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The Rhetorical President

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I’ve been having a hard time getting a fix on our new (though no longer quite so) president.

I know my friends on the left will think that’s just because I’m hopelessly naive. Ironically, I expect the good folks on the right (who exist along with that adjective mostly as a theoretical proposition, but you get the idea) would fully agree with this statement, perhaps the only thing in the world the left and right all have in common.

But even that agreement would be short-lived. For the former group, I’d be naive to see Barack Obama as anything but yet another agent of Capital, adding to the fine efforts of Reagan, Clinton and Bush in advancing yet further the interests of the American oligarchy.

For regressives, on the other hand, I’m a fool-and-a-half not to see Obama for the “socialist”, “communist” or even “fascist” (they can’t quite seem to get their ideological slanders straight), that he plainly is.

The folks on the right are insane, of course. But that’s hardly news. They are also increasingly desperate to find anything to hit this guy with. “He gave the Queen an iPod!” He bowed to the Saudi King!” “He went to a play!” Wow. Apart from everything else, I must say I appreciate their willingness to cling so heartily to their own little adventure in political suicide by each week reminding the tens of millions who didn’t get it the first time around why the last eight – if not thirty – years have been so harrowing. Thanks for the public service, guys. The world will certainly be a better place without you!

A lot of the critique from the left is pretty legitimate, I would say, notwithstanding the continuing possibility (or, many would say, total fantasy) that the president is playing three-dimensional chess, while we mere mortals continue to perceive him in the context of our grossly limited Flatland of a mere two. In other words, it remains at least technically possible that Obama is a true progressive, but he’s just strategically far ahead of the rest of us, and therefore realizes that he can actually accomplish a heckuva lot in eight years, but only if he resists the pressure to throw long passes on every down, and instead moves both incrementally and cleverly. Sanity through the back door, you might call it, and god knows the American public isn’t famous for quickly recognizing good ideas when they see them.

Moreover, even if that is mere wishful thinking, the truth is that he has begun work on some progressive initiatives that cannot be fully dismissed. At least not yet. This is the first president since World War II, I’d say, who approaches other countries with a degree of respect and sincere desire for comity. He seems at least somewhat serious about national healthcare, a societal omission that, in 2009 (or even 1959), seems laughable only if one happens to live anywhere but America. Over here, getting real health care is still a big deal politically, and presidents move on this project at their peril, so I give Obama some due here. He is also moving to end the war in Iraq and close Guantánamo. He may be returning some regulatory sanity to the finance industry. He seems to be inching toward energy and environmental solutions that make at least some partial sense.

The items on this list of progressive achievements – and let’s bear in mind again that we are still talking about a presidency that is not yet six months old – have several things in common, unfortunately. There aren’t very many of them, there’s no bold commitment to any of them, they are all as of yet still in the domain of undelivered promises, those promises sometimes mask far less progressive actual policy, and – given what is not on the list – they are to some degree the exceptions that prove the rule of the president’s AWOL true progressive bona fides.
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Then there’s the regressive stuff. The governmental secrecy, even about the crimes of a previous administration. The civil liberties policies that are hardly distinguishable from his would-be monarchical predecessor. (“America does not torture”? Thanks, Barack. Where have I heard that before?) And, most sickening of all, the continued serving up of the commonweal’s assets on a platter to the insatiable predators of Wall Street. Even in the midst of a devastating economic collapse that their greed engineered. Even by using the very means of supposed rescue from that collapse to facilitate further unchecked, unregulated and even unmonitored gluttony. This is something less than inspirational stuff, I’m afraid.

So far, then – to recapitulate – we have a gross accounting of what he’s doing, what he’s not doing, and what he’s doing that he shouldn’t be doing. “But wait”, as they say on late-night infomercials, “there’s more!” A final series of Obama sightings falls into the category of rhetorical contributions. I am not – thankfully – Chris Matthews, who once felt a tingle run up his leg in listening to Obama speak. I’m not a groupie or a True Believer, and absolutely don’t want to be either, with respect to Obama or anyone else. But I confess that more than once now this guy has really floored me with his speeches. (He has also disappointed as well, as at his inaugural, and when I saw him in person campaigning in New Hampshire.) But when he’s on he’s really on, as I first especially noticed with the Philadelphia speech on racism. I was also impressed with some of the content of his Arizona State commencement address, as well, and really taken by what he did in Cairo last week.

I find this a little troubling and puzzling, given what appears to be his less than impressive record on the ground, as described above. I think this disconnect – seeming or real – is worth exploring.

First, it’s really important to understand what’s not happening here, and that is a case of cheap theatrical style covering for substance. Obama, who is widely noted for his oratorical powers, is nearly the antithesis of the flamboyant speaker. He isn’t a blowhard like the last president, he doesn’t feel my pain like the one before that, and he doesn’t play at rock star like, say, John Edwards. He reads verbatim his carefully crafted speeches – much of the content of which is written by others – off of Teleprompters (a fact which somehow incenses regressives, much to my great amusement and delight), with hardly a change in volume throughout. His delivery is not given in a monotone, but neither do his inflections change a lot. Only his cadence really offers any variation, and only sometimes, borrowing as he does – but only just a little bit – from the African American church pastor’s stereotypical style.

This distinction between content and form is important to understand, because what it means is that he is really not so skilled an orator at all. He is winning us over, to the extent that he does, with content, not so much style. If there’s any doubt about this, try to imagine – though it is difficult to bear, to be sure – Obama reading any of the many speeches George W. Bush gave during his eight year long cowboy-impersonator-in-the-Oval-Office run. Would one-tenth of the people who admire Obama’s speeches have the same reaction to him delivering a Bush howler? I doubt it.
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And that’s a good thing. It means that Obama is speaking to the reasoning capacity in our heads, not the fear swishing about uncomfortably in our guts. It reflects well (or, at least, better) on us, that we’ve finally grown up enough to prize, somewhat, intelligent political discourse rooted in logic and evidence, a maturity that has been sorely lacking in American politics for a long time, and at obscenely great cost here and especially abroad.

It may absolutely be the case that his rhetoric is still just rhetoric, however thoughtfully constructed. And there are one or two scenarios, discussed below, in which this hollowness, if it were so, could prove disastrous for both him and us.

But consider, apart from those particular unfortunate circumstances, just what is accomplished by this abrupt shift in the content and tone of public addresses, moving from the last president to the current one. I think there are four huge consequences, and I think to a certain degree these apply independent of what, if anything, this president delivers policy-wise.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
 

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I think as long as Mr. Obama wants to expand Bagra... by John S. Hatch on Friday, Jun 12, 2009 at 3:33:42 PM
The whole jest of this boring three page article i... by liberalsrock on Friday, Jun 12, 2009 at 6:44:20 PM
I do believe the former professor can educate this... by Jennifer Hathaway on Friday, Jun 12, 2009 at 8:06:02 PM
Very revealing when the so-called "right"... by bucketslogg on Friday, Jun 12, 2009 at 9:49:01 PM