look at this kind of thing, like one particularly Marx-romanticizing radical that I recently coached a speech camp with, with the outlook that these causes are worth sacraficing these innocents. It's scary to hear that outlook. That is the outlook that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have. And I feel like, at that point, what really is the point, really? It's an amazing lack of perspective, I think, that takes us that far. But I think, in the meantime, it would be worthy for us to try to do what Thomas Hobbes did clumsily but nonetheless in the 17th century about Protestants and Catholics warring on one another in Great Britain, which is ask ourselves, "How might we get past this nonsense?"

    That is what I like about Obama. If he mandates that all adults carry health insurance for children, it won't be what I favor which is let adults sort these things out on their own, it probably won't be the end of the world (my dad was bankrupt and way more broke than most of my friends most of my life and carried no health insurance that I know of during that time for any of us because he really didn't have a lot of discretionary income after his basic bills and raising 4 kids on his own; maybe a mandate would have motivated him to get the insurance, maybe it would have been another roadblock in his already difficult life as car insurance and its corresponding tickets were for me when I first went broke. My thinking is, tie goes to the adults to work these things out for themselves and their particular situations, better).

    But I like people asking he question and looking for ways to make it happen, both between D's and R's and between America and the West and the rogue regimes they are rightly skeptical of. It may or may not work, but a lot of our options aren't panning out, right now, and wouldn't we prefer the options that involve less death and tragedy to ones that necessarily involve both if we could avoid them?

    That, to me, seems the whole point of liberal democracy and to secular political outlooks, in the first place, something that Hobbes, among others, started to turn our attention and imagination to so that we could come up with more reasoned and rationale answers to even our governing problems and not just our understanding of biology and geology. I think that's done us more good than bad. And I think that's a good reason to keep moving in that direction rather than getting more wrapped up in our oh-so-certain perspectives on how the world works or should work.

    We're late to go get food, John, so I better give this a break for a sec.

    But I do think that this is the better direction for the country and liberal democracy, generally, if for no other reason than to have a more open, civil, and honest discussion and consideration of all the alternatives rather than the illusion that the endless carping will one day lead to one group or ideology finally being crowned the Winner or the Truth by future historians.

  2. I wonder if Mrs. Obama will start to dance at the charleston funeralsJune 24, 2015 at 8:03 AM

    I keep informed. But many,many people have made it a point to flip the channel whenever an Obama or an Obama official suddenly "appears". You can do the same. You do not have to read this, including YOU David Roy Pescatore. You are public now. You have been public a very long time, a permanent part of the culture. Deal with it! You cannot go back & take it back.

  3. cinnamon & horsesJune 24, 2015 at 8:07 AM

    I guess you night say you sold yourself short. You are your own worst enemy, pretty it-male.

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