Ph.D. Octopus

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Expecting More: In Defense of Being Disappointed with Obama

with 2 comments

By Wiz

Disappointment is in the air this summer. That is, should we or should we not be disappointed with Obama? No! say some. He’s doing his darn-best, has made some accomplishments, and its not his fault the Republicans are such meanies. Yes! Say others. He’s got historically large majorities, is kowtowing to the banksters and insurance lobbies, and should have known that the Republicans were going to be playing hardball. And then some say… not really because reactionary structures of power in DC are too high to ever overcome.

I’m sure you’ll all be surprised to know that I fall in the “disappointed” category. I’d prefer to see people like Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Robert Rubin with their head in a guillotine, rather than making policy. (I’m joking, of course… mostly) And I respect Alterman’s point that Obama came in with some serious handicaps that we need to understand (the filibuster, the conservative institutional apparatus, etc…), and defeat if we’re ever going to make any change.

But I have a couple of thoughts. First, of course, is that like everyone Obama is buffeted by forces beyond his control. Most obviously, is the seeming inability for our economy to recover. I don’t think there is any doubt that he would be doing better both objectivity (being able to pass more legislation) and subjectively (in the polls) if unemployment was where he thought it would be at this point. Yes, he could have pushed for a bigger stimulus, like the Krugmonster wanted. But, at the same point, it seems hard to believe that even a couple of extra-hundred billion dollars would have helped that much. The rot goes too deep. 35 years of neoliberal gutting of an economy can’t be overturned with one stimulus. You can put money into people’s hands, but it doesn’t do that much good when they simply pay off their debt or just buy stuff made in China with it. Moreover, years of technological advances, and the growth of foreign competition, seems to have simply made most of us redundant. For awhile we lived on credit cards, to make up the difference. Now we can’t anymore and we realize how much neoliberalism is, in the words of Thomas Frank, the God that Sucked.

Obama is not to blame for this. He didn’t financialize our economy or invent containerization. On the other hand, he seems intellectually incapable of dealing with the new realities. Any one who saw the 2008 crash and then the bailout and thought to themselves, “you know what, I’m going to give more power to Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, the men, more than anyone, who are associated with deregulating Wall Street,” is not thinking clearly. Worse he has not articulated any new vision of an economy or government that is outside of the basic bounds of the Washington Consensus.

So anyway…. I’m disappointed. But. BUT. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact not at all. Disappointment is pretty damn common. To be on the Left is to be disappointed. To fail. To be laughed at by the people you’re trying to help. To see scabs cross the picketline and the revolution descending into Thermidor. But there is beauty in being disappointed. After all, you can only be disappointed when what is falls short of what should be. And we always need to be pushing for what should be; to try in Thoreau’s words, to eliminate the “interval between my ideal and the actual.” It is to our everlasting credit that our ideals are lofty enough that they may never actually be realized. And it is only because we have those ideals that we have been able to push Obama to achieve the good stuff that he has achieved.

In other words I’m disappointed, but self-conscious enough to know that I’ll probably always be disappointed. Moreover I always should be disappointed. There is a type of liberal apologist who loves to tell me how hard Obama has it, in their resigned tone of realism. “That’s just the way things are.” Such touching empathy for the President of the United States! What an ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and imagine all possible hardships he must put up with! Too bad alittle bit of that can’t be harnessed on behalf of the unemployed steelworkers or the undocumented farmworker. If false consciousness means anything, it is the pathetic sight of some powerless citizen confusing themselves with the president of the United States.

In other words, my job, as a citizen, is to be eternally disappointed, and funnel that disappointment into political activism that tries to push the President a bit closer to what he should be doing, to approaching the ideal. It is that liberal apologist, obsessed with the objective conditions of now, who is the true pessimistic, since he is unable to imagine transcending those conditions, and his very worldview (very “realistic” and “serious” and full of self-congratulations for how hardnosed he is) makes that transcendence less likely.

Disappointment, I would say, is evidence of what Marcuse calls “negative thinking.” The problem, Marcuse argues, contra the Mayo Institute, is that people have lost the ability to think in a manner which reveals the injustice prevading our society. Negative Thinking is necessary if we will attempt to dialectically negate the current structures of thought. We may, he points out, live in a society which mocks transcendent values, but “the historical validity of ideas like Freedom, Equality, Justice, Individual was precisely in their yet unfulfilled content—in that they could not be referred to the established reality, which did not and could not validate them… they were normative ideas, non operational, not by virtue of their metaphysical unspecific character, but by virtue of the servitude, inequality, injustice, and domination institutionalized in society.”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 13, 2010 at 00:52

2 Responses

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  1. another good one.


    July 13, 2010 at 10:23

  2. I too am disappointed, though clearly not to the same degree. And I’ll question your overarching point a little bit: to be on the Left might be to be disappointed, but it’s also to be optimistic, to think that things can and will get better, if we just push a little harder. So I think we should keep pushing, rather than just wait for Obama to magically solve all the problems.

    With that in mind, take a look at this view from the other side, from Charles Krauthammer:

    He’s looking long-term, and here’s what he sees:

    “The net effect of 18 months of Obamaism will be to undo much of Reaganism. Both presidencies were highly ideological, grandly ambitious and often underappreciated by their own side. In his early years, Reagan was bitterly attacked from his right. (Typical Washington Post headline: ‘For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over’ — and that was six months into his presidency!) Obama is attacked from his left for insufficient zeal on gay rights, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo — the list is long. The critics don’t understand the big picture. Obama’s transformational agenda is a play in two acts.”

    So maybe good things are in store, so long as the Left keeps pushing.


    July 17, 2010 at 09:10

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