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May 15, 2009

Questioning Obama's Strategy Against Evil: A Missed Opportunity?

By Andrew Schmookler

In this, the third installment of the series, I offer my critique of Obama: in making his compromises, he has diminished himself and forfeited the "power of purity." Whether these costs outweigh the advantages of his more cautious strategy, I don't know: the terrain is too complex, the correlation of forces too uncertain, for certainty. But this sense of the clarity Obama might have represented is the root of this series.



One could readily make a long list of things that are amiss in today's post-Bushite America-- things that also could be corrected or improved by political action in which presidential leadership could be relevant.  

Reasonable people would differ on many of the details of that list --exactly what are the problems, exactly what would be the optimal solution to those problems-- but consensus on many important elements would likely be easily achieved.

And with that list, one could readily chart all the ways in which Obama has and has not made clear movement to solve the problems, repair the damages, right the wrongs.

It is surely a very mixed picture, with many clear and beneficial presidential actions and statements and many other areas in which Obama has left problems unaddressed or even, by some reckonings, aligned himself with the wrong side.

I am positing that Obama's deviations from the straight-forward path of the good and the right and the just represent not an indifference to the Good but a strategy he thinks best for the long-term advancement of the Good.

The question then is:  is he choosing the best strategy?


That there are costs to his approach is clear.  There are different kinds of costs we could examine.

Most critics speak of the costs in terms of this issue or that issue.  

Constitutional legal scholar Jonathan Turley (of Georgetown University) exemplifies this critique:  the failure to prosecute war crimes, he argues, makes it more likely that future American political leaders will follow in the criminal footsteps of the Bushite regime; Obama's failure to fulfill his legal obligation to prosecute, despite clear evidence of criminal violations, will do long-term damage to the rule of law in America.

Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer likewise critiques the manner in which Obama is dealing with the banking crisis:  Obama's working with, rather than restructuring, the existing financial system leaves us with the problems that got the economy into its present pickle to begin with.

These critiques seem sound, and they seem important.  I will put forward here a critique of a different sort.  Obama's strategy, I fear, forfeits a profound power that might have been his to wield.


Go back to the time of the Inauguration.  After eight years of the most criminal, most dishonest, most destructive presidency in American history, Obama took the oath of office.  Having run a sterling and high-minded campaign about hope, about American ideals;  having conducted himself in exemplary fashion, Obama took office with the great majority of the American people behind him.

As I imagine the situation, Obama was perhaps well-situated to assume the role of The Man Who Does the Right Thing.  And the great majority of the American people would have been ready to support him.

In the sense I then had of the political-spiritual terrain, PERHAPS had Obama been bolder from the outset, he could have harnessed an enormous pent-up moral force to right the many wrongs he faced.

Without any vituperativeness of spirit, he could have publicly announced that, in accordance with his oath of office, he'd instructed his Justice Department to prosecute whatever crimes had been committed.

Likewise PERHAPS he could have tackled the financial crisis with a firmer and more righteous hand, and less friendly solicitousness to the financial actors and system that had played fast and loose with the public welfare.

I don't really KNOW what would have happened if Obama had proceeded in such ways, cultivating the image of pure moral righteousness.  (In subsequent postings, I'll explore some of these uncertainties.)

But I do know that the course he has taken has its costs in these terms of his moral stature and the power of his moral message.  
Obama has muddied the moral waters, and that forfeits a potentially potent sort of political power.  

The most important of these costs is not the loss of support of people on the left who were always at best skeptical of him.  The important costs have to do with the missed opportunity to create moral clarity for a nation that has shown itself susceptible to manipulation and deception on the question of what is good and what is evil, and thus to INSPIRE the public to engage in the necessary raising up of the country.

With his various evasions of confrontation with evil, and entanglements of his policies with those of the Bushites, Obama has made it much more difficult for Americans to gain or maintain clarity about the fundamental nature of the conflict here-- that between good and evil.

With his careful political calculations, Obama has diminished himself.  With the opportunity to magnify himself into an almost archetypal figure of the righteous agent of moral cleansing, Obama has chosen instead to reduce himself to the smaller role of the good and clever politician.

Have the gains been worth that cost?  Does his clever positioning against potential dangers outweigh the loss involved in diminishing his stature by forfeiting the power of purity?

Authors Bio:
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST. His previous books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, for which he was awarded the Erik H. Erikson prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.