Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog
The problem, as I recall, was that Democratic public relations was calamitously complacent and/or wrong-headed. The most basic partisan political posture–always be boasting about your accomplishments, always be drawing a contrast with the other party, always be shouting that the glass is half full and not half empty–was refused. The reason for this refusal is debatable–it probably involves a mixture of incompetent leadership and liberal inferiority complex–but the phenomenon is surely unarguable. Most saliently, the Democratic Party saw fit to support, even promote, the fiction that the GOP was a good party at heart and that its racist, hateful elements were marginal, and that all was well in the United States. This communicates: “Go ahead and vote R if you want to. It’s all good. We’re all Americans, and Republicans can be trusted with power as much as we can.” I mean, that’s political malpractice.
The TPM debate, with its anxious focus on which Obama policies might have made a difference, is quite typical of how we liberals continue to think–that the world is secretly fair, that merit prevails, that good is rewarded. Unfortunately politics isn’t won by the most effective or virtuous managers of the nation’s affairs. It’s won or lost by perceptions of the parties.
This is likely one of the best hits on Obama and his style of political leadership. It’s a classic case of the bad side of a good coin.
Obama was in many respects of a technocrat – if he wasn’t himself that was his vision of politics and it informed how he staffed his government. It meant a government staffed by incredibly competent, knowledgeable and dedicated people.
One of the many whiplashes of the Obama to Trump transition with Trump routinely grossly interfering in the process of government to protect allies and damage foes is just what a turnabout it was from Obama. No modern President has broken through these boundaries like Trump. But Obama was the ultimate propriety President. It’s comical to think that it was seen as a big deal that Bill Clinton exchanged a few pleasantries on a tarmac with the Attorney General. But Barack Obama would not have done that. Just not in the guy. There’s a reason we went eight years with Obama as President, six with a Republican House, and there was really never a hint of real scandal. Not just scandal touching him but even touching significant appointees. That stuff really does flow from the top. Like I said, the ultimate propriety President.
But the other part of that coin is that Obama’s presidency was largely governed by an assumption that if you did the job of government well that would translate into political support. It’s a depoliticized style of government. And there are many good things about that. We see that in spades today with a government informed almost 100% by politics and personal loyalty. But it is at best a limited and incomplete theory of politics.